As Hezbollah Vows Support, The New Calculus In Syria

May 30, 2013
Originally published on June 2, 2013 8:41 am

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Over more than two years, the conflict in Syria progressed from protest to civil war, opposition aims from reform to revolution, and the nature of the fighting became increasingly sectarian. Now another important turn as foreign troops openly join one side.

Of course outsiders have been involved in Syria almost from the beginning, but many fear that what started as an internal dispute could spark a larger war in the region and that even greater powers could be drawn in. Last weekend, a major step toward that nightmare as the powerful Lebanese militia Hezbollah vowed to fight for Syria's Bashar al-Assad until victory.

Russia also raised the stakes and reportedly sent a first shipment of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Damascus. The European Union lifted its ban on arming the opposition. The White House yesterday took care to note that all options remain open, including a no-fly zone. Israel repeated that it would act to prevent the transfer of dangerous weapons. And Damascus pledged instant retaliation to any new Israeli attack.

Later in the program, the criteria we use to choose a hospital and why they may be misleading, but first the deepening crisis in Syria. We begin with NPR correspondent Kelly McEvers, who joins us now from Beirut. Good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Hello, Neal.

CONAN: And just how deep is Hezbollah's commitment to Syria and to Syria's war?

MCEVERS: We don't know exact numbers, but, you know, you did see the leader of Hezbollah over the weekend giving a pretty big speech, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah saying, you know, that we're in this now, we're fighting in Syria, and we're in it for victory. We're supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and we are fighting on the ground.

This was something that we knew was happening, but he basically confirmed it. For weeks, you know, here in Lebanon we'd been seeing funerals in Hezbollah areas here in the city, in the capital, and also in Hezbollah strongholds in the east and the south. You know, he basically confirmed what we knew.

And so now people are more openly talking about it. We actually were with today a family who lost two of their sons. They, you know, celebrate them as martyrs. You know, this is an organization that used to send its sons to fight at the border with Israel, to fight in the war with Israel in 2006, and now they're sending their sons to fight other Arabs, you know, basically Sunni Arabs in Syria.

So it's a major change for the organization that at one time was seen as kind of an Arab - a pan-Arab hero to a lot of people. Now it's seen as a very kind of sectarian organization as a Shiite militia.

CONAN: And a major gamble for Hezbollah, but let's talk about where they're fighting. This is a town that we know of called Qusair just across the border in Syria, vital both for the Syrian opposition, which has held it for I guess about a year, and for the government forces of Bashar al-Assad, as well.

MCEVERS: One of the main - I think one of the most important things about Qusair is its purpose as a transit point. Basically if, you know, the rebels can continue to hold it, that's a way for them to get guns and men in and out of Lebanon, guns into Lebanon, injured men and, you know, fighters and civilians back - sorry, guns in from Lebanon and injured men and fighters back out again to rest and recuperate.

And of course, you know, the government sort of wants - and Hezbollah want it for the same thing, you know, to be able to stop that flow of guns and fighters for the rebels and control it for themselves. There are also many, you know, analysts who think that the government in Syria is trying to use Qusair as a kind of gateway to Homs and part of the coast of Syria to, you know, secure a kind of government-controlled swath of territory that starts in the capital, Damascus, and goes kind of up the coast so that in the future if, you know, parts of the country do break off, it has one kind of contiguous stronghold.

CONAN: And what is the significance - as you say, Hezbollah's involvement in the fighting in Syria was an open secret. What's the difference between an open secret and a publicly declared alliance to fight until victory?

MCEVERS: You know, I mean, I think the risks are kind of high. I mean, I think the fact that they're admitting that they're involved means that they're pretty confident that there will be a victory. I mean, I've spoken to some Hezbollah folks, and they seem to be confident. I think what's interesting is the way their own supporters read this on the ground.

We had some pretty disturbing interviews today where, you know, again with this family of the two fighters who died in Qusair and other Hezbollah supporters, you know, they are really seeing this as an all-out sectarian war. They're basically saying OK, if our leader says we're in this, that we Shiites are in this to fight these Sunni rebels who they call (speaking foreign language), which is basically a term they use for extremist Sunnis, if we're all the way in this, then, you know, that means we'll take it as far it needs to go.

