August 30, 2013
Iran and the Lebanese political and militant group Hezbollah are debating whether to retaliate on behalf of Syria in the event of a strike on their close ally.
The two, which along with Syria help form what they call an “axis of resistance” against the West, are discussing whether to attack Western interests, and if so, whether to do so openly or covertly and through proxies.
People with knowledge of the discussions in Iran and within Hezbollah said the Syrian allies are considering whether to deploy long-range missiles against Israeli and American warships or military bases in the region if the U.S. attacks Syria in response to what America and its allies say was a deadly chemical attack by Damascus last week.
Publicly, Hezbollah has stayed quiet on the issue, as Iran maintains an aggressive posture. The commander-in-chief of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohamad Ali Jaffari, said on Wednesday that an attack on Syria would prompt the “destruction of Israel” and that “flames of war would not be limited to Syria.”
Mohammed Obeid, a prominent Shiite political figure close to the Hezbollah’s leadership, said in an interview: “This is a regional war. Hezbollah won’t allow the [Syrian] regime to be removed by strength.”
Lebanese officials who are close to Hezbollah, and several people in Tehran close to the elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, said Damascus and its allies haven’t made any final decision on how to react in the event of a U.S.-led attack on Syria.
They say much depends on the nature of any strike. If it is limited to military bases and doesn’t threaten to topple President Bashar al-Assad, the allies would react by dispatching more money and arms to support the regime but are less likely to retaliate outside Syria’s borders.
“There is a lot of debate going on among Iran and Hezbollah’s top military strategists,” said a Hezbollah adviser in Beirut. “A final decision is delayed until there is clarity on what Americans will do. The response from Iran and Hezbollah will be measured against that.”
If any U.S.-led attack is limited, covert agents and proxy militia groups, such as the Iraqi Shiite militant group Al Mukhtar, could attack American interests in the region, say the people close to Hezbollah and Iran.
Wathiq al-Battat, Al Mukhtar’s leader, said on Thursday in an interview with Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency that his militia “will deliver painful blows to any place where Americans are present in Iraq.”
Another powerful Syrian ally, Russia, while supporting Mr. Assad politically and with military aid, has signaled it wouldn’t participate militarily in any conflict. Hamas, the Palestinian militant group and former Assad ally that forms part of the so-called axis, now supports Syria’s opposition.
Israel is a wild card. If Syria or its allies were to strike Israel in retaliation for a U.S. strike and the Jewish state were to retaliate, Middle East experts say the danger of a broader regional war is far higher.
Tensions along Israeli-Syrian border are building.
Israel’s cabinet authorized Israel’s army to call up about 1,000 reservists to bolster the ranks of Israel’s missile defense systems and the air force. Israel put its soldiers on the country’s northern border with Syria on heightened alert and canceled any home leaves.
A group of Iranian militia youth, meanwhile, volunteered to be dispatched to the Golan Heights, along Syria’s southern border, to fight Israel, Fars reported on Thursday night. The group asked Iraqi officials to allow them passage to Syria from Iraq’s borders, Fars reported.
Top-level military strategists of Iran, Hezbollah and Syria are debating whether launching rockets into Israel now would serve their long-term interests, people with knowledge of the discussions said.
A senior U.S. State Department official, meanwhile, said the Obama administration was making preparations for potential retaliation against U.S. interests in the Middle East and North Africa “out of an abundance of caution.”
Many observers say that Hezbollah and Iran could surprise the West by keeping a low profile unless they perceive that Mr. Assad is about to be toppled or if Iran were to face attack.
“They would not escalate if they don’t see a clear benefit from it,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, referring to Iran and Hezbollah. “The Iranians have stood by and picked up the pieces in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Observers say any course carries the potential to damage the alliance between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, who share a Muslim Shiite connection and together act to counter the power of regional Sunni powers including Saudi Arabia.
Inaction in the face of a U.S.-led strike on Syria would be perceived by their supporters as a sign of weakness and diminish their standing, observers say. A fight against the U.S. and Israel could leave both Iran and Hezbollah vulnerable.
Iran, for one, is attempting to project a new, more moderate foreign policy following the election of President Hasan Rouhani and doesn’t want to risk more international isolation. Iran’s economy is in shambles due to mismanagement and Western sanctions aimed at halting its nuclear program, constraining Tehran’s ability to help its Syrian ally.
Hezbollah has domestic considerations. The group has already been rebuked by its Christian allies in Lebanon, who fear they could become a target of Sunni Islamists because of their affiliation to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s commanders and foot soldiers are also tied up in the battlefield of Syria and the routes for resupplying arms and cash from Iran is shrinking as opposition gains ground in Syria. Still, the threat of Mr. Assad’s removal from power could force them to act to preserve their existence, some in Lebanon say.
Mr. Assad’s position, until his alleged use of chemical weapons last week, appears to have stabilized, or even strengthened. But Syrian rebels now believe any U.S.-led airstrikes would give them new momentum to dislodge Syria’s leader and weaken his Iranian and Hezbollah allies.
“Any strikes on Syria will be seen as a signal to Iran,” said a senior Arab official. “That’s why we feel the U.S. has to act.”
–Charles Levinson in Cairo contributed to this article.