Threats galore over Hizbullah in Syria

Hizbullah's public confirmation of its military intervention in Syria continues to make waves. Here are some of the latest developments:

  • The United States yesterday described the intervention as "an unacceptable and extremely dangerous escalation" and called on Hizbullah to withdraw its fighters from Syria immediately.

  • Hizbullah called on any members or officials of the Palestinian Hamas organisation who are still in Lebanon to leave "immediately and within hours".

  • A statement, apparently from Jabhat al-Nusra, the militant rebel group fighting in Syria, threatened to strike a "harsh" blow in Lebanon if Hizbullah "doesn't refrain from killing our jihadist brothers in Syria and withdraw from Syrian territories within three days".

  • Selim Idriss, military chief of the Free Syrian Army accused Hizbullah of "invading" Syria, claiming that more than 7,000 Hizbullah fighters are engaged on Assad's side in the battle for the Syrian town of Qusair.

  • In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution which condemned all violence in Syria but specifically mentioned the intervention of foreign combatants fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime in Qusair. The resolution was approved by 36 votes to one (Venezuela), with eight abstentions.

  • Al-Manar, Hizbullah's TV station in Lebanon, is expected to broadcast an interview with President Assad later today.

  • Against this background, Lebanese politicians are wrangling over a postponement of the parliamentary elections due next month.

The demands and threats are certainly flying thick and fast but what we don't know yet is how much of this is bluster.

At the State Department's lunchtime press briefing yesterday, spokesperson Jen Psaki opened with a brief statement condemning Hizbullah's involvement in Syria and calling for its immediate withdrawal.

This prompted and obvious question from one of the journalists: "So what if they don't withdraw? What is the next step?"

The answer, judging by Ms Psaki's reply, is not very much:

"Well ... as you know, we have a – parallel tracks that we are pursuing here in Syria. One is the diplomatic track of working with our partners, including Russia, including the United Nations to bring together an international conference ...

"The other piece of this, of course, is continuing to increase and escalate our aid and support for the opposition. As you know last week the Secretary was in Amman, where he met with representatives from the London 11 and they all agreed to increase their support even while we are planning the conference. 

"So we are doing everything possible to help the opposition. We felt it was important to publicly call out the treacherous actions of Hezbollah and that's why we did that today, and we're hopeful that they will remove themselves from this conflict."

So, Hizbullah need not worry too much about America's reaction although – as I argued the other day – it may be courting political disaster by getting involved in the Syrian conflict.

Writing in The National today, Michael Young (opinion editor of the Lebanese Daily Star) comments:

"Hizbollah is as clear about the risks in its actions as anybody else is. The party does not want a Sunni-Shia war in Lebanon as this could decisively weaken it. But Mr al-Assad is a red line for Iran and Hizbollah (along with Russia), and unlike the red line of Mr Obama, it is one they mean to impose."

The reference to Obama's red line does seem a bit unfair, though. It's alluding, of course, to the use of chemical weapons – an issue that Ms Psaki also discussed at the press briefing yesterday:

QUESTION: On chemical weapons, the British have presented the UN with evidence of three more chemical weapons attacks inside Syria. I’m wondering if you have any comment on that. And yesterday, when asked about chemical weapons, Patrick said that you guys were sharing information with your allies and evaluating that. I’m just wondering how far along you are on evaluating the chemical weapons reports, whether we’re going to see a conclusion from you guys soon – in the next week, in the next two weeks?

MS. PSAKI: Unfortunately I can’t give you a tick-tock or an internal tick-tock or a timeline. As the President has said, as the White House has said, it’s not about the timeline; it’s about getting it right and getting the facts right. We have seen those reports, of course. There have been other countries, as you know, who have come out with their own findings. We do share and discuss with many of our partners and allies behind the scenes. That’s part of our process, in addition to pushing for a UN investigation. But we also want to do our due diligence in making sure that we are firm on the facts before making any further decisions.

QUESTION: It seems to be taking an awfully long time, when close allies have more than once now come up with evidence and proof. So I’m just wondering why.

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’ve talked about this a little bit before, but there’s past history here, where we are looking to – and it’s a reminder that we want to make sure we have our facts straight and we feel confident in what the findings are. Of course, we talked a couple of weeks ago and we’ve been talking about the intel assessments, and the letter we sent to Congress, and we’ve been working diligently since then. But we’re not going to set a deadline for it. We want to feel confident with the facts that we have.

The Obama administration's position on chemical weapons is very similar to its position on Hizbullah: it doesn't know what to do. For the time being, it can say there is no need to do anything because the use of chemical weapons is still unproven – at least to the standards that would satisfy a court of law.

The "past history" referred to by Ms Psaki is the Bush administration's blunder over Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. For that reason, Obama is right – despite all the media pressure – to insist on the need for a rock-solid case with regard to Syria. The real question is how hard (or not) the US is working to build such a case, since Obama would be greatly relieved if sufficient evidence is never found.

The danger here – though it's still some way off – is that Obama's presidency could ultimately be damaged by Syria no less than Bush's was damaged by Iraq ... for reasons that are diametrically opposite. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 30 May 2013