May 28, 2013

It's Terrorist Against Terrorist in the Widening Syrian War

Patrick GoodenoughBy Patrick Goodenough
CNS News

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As Syria's civil war increasingly spills across its borders, a weekend speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah marked one of the most significant developments in the conflict so far: The world’s foremost Shi'ite terrorist group effectively declared war on the world's leading Sunni terrorist movement.

Nasrallah committed his Lebanon-based group to defending Syrian President Bashar Assad, but directed much of his vitriol towards radical Sunni "takfiris," including al-Qaeda, whom he said were "dominating" the anti-Assad opposition. ("Takfiri" is a term used to describe Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy; al-Qaeda and other radical Sunnis regard Shi'ites as apostates. Assad is an Alawite, a Shia sect.)

Hassan Nasrallah

Hezbollah Leader Vows to Stand by Syrian Regime in Fight Against Rebels

In his address by video-link to supporters gathered in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa valley, Nasrallah characterized "the resistance"—that is, Hezbollah—as defending not just its ally in Syria but also Lebanon and "Palestine" against a U.S.-and Israeli-backed "takfiri" conspiracy.

"What future do you expect in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine with the presence of these takfiris?" he asked. "Syria is the resistance's main supporter and the resistance cannot stand still and let [takfiris] break its backbone."

"If Syria falls in the hands of the takfiris and the U.S., the resistance will be trapped and Israel will enter Lebanon," Nasrallah continued, according to Hezbollah’s official account on the speech.

Dozens of Hezbollah fighters have reportedly been killed in the fighting around Qusair, a strategic rebel-held town near the Syria-Lebanon border where the Syrian army and Hezbollah launched an assault on May 19.

Syrian Civil War has Already Become "a Regional Conflict"

The increasingly messy and widening Syrian conflict has drawn in not just Hezbollah but also Shi'ite fighters from Iran and Iraq on the side of the regime. Last Wednesday in Jordan, a senior State Department official accompanying Secretary of State John Kerry cited Free Syrian Army (FSA) chief Gen. Salem Idris as saying that "thousands" of Hezbollah, Iranians and Iraqi Shia were fighting in Syria.

Meanwhile al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists are regarded as some of the most effective fighters on the rebel side. Therefore, two U.S.-designated "foreign terrorist organizations" have emerged as key armed players on either side of the Syrian conflict.

Arab and Western countries, including the U.S., are providing various levels of support to opposition elements including the FSA, while trying to ensure the aid doesn't benefit the extremists.

In his speech, Nasrallah said Hezbollah and its adversaries should restrict their fighting to Syria, and not let it spread to Lebanon.

His remarks referred to the situation in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, where at least 29 people have been killed in fighting between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime.

But a day after the speech the violence came even closer to home when two rockets fired by unidentified elements landed in Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut's southern suburbs.

The spillover in Lebanon comes just weeks before the country's voters are scheduled to elect a new government on June 16. With key political parties including Hezbollah and the "March 14 alliance," which supports the anti-Assad opposition, the campaign will be deeply affected by the conflict.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday the Syrian civil war has already become "a regional conflict."

Speaking on "CBS This Morning," he said Hezbollah was "strongly" supporting the Assad regime, Iran has been involved for some time, and there were also reports of Iraqis going there to fight.

Asked how the latest developments complicated U.S. efforts, Myers said, "I think if you contemplate arming portions of the Syrian resistance, the rebels, you don’t know ultimately where those arms wind up."

"If the Assad regime comes under more pressure, that certainly could spill over into Lebanon, perhaps into Jordan for that matter," he warned.

"There's risk in whatever you do in Syria, and I think somebody’s going to have to do a very careful calculation of that balance between risk and reward."

Last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved legislation that would send weapons to vetted opposition groups in Syria. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of that committee and an advocate for stronger U.S. support for the rebels, crossed into Syria from Turkey on Monday and met with FSA commanders.

In another development Monday, European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed not to renew a two year-old arms embargo that has applied to both sides in the Syrian war. Britain and France are pushing the effort to arm "moderates" within the anti-Assad opposition.

The Obama administration is promoting an effort in conjunction with Moscow to get Syrian rebel and regime representatives to a conference in Geneva next month in a bid to find a diplomatic settlement to the conflict.