Will Iran, Hezbollah go all out to boost Assad?

After last week’s suicide bombing in Damascus, Lebanese group seems to increase its support as Assad’s position weakens.

Syrian President Assad speaks in Damascus 370 (photo credit: Sana Sana/Reuters)
Syrian President Assad speaks in Damascus 370
(photo credit: Sana Sana/Reuters)
Clashes have intensified in the Syrian capital this month as the opposition continues to demonstrate its ability to penetrate the regime’s defenses in the city. The suicide bombing linked to the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front last week, which killed 90, could be a sign of things to come for Damascus.
Residents of Damascus had previously thought they were safe, but now the fighting that had been raging in the suburbs has penetrated the capital, the editor of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi wrote. He adds that Syria is heading “deeper towards a bloody future.”
In addition, cross-border fighting between the Islamist-dominated Syrian opposition and the Shi’ite Hezbollah organization in Lebanon has increased this month.
On Sunday, the Lebanese Daily Star reported that heavy shelling and gunfire from the Syrian side of the border killed three people in Lebanon. The Future Movement in Lebanon, affiliated with the Sunnis, complained that the firing is coming from the Syrian regime and called on the Lebanese army to come to their protection.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman also urged Syria to stop shooting into his country.
However, the Lebanese army in unlikely to get involved, because Hezbollah and its allies dominate the Lebanese government and such a move could lead to a civil war.
Meanwhile, last week, the opposition Free Syrian Army threatened to launch an attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon after giving the movement 48 hours to stop firing at its positions in Homs province. Attacks by Hezbollah into Syria and retaliation by the Syrian opposition may lead to a larger conflagration if the Shi’te organization decides to increase the scale of its intervention.
The West realizes that the conflict is set for escalation and has come up with contingency plans to capture or destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. Such worries multiplied on Sunday after news came out that rebels captured the site of the suspected nuclear reactor at al-Kibar that Israel allegedly bombed in 2007.
The al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front leads the opposition forces on the ground. Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center, told AFP that “the al-Nusra Front could well be controlling de facto three provinces in the next stage,” adding, “They are doing the clever thing, establishing local agreements with tribal elders, administering some of the aid required and getting revenues by controlling some of the oil fields.”
The Washington Post revealed on Sunday that outside powers have begun sending more powerful weaponry to the Syrian opposition to boost those fighters not from al- Nusra. One Arab official was quoted as calling them “the good guys.”
Just how outside powers differentiate between “bad” al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra fighters and other “good” Islamists or other groups is not clear.
These advances have the Iranian-Hezbollah axis worried and the cross-border skirmishes in the past weeks could lead to something bigger.
“Hezbollah is fighting inside Syria with orders from Iran,” Lebanese Druse leader MP Walid Jumblatt told Al Jazeera in an interview to be aired Monday, according to the Daily Star.
The circumstances are ripe for a bloodier ethnic conflict in Syria that will have many outside forces supporting various sides.
Lebanon is split; Iraq is controlled by a Shi’ite government that is friendly with Iran; and Jordan and Turkey are seen as supporting their Sunni brothers in the Syrian opposition, with funding from the Gulf and the West.
Joel Parker, a PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University who closely follows events in Syria, points out that Reuters reported a week ago that Bashar Assad’s troops had posted signs on the gates of Damascus saying “Either Assad [will win] or we will set the country ablaze.”
In addition, he notes, the Syrian regime has been setting up more checkpoints around Damascus as people start to lose faith in the regime to maintain security.
“This is a sign that even with Hezbollah and Iran’s help, the regime is not capable of preventing the worst kind of massacre in Damascus.
It basically discredits everybody who is working to prop up the Assad regime because they are not able to protect Syrian civilians,” he says.
Iran and Hezbollah surely calculate that Israel and the West will not interfere if Hezbollah ups its involvement a notch, and unleashes its fury on the Syrian opposition, but keeps the conflict within the Syrian and Lebanese domain.
However, such a move to escalate would inflame Sunni regimes and ruin Iran’s efforts at befriending the up-and-coming Sunni Islamists in the region. That is why it is more likely that Hezbollah and Iran refrain from an all-out war in Syria, though increasing covert support with more direct Hezbollah involvement if the end looks near for Assad. The increasing Hezbollah involvement in the past week seems to be a sign of those worries.