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Syria’s Conflict Spills Over to Involve Other Actors

Hezbollah (Photo: Al-Akhbar - Marwan Bu Haidar)

By the end on May Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite guerilla group, said his fighters would help bring victory to President Bashar Assad in Syria’s civil war. On May 25 he said in a speech marking the 13th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon that Syria and Lebanon faced a threat from radical Sunni Islamists. Hezbollah helped push Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000 and confronted the Jewish state in a short war in 2006.

There are media reports saying the group amasses thousands of militants around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. The Washington Post reports in detail about it (1). Hezbollah’s engagement in combat near the Lebanon-Syria border significantly raises the stakes in the war. The newspaper quotes Emile Hokayem, a Middle East-based analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, «A deployment so deep into Syria and in such a crucial place would be a clear indication that Hezbollah’s role in Syria was never limited to defensive aims but is geared toward helping Assad score major victories».

Hezbollah formations have spearheaded the offensive against the rebel forces, primarily al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, to restore the control over the town of Qusair near the Syria-Lebanon on border. The increased presence of the militant group has helped to change the balance in favor of Syria’s government and gain victory. The government’s victory at Qusair solidifies its control over the central province of Homs, the linchpin linking Damascus with the pro – Assad strongholds on the Mediterranean coast. The town is important for rebels because it protects their supply line to Lebanon.

In response the Syrian rebels have threatened Hezbollah targets in Lebanon in revenge for its backing of the government in Damascus and have frequently fired rockets into Lebanon. Besides, Hezbollah, a Shiite (Shia) movement, has stirred up sectarian feelings in the country by giving support to the Syrian government. Some Lebanese Sunnis have also crossed into Syria to fight alongside the rebels, who are drawn largely from Syria’s majority Sunni community, meaning Lebanon’s domestic conflict has effectively drifted over into Syria.

The Arab League and the United States have urged Hezbollah to pull its fighters from Syria, where France last week. And the reaction of the Persian Gulf states was rather unambiguous.

Persian Gulf states reaction

On May 26 Bahrain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa called Hassan Nasrallah a terrorist and said he was declaring war on his own nation, the Bahrain News Agency reported. «Stopping Nasrallah and saving Lebanon from him is a national and religious duty», he added.The statement is important because it represents a departure from the traditional Arab view of Hezbollah as the main force against Israel.Bahrain’s Sunni rulers blame Shiite Iran, Hezbollah’s main backer, for the political turmoil inside the country in 2011.

The Gulf Cooperation Council had ‘decided to look into taking measures against Hezbollah’s interests in the member states,‘ GCC chief Abdullatif al-Zayani told reporters at the end of a ministerial meeting in the Saudi city of Jeddah on June 1. ‘It is a terrorist organization and this is how Gulf states see it,’ Bahraini Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Ghanim al-Buainain pointed out.

Speaking on the occasion of the 32nd anniversary of the Gulf Cooperation Council on May 25 Sawsan Al Taqawi, a Bahraini MP, said she was looking forward to a unified Gulf Army as a prelude to the Gulf Union. «As we celebrate this glorious anniversary, we look forward to more accelerated paces towards moving from the stage of cooperation to the long due stage of unity», MP Sawsan said. «The unity is a vision shared by the leaders and people of the Gulf and the GCC should achieve it in order to fulfill the aspirations and anticipations of the region». (2) In December 2011 Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz called upon the six member countries of the GCC to move from the phase of cooperation to the phase of unity within a single entity. The call was endorsed by the member states and an ad-hoc committee was set up to look into it. In December 2012 a summit of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council announced plans to set up a unified military command to tighten defense cooperation.

Peninsula shield – force to reckon with

The GCC runs the Peninsula Shield, a joint-defense force (of 40000 troops) whose purpose is to protect GCC member countries. Officially created in 1982, the Force took part in the liberation of Kuwait during the First Gulf War in the early 1990s, and was again sent to Kuwait in 2003 ahead of the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. In 2011 it quelled the unrest in Bahrain. While several Gulf states hold annual joint military exercises, the Peninsula Shield Force holds training exercises every two years with one of the Gulf’s militaries.

The GCC members have limited manpower capabilities but boast vast financial resources for weapons acquisition. Jointly Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman possess 1100 modern main battle tanks and around a thousand armor vehicles. The air power and air defense present a capability to reckon with. The overall number of modern fourth-generation aircraft is around 400, including F-15s, F-16s, Eurofighter Typhoons and Mirage-2000s backed up by Saudi’s 5 E-3A AWACS aircraft adding to the GCC air power’s technological edge. The Saudi Arabia and UAE army aviation jointly numbers over 40 advanced AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. US-made Patriots and Russia-made Pantsir systems provide important anti-aircraft capability. The UAE plans to buy the US newest THAAD long-range, land-based theater air-defense weapon. The Gulf states navies jointly include 10 modern frigates, 10 guided missile corvettes, 42 fast missile boats and up to 50 amphibious ships and landing craft.

