Recent developments in Syria indicate that Iran has increased its support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad on more than one level. As Iran seems to have taken over military and logistical decisions, Hezbollah’s involvement has also expanded and intensified. This is very bad news for Lebanon, and unless the Lebanese government and the Shia community take drastic measures to dissociate themselves from Hezbollah, Lebanon will not be spared from an imminent, region-wide sectarian war.
Last month, in a significant prisoner exchange between the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime, forty eight Iranians were hand-picked by the regime for release by the rebels, and not a single Syrian. This caused a wave of discontent among Assad supporters and fighters, who felt betrayed. Assad no doubt realizes that ill will among his already-shrinking popular base will not help his cause. This questionable decision indicates that Assad had no real say in the matter, and probably doesn’t on other issues either.
Then last week, Iranian official Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Taeb, head of the Ammar Strategic Base and a former Basij commander said that “Syria is [Iran’s] 35th [district] and a strategic province… If the enemy attacks us and intends to occupy either Syria or Khuzestan, the priority is that we keep Syria.” He also added that Iran suggested the Syrians establish their own Basij. “Syria then [must] set up its own Basij with an initial force of 60,000 Hezbollah forces and they [could] replace the regular army in dealing with the urban warfare.”
If this statement had come out a month ago, no one would have believed Taeb. However, it has become obvious today that Hezbollah is involved in the bloodshed in Syria up to its neck, whether under a “Basij” or in a different form.
For a week, Israel and Hamas have engaged in a war in and around Gaza, one in which thousands of rockets and bombs have been expended, scores have died, and tens of thousands have been forced to take cover. But to the north in Lebanon, Hezbollah, the Islamic militia that rained destruction on Israel in a 2006 war, held its fire. Why?
The consensus among U.S. government analysts and academic experts is that Hezbollah, which has controlled the Lebanese government for more than four years, believes discretion is the better part of valor. As it has in the past, as in Israel’s Cast Lead Operation against Hamas at the end of 2008, Hezbollah decided against creating a diversion that would have helped its like-minded but only sometime ally.
Roger Cressey, NBC News analyst and former deputy counterterrorism director for the National Security Council, notes that Hezbollah is now essentially the government in Lebanon and has different responsibilities, different agendas. “There has never been a correlation between events in Gaza and Hezbollah’s strategic decision-making,” says Cressey.
That doesn’t mean Hezbollah wants to make peace with Israel, just that it’s biding its time, and more importantly that, in the words of more than one analyst, “it has no dog in this fight.”
“Hezbollah is now the party in control of the Lebanese government,” Dr. Robert Danin, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow, told journalists in a conference call Tuesday. “That has a way of moderating one’s behavior. If they attacked Israel, they know they would be taking the state of Lebanon to war.”
Danin said Israel has made the distinction known to Hezbollah.