Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite militant group best known as a perennial foe of Israel, has been suspected for some time now of buttressing Bashar al-Assad’s struggling security forces in Syria with its own fighters, intent on pushing back against the rising Sunni majority. But the group’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah went a step further Tuesday, aggressively hinting that while he is confident Assad can stem the tide, Hezbollah will be there to aid him if his position deteriorates.
“Syria has real friends in the region and in the world who will not allow Syria to fall in the hands of America or Israel or the Takfiris,” he said, the latter reference being to followers of Sunni extremist groups like al-Qaeda. We already know that Hezbollah has lent its support to regime fighters in Shiite villages near the border with Lebanon, and Nasrallah suggested that if the sacred Shiite shrine of Sayida Zeinab were compromised, all bets are off.
“If the shrine is destroyed things will get out of control,” he said cryptically. But perhaps more important than Hezbollah’s focus on backing Assad is how the prospect of more involvement from the group might be affecting U.S. President Barack Obama’s thinking about intervening in the ongoing civil war. On Tuesday, the president used a Washington news conference to explain that despite intelligence suggesting the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, which he had previously said would be a “gamechanger” that crossed a “red line” for aggressive action to bolster the rebels, the United States and its allies were still working out the details.
“What we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don’t know how they were used, when they were used, who used them; we don’t have chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened,” Obama said, clearly intent on buying more time to work out potential military options and, perhaps, wait for the rebels to make further gains. And then came the most telling line: “If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we can find ourselves in the position where we can’t mobilize the international community to support what we do.” The politician who made his career on early opposition to the misguided U.S. invasion of Iraq wants to do things differently here, as he did in Libya with cooperation from NATO. And the hint from Hezbollah that it might deploy its massive arsenal — which rivals that of the Lebanese army — to bolster Assad adds another wrinkle to the situation. Which is to say that as American editorial boards and U.S. senators heckle the administration for its intransigence, the ability of the White House to iron out a new strategy is more compromised than ever.