And we asked them, you know, after Qusair, where will you go? Wherever he tells us to go. If it's Aleppo, if it's Damascus, if it's all the way to Turkey and even beyond, we're willing to do that. That's a worrying sign. I mean, people used phrases like total war to us today. That's starting to sound extremely sectarian, regional and worrying.

CONAN: And the regional part, Hezbollah, the Shia militia, the biggest - by far the biggest and most powerful force in Lebanon, it's allied with the Shia sect the Alawites, that's the group that controls the government in Syria. They are in turn allied with the Shias of Iran, and that's the Shia alliance that so many Sunnis are concerned about.

MCEVERS: Right, and let's not forget the Shias of Iraq, as well. I mean, we've had some pretty credible reports that you've even got Shiites of Iraq coming in to Syria to fight. I mean, for a while there was this rationale that, you know, we're sending our Shiite fighters in, not many of them, they're going to protect Shiite holy places in Syria. There's a very important mosque in Damascus, Sayyidah Zaynab. That was sort of the reasoning.

Now with this new kind of turn, you get this sense from these people that we talked to today and yesterday that, you know, it's much bigger than that, that it's existential. You know, people say things like we are the - it's a fight between the righteous and the unbelievers. Well, both sides say that, right?

The Shiites believe they're the righteous; the Sunnis believe that they're the righteous ones. You know, where does that end? Both sides have - and just extreme propaganda about the others. Both sides will tell you they're slaughtering us, they're cutting us with knives, they're burning people, you know, all of this stuff that may or may not be true, but it's really stoking the flames here between these two groups.

CONAN: And as you suggested earlier, Lebanese Sunnis have not been exactly quiet. They have also been sending fighters and arms and money to support the Syrian - the Syrian Free Army, the rebels in Syria. Are they going to tolerate this action by Hezbollah? Is the fighting going to be contained in Syria, or is it going to be in Lebanon, too?

MCEVERS: That's a really good question. I mean for one thing, yeah, you're right that the Sunni groups in Lebanon are definitely supportive of the fighters in Syria. I mean, there's a lot of connections between the two, a lot of movement back and forth. Again, if they lose Qusair, there will be a lot less of that movement.

I think it's important to remember that Hezbollah is clearly the strongest, you know, group here in Lebanon. So I think it would take a lot to want to kind of stand up to them. I mean, they're even by many accounts stronger than the Lebanese army, you know, the state's army.

You know, there's a sense that Hezbollah is kind of the big bully in this country. So I think it would, you know, take a lot for the Sunnis to come up against them. But we did see just after Hassan Nasrallah's speech this weekend, there were two rockets fired at a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut. Now while you have - we have seen street fighting between the two groups, you know, over the last two years, bigger weaponry like that is pretty rare.

So I think that was a message, I think that was a test. You know, nothing came of it, but I think a lot of people here are very nervous.

CONAN: And as the nervousness builds there in Lebanon, the stakes for Hezbollah, should it win in Syria, if something like victory is possible in Syria, one side, the Assad side, seems to be riding high just at the moment, but a few weeks ago that was the other side. In any case, they risk their position in Lebanon, do they not?

MCEVERS: That's right. I mean, they currently, you know, have a powerful position in government. There's a lot of squabbling going on right now about the next round of elections. Hezbollah has a majority in the Cabinet. I think that, you know, again they're confident. I think they wouldn't have made this decision had they - were they not confident that this would work out for them.

I think they've - you know, you talk to people in Hezbollah, and they say look, we're no great friend of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. I mean, Syrian troops occupied Lebanon for many years. They're, you know, not perfectly religiously aligned. You know, he's from this minority Alawite sect. They are very religious Shiites.

And I think for them it's more a strategic thing. You know, they see their alliance with Iran as very important, their ability to continue to get weapons and support from Iran via Syria is very important for them. So they've made the calculated decision at this time that it's worth risking losing, you know, the popularity here at home to keep that regional alliance.

CONAN: And is there also a risk of them becoming militarily engaged in a long and protracted struggle and sucking in more and more forces into Syria while at the same time they still look across that border at Israel?

