Don’t forget Hezbollah

Sunday 26/06/2016
Hezbollah fighter firing towards Syrian rebel areas

A dissent memo signed by 51 US State Department officials who disagree with President Barack Obama’s policy on Syria raised eyebrows in Washing­ton after it was revealed by the New York Times.

The memo argues that the United States has sufficient moral and strategic reason to attack Syrian government forces with stand-off weapons with the goal of getting Syrian President Bashar Assad to abide by the internationally mandated cessation of hostilities and initiate serious negotiations on a political transition, as required by the Geneva I communiqué and numerous subsequent international decisions.

The dissent memo admits downsides, including a deterioration of relations with Russia and possible “second-order” effects.

Those downsides require consideration. There is no international mandate to attack Syrian government forces. Intervention in this case would have even less multilateral sanction than the NATO 2011 attack on Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, where there was a UN Security Council mandate, albeit one that authorised “all necessary means” to save civilians rather than to change the regime.

Assad has not directly attacked the United States, even if his reaction to Syria’s internal rebellion has created conditions that are inimical to US interests by attracting extremists and undermining stability in neighbouring countries.

The Russia angle is also daunting. Moscow may well react to any US attacks on Assad’s forces by intensifying its attacks on the opposition forces the US supports. Unilateral US intervention against Syrian government forces would help Moscow argue it is doing no worse in Ukraine, where it supports opposition forces behind a thin veil of denials that its troops are directly involved.

The United States is not ready to respond in kind to Russian escalation in Ukraine, if only because the European allies would not want it. Kiev might be the unintended victim of US escalation in Syria.

Second-order effects could include loss of European, Turkish and Jordanian support because of increased refugee flow out of Syria, as well as increased Iranian support for the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, destabilisation of Bahrain and Shia militias in Iraq. Greater chaos in Syria could help the Islamic State (ISIS) revive its flagging fortunes and al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front to pursue its fight against the Syrian government.

These downsides are all too real but so is the current situation: Russia, the Syrian government, Iran and Hezbollah are making mincemeat of the US-supported Syrian opposition while more extremist forces are gaining momentum.

US President Barack Obama is reluctant to attack sovereign states that have not attacked the United States directly without an international mandate of some sort. That is understandable but doing nothing militarily to respond to a deteriorating situation is a decision, too, and one with real and unfortunately burgeoning negative consequences for US interests.

Hezbollah offers a way out of this quandary. It is not a state. It is a designated terrorist group that has killed hundreds of Americans and many others as well. The Americans say they are fighting terrorist groups in Syria. Why not Hezbollah?

Hezbollah ground forces have become increasingly important to the Syrian government’s cause. Getting Hezbollah out of the fight would arguably have as much impact on the military balance as strikes on the Syrian Army, which is a declining and demoralised force.

Washington need not start with military action, it could lead with diplomacy, telling Moscow and Tehran that it wants Hezbollah to leave Syria tout de suite. If it fails to leave by a certain date, the United States could strip it of its immunity and treat it like the other terrorist groups in Syria. Moscow might welcome such a move, since Hezbollah’s presence in Syria strengthens Iran’s hold, not Russia’s.

Tehran would be furious, claiming Hezbollah is in Syria at the request of its legitimate government. Hezbollah would likely try to strike US, Israeli or even Jewish targets in the region or beyond. It has managed to murder Jews as far away as Argentina. Doing so would confirm the thesis that Hezbollah is a terrorist group and redouble the need to act decisively against it.

No suggestions for what to do or not do in Syria are simple. The situation has become so fraught that any proposition will have complicated and unpredictable consequences but the State Department dissenters missed an opportunity to duck some of the president’s objections and strengthen their own argument by focusing on a terrorist group, rather than the regime’s own forces. Do not forget Hezbollah.