Washington is signaling its military commitment to its Gulf Arab allies. In April A $10 billion arms deal was finalized during the US Defense Secretary’s visit to the Middle East to strengthen the militaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (another country is Israel). The agreement results in the sale of 25 F-16 Desert Falcon jets worth nearly $5 billion to the UAE. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are also to purchase weapons with «stand-off» capabilities enabling to engage the enemy with precision at a distance. Yet Gulf Arab states have faced a host of snags on the way to creating a unified force, including a lack of common equipment and the reliance of individual states on bilateral accords with the U.S.

To add to the picture

To add the picture, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel approved over the last weekend the deployment of a Patriot missile battery and F-16 fighter jet aircraft to Jordan as part of the annual military exercise called Eager Lion taking place this month, but with an understanding that the weapons may stay in the country to enhance the Jordan’s security as the Syrian conflict is escalating. The participants will be training near the Syrian border. But there is a broader message sent, according to U.S. military officials. «In order to enhance the defensive posture and capacity of Jordan, some of these assets may remain beyond the exercise at the request of the government of Jordan», Lt Col T.G. Taylor, a spokesman at the U.S. Central Command, told CNN. (3) The Patriots will provide missile defense for Jordan as concern is growing that Syrian missiles are being shipped to Hezbollah and could attack targets across the region. Violence spreading to Lebanon, the Israeli forces have stepped up security along the northern border. Separately from the exercise, the United States is sending 200 military planners to Jordan to assist in long-term planning with Jordanian forces in case of a chemical weapons crisis or a large-scale humanitarian relief mission.

Hezbollah (Photo: Al-Akhbar - Marwan Bu Haidar)
(Photo: Al-Akhbar – Marwan Bu Haidar)

Prospects for crisis management artificially hampered

The Hezbollah’s increasing involvement in the civil war in Syria is a game changer because it pits Shiites (President Assad’s minority Alawite, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam) against the majority Sunnis. That is exactly the spill over that has been so much feared and warned about. The war would be a major event that would have a lot of adverse consequences worldwide.

An overwhelming majority of Muslims are Sunnis, while an estimated 10-13% are Shiites. The Shiites make up to 20% of the population in Saudi Arabia located mainly in the north-eastern part of the territory near the Iranian border. They are a dominating 75% majority in Bahrain that has already been quelled by Saudi troops after street protests. Yemen, Lebanon, and Kuwait also could see unrest as they each have a sizable Shia population. Iraq is home to home to at least 16 million Shias. 65-70% of the country’s population.

The United Nations Human Rights Council overwhelmingly passed a resolution on May 29 that calls for an immediate end to fighting around Qusayr, a strategic Syrian town, and condemns the intervention of foreign combatants on the government’s side in the Syrian civil war and the use of heavy weapons by government forces without mentioning the fact the other side included foreign militants, predominantly Muslim radicals, who get aid from outside and commit crimes against humanity. Russia has condemned the resolution. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia criticized the document as «odious and one-sided». The resolution makes no reference to the initiative, reached by Mr. Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry, on holding a peace conference on Syria this month. The top Russia diplomat also reaffirmed Russia’s strong criticism of the European Union’s decision to lift its arms embargo for Syrian rebels, saying it has created a «very serious obstacle» for the peace conference. He insisted that the EU move defied the international law and its own rules prohibiting the arms sales to non-state actors. According to the New York Times, the United Nations top human rights official, Navi Pillay, meanwhile, had equally blunt words for states supplying arms to either side of the conflict. Speaking two days after the European Union lifted its embargo on arms supplies to Syria’s opposition forces she warned that «the conflict in Syria is spinning out of control». Supplying weapons and ammunition to either side «emboldens the belligerents», she said in an opening statement to the council. If the conflict continues on its present trajectory or deteriorates further, she added,«Increased intercommunal massacres are a certainty, rather than a risk». (4)

It’s important to note that before the recent Hezbollah’s involvement, foreign intervention into Syrian internal strife started about a couple of years ago, militants coming from all over the world and receive aid and support from outside. It is al-Nusra, a branch of al Qaeda, who was defeated at Qusair after all. The events unfolding in Syria at present show clearly that the Moscow – initiated and US co-sponsored peace conference is the only way out, while the EU and the United Nations Human Rights Council (interesting to note – it was co-sponsored by the USA) hamper the efforts and add more snags on what is a bumpy road as it is.






Written by: Andrei Akulov

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