MCEVERS: Right, I mean, you know, this is - their confidence, an analyst was telling me the other day their confidence kind of hinges on the fact that this is the only fight they're going to have. But if, you know, the Sunnis decide to come after them here in Lebanon, and if Israel decides to open a front against Hezbollah, say, in southern Lebanon along the border with Israel, that's a whole different ballgame.

CONAN: So the calculation seems to have changed from this public stance of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, and as a result of that, well, it seems that everything is on the table, the integrity of Lebanon and the integrity of Syria.

MCEVERS: Right, I mean, that's why we keep asking people, you know, where does this go, how does this end. And I'm not sure - the leadership of Hezbollah is definitely not talking about that yet. You know, I don't know if that means they haven't planned on it yet, and they don't know where this is going. But their supporters, you know, like I said, we heard phrases like total war. They feel like they're ready to go all the way despite the fact that they themselves, it's their own families, their own sons, their own cousins and neighbors who are going to be the ones who suffer.

CONAN: And it doesn't disturb them that their fight is now with other Arabs?

MCEVERS: Yeah, it's interesting, you know, there's still this distinction here. We were just talking to some people today, and they say look, this isn't sectarian, we're doing fine, we live side by side with our Sunni neighbors, we're not fighting with each other. But we say, but just, you know, 10 miles away, there are villages that are hell bent on revenge against each other because they're Sunni or Shiite.

There are people who are telling us we can never go to the way it was. We used to live side by side. We can never go back. We've lost an entire generation. And they say, well, that's OK, that's over there. So there's still this sense, I think, and Hassan Nasrallah said this in the speech this - you know, over the weekend. You know, if we've got a problem, let's fight it out in Syria, let's insulate Lebanon from all of this.

But I just think that if this keeps going like this, it can't help but spill into Lebanon.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, thanks very much for your time. As always, we appreciate it.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

CONAN: When we come back, we'll talk with Rami Khouri and Andrew Tabler and focus more on Hezbollah's role in Syria and the risks for the region. I'm Neal Conan, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. This hour in an - interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is airing on Lebanese television station Al-Manar, known as a mouthpiece for the militant group Hezbollah. Hassan Nasrallah, the group's leader, took to the airwaves last Saturday to make a public commitment to support President Assad's army in the fight for Syria.

In a recent piece for Agence Global, Rami Khouri makes clear the significant of Hezbollah's move. He wrote: It can be credibly argued that Hezbollah is the single most successful political party or organization in modern Arab history, given its many accomplishments: It has transformed Lebanese Shiites from a downtrodden and subjugated community to the most powerful single group in the country, forced Israel to withdraw from its occupation of south Lebanon, and shaped a regional resistance and deterrence front with Syria and Iran that defines many regional policies and confrontations.

Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and columnist with the Daily Star newspaper, joins us now by phone from Amman in Jordan. Nice to have you back.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you, glad to be with you.

CONAN: Also with us Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, author of "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria." And nice to have you back, as well.

ANDREW TABLER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And Rami, let's start with you. As I just read a little bit of your piece, you've written a great deal about the significance of Hezbollah and about the significance of this gamble.

KHOURI: Yes, Hezbollah, as I said, is a very successful, very powerful, very methodical organization that has much support but also many people against it. And it's losing some of its support because of its move into Syria to be actively engaged in the fighting there. So its core remains pretty solid in Lebanon, but its support around the region among public opinion has clearly dropped in the last couple of years, actually, but especially in the last couple of months.

But this process now by which Hezbollah is actively fighting inside Syria, openly proclaiming that they're going to do everything they can to keep Assad in power and triggering a response by the rebel Syrian army, the anti-Assad forces who are now fighting Hezbollah, and also many Lebanese Salafi, Sunnis who are also fighting against Hezbollah both politically and probably militarily. It has now basically brought together the Syrian and the Lebanese conflicts into one process.

CONAN: And Andrew Tabler, that cannot be a happy prospect. There was a 15-year civil war in Lebanon.

TABLER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, I would add to what Rami is saying or, you know, is purporting. I think that the general trend in this is not only towards a worsening Syrian crisis but increasingly complicated. I mean really to get your head around all the different moving parts is increasingly hard. It's increasingly hard for policymakers in the U.S. and so on.

