Syrian government forces and their Hezbollah allies from Lebanon pounded rebels yesterday in an offensive to retake the strategic city of Al-Qusair, as the country’s civil war escalates into a regional conflict.
The growing engagement of Shiite-led Iran and its Lebanese ally, the militant Hezbollah group, is rattling the rebels’ predominately Sunni regional supporters. It also is raising the stakes as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attempts to arrange peace talks. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said again last week that he won’t meet the opposition’s demand that he quit to allow for a transition government.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Salman Bin Abdulaziz flew to Turkey this week to discuss the Syria crisis. Qatar called for the Arab League to hold an emergency meeting, Egypt’s state-run Middle East News Agency reported.
The Sunni-led Arab nations have uneasy relationships with Iran and now are hostile to the Assad regime, whose upper ranks come from Assad’s minority Alawite sect derived from Shiite Islam. Assad’s defeat would help Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia offset the influence Iran has gained through growing ties with Iraq, which now is dominated by Shiites after the 2003 U.S. invasion ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
The conflict is becoming a proxy war that hardens the nation’s sectarian fault lines, said Andrew Tabler, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“It’s increasingly drawing the regional powers into this black hole,” he said.
Kerry met today in Amman, Jordan, with representatives from 10 other nations backing the opposition -- including the U.K., France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- about the current situation and the prospects for the peace talks proposed by the U.S. and Russia.
The U.S. and its Arab and European allies will step up support for opposition forces to help them “fight for the freedom of their country” if Assad’s government doesn’t engage in peace talks in good faith, Kerry said at a news conference in Amman with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.
There is an urgent need to end the bloodshed that has left more than 100,000 people dead, Kerry said. He dismissed recent gains made by the Syrian government, saying, “I think that’s very temporary.”
Assad, buoyed by Hezbollah, has re-established refueling capacity for tanks and aircraft, and weapons channels, according to German intelligence reports obtained by Der Spiegel magazine.
Assad could retake the south by year-end, Spiegel cited reports by Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, or BND as saying. That’s a turnaround from last year, when the BND had forecast the regime’s downfall in early 2013, Spiegel said. A BND spokesman, who asked not to be identified according to government protocol, declined to comment on the report when contacted today.
In Washington, legislation to have the U.S. provide weapons and training for the rebels received bipartisan backing yesterday from lawmakers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who discussed the risks that go with greater involvement.
“‘We’ve all been frustrated” that the U.S. hasn’t done enough, said Senator Robert Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who heads the Mideast subcommittee. “It’s in our direct national security interests to address this. Every day we don’t do something about this strengthens the regime in Iran and Hezbollah.”
President Barack Obama called Lebanese President Michel Suleiman May 20 about Hezbollah’s involvement. At least 23 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in recent fighting near Al-Qusair, according to the Coventry, U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The U.S. and Israel consider Hezbollah, the dominant political power in Lebanon, a terrorist group.
The call was “a sign that we are concerned” about the expansion of the conflict, White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday. “We have condemned and condemn again Hezbollah’s direct intervention in the assault on Qusair.”
Al-Qusair is close to the highway linking Damascus to the coast and has been a conduit for weapons from Lebanon to the rebels. It also is important to the regime because it’s on the corridor between Damascus and the Alawite homeland along Syria’s Mediterranean coast, a possible destination for Assad and his loyalists if they’re forced to flee Damascus.
Assad’s defeat would cost Iran its major regional ally and curtail Hezbollah’s arms supplies, which transit Syria on their way from Iran to Lebanon. Still, leaders elsewhere could be threatened if Sunni extremists win control of Syria, a development that also would endanger Israel.
“It’s quite clear that Hezbollah has decided to fight this out inside Syria,” said Daniel Serwer, professor of conflict management at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “The question is, can this be contained inside Syria or will this overlap into Lebanon and Iraq, both of which are vulnerable?”
Hezbollah’s involvement has strengthened the rebels’ hand in seeking military aid from foreign powers, including the U.S. Assad points to the Sunni extremists, such as the al-Nusra Front, to validate his claim that he’s fighting terrorists.
The war has claimed more than 80,000 lives, and the United Nations has registered more than 1.3 million refugees who’ve fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Even as regional powers are being drawn more deeply into the conflict, the 26-month-old crisis -- which began as a peaceful revolt against the Assad regime -- threatens to spill across Syria’s borders.
Turkish authorities have accused domestic militants linked to the Syrian government of conducting twin car bombings that killed 51 people in the border town of Reyhanli on May 11.
After Syrian government forces fired at Israeli soldiers patrolling near the border in the Golan Heights, Major General Benny Gantz, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, warned in remarks on Israel radio yesterday that Assad will “pay the price” if there are further strikes on Israel targets.
Earlier this month, Israel conducted air strikes in Syria amid concern that Hezbollah was moving advanced arms from Syrian depots to Lebanon. In remarks to his cabinet on May 19, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said security requires that Israel do “as much as possible” to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle Center in Beirut, said Syria is sharpening regional sectarian tensions, citing revived unrest among minority Sunnis in neighboring Iraq.
In Lebanon, he said, the complex political balance among sectarian factions is jeopardized. One person was killed and two were wounded yesterday as groups supporting opposing sides in Syria’s civil war fought in the Lebanese port city of Tripoli, the Associated Press reported, citing the National News Agency.
The Sunni extremist al-Nusra Front has been strengthened as Islamist radicals are drawn to fight from nations such as Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. The U.S. has designated the group as a terrorist organization that’s linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq and pledges allegiance to the main al-Qaeda organization.
There is the danger that radical Sunnis, after Syria, will set their sights on their home nations. “The rise of al-Nusra in Syria sends chills down Jordanian spines,” Salem said.
The broadest threat to the region is that the Syrian conflict challenges the borders drawn a century ago by the U.K. and France after the collapse of the Ottoman empire.
Tabler, of the Washington Institute, said Syria is “melting down,” essentially splitting into three parts controlled by Sunni-led rebels, ethnic Kurds, and Assad loyalists. He said he expects the death toll will exceed 100,000 by August, putting the conflict on a level with the 1990s Balkans war spawned by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia along ethnic and sectarian lines.
A collapse of Syria would play into the hands of Sunni extremists whose goal is creating an Islamic caliphate extending across Syria, Lebanon, and beyond, said Serwer, who also is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Even what amounts to a “soft partition” among factions could destabilize Syria’s neighbors, said Serwer. “When the Sunnis in Iraq look at that, they’re going to say, ‘Why can’t we have that?’” he said.
The level of sectarian hostility was highlighted by a threat by rebel forces that communities inhabited by Shiites and Assad’s Alawite minority will be “wiped off the map” if the strategic city of Al-Qusair falls to government troops.
“We don’t want this to happen, but it will be a reality imposed on everyone,” Colonel Abdel-Hamid Zakaria, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, told Al-Arabiya television yesterday. “It’s going to be an open, sectarian, bloody war.”