But, you know, Nasrallah, you know, Hezbollah's involvement in Syria, plus his speech, his last couple of speeches in general, have been, you know, nothing short of breathtaking. I mean, I don't - I was recently in Syria - I'm sorry, I was recently in Lebanon, right on the Syrian border, and to watch Hezbollah with my own eyes fight against other Arabs and in Nasrallah's speech, you know, equating that fight in Syria with the resistance against Israel, you know, to me was just sort of mind-blowing.

And, you know, it just adds to, as I would say, the complexity of this problem and the increased dilemmas that everybody is going to be facing, all parties including Hezbollah going forward.

CONAN: And we're talking a great deal about Lebanon and Syria, Rami Khouri, but important to note there was an incident on the Turkish border with Syria today, an exchange of gunfire across there. This is region-wide, it's just not those two countries.

KHOURI: It's - Lebanon and Syria are the two main battlefields right now. Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and even the Israel front and the occupied Golan Heights that Israel occupies, there have been little incidents here and there, tensions, refugee flows, a little bit of cross-border firing very occasionally the Jordanians and the Syrians beefing up anti-aircraft, anti-missile defenses.

But yes, the tensions are regional. The spillover in terms of refugee flows, political tensions and some exchanges of fire are happening on all of Syria's borders, and the problem is that when you start getting all these different countries involved, they all have supporters in Iran or in Saudi Arabia or in Russia.

So you really have now the most complex proxy war, really, I would say, of the last century almost because it brings in all of the major parties in the region and the Middle East. It brings in the Russians and the Americans, the Europeans. Some of them now want to start sending more advanced arms to the anti-Assad rebel forces.

So this is no longer Syrian citizens rising up to overthrow an autocratic regime. This is now the most complex and deadly proxy war of our generation and maybe of the last century. And I don't see any way it can be resolved through any kind of diplomatic process. This is like two gladiators in an arena. One of them is going to win; one of them is going to lose.

The Syrian people are the biggest losers, of course. The country is being destroyed. And that may be the price to bring them to this kind of police state that many people in the Arab world are fighting against and other places. But we'll have to see how far it goes before some kind of massive political reaction takes place in Syria, in the region, around the world, possibly to bring it to an end. But I don't see that happening, unfortunately.

CONAN: Andrew Tabler, the secretary of state, John Kerry, is in discussions with Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, to try to arrange some sort of peace conference, but that's complicated - you talked about complications - by the fact that the Syrian opposition cannot get its act together and agree on who or what exactly it is.

TABLER: That's right. There are problems from that side in terms of the opposition coming up with one voice or what, you know, and actually agreeing. There are also problems with the whole notion of a conference to begin with because, you know, obviously this, you know, there has to be some kind of discussion about a transition in Syria, and that's what the conference would ultimately be about.

But a transition by definition has to lead to power shifting from one side to another. And when you have President Assad coming out and openly saying I'm going to stick around, run for re-election in 2014, according to his foreign minister, and oh yeah, by the way, the Russians have delivered us 300 anti-aircraft systems to Syria already, that puts a serious damper on the diplomatic track.

And I second what Rami was saying. I don't think there's a diplomatic way out of this. And wishing that there was is not going to solve the problem. Maybe it's better to emphasize it down the road, but it seems like both sides are set to battle it out throughout 2013 and going forward, and that's bad news for the Syrian people, as Rami said, and it's really bad news for the United States because that conflict is not staying within Syria's borders.

It's spilling out. The country's melting down and with it a lot of the borders in the post-World War I Middle East, with all of the issues that go along with it.

CONAN: Talk about complications, yes Hezbollah, Iran and Syria, all American enemies, are aligned on one side. On the other side, the Syrian opposition, the most effective and one of the larger opposition groups is the Al-Nusra Front, which is al-Qaida.

TABLER: That's right, and not only that, but they've actually, you know, joined forces with al-Qaida Iraq in April. You know, not all the Syrian position is extremist, but there is part of it that is. But there's a larger swath of it that are sort of in the middle. They're the Salafists, and there are many different kinds of Salafists.

But the problem is that those that are most effective on the battlefield are not those that the United States can work easily with in terms of achieving its goals in a post-Assad Syria: a peaceful, prosperous and secular Syria that's together in one piece. So it's a very big policy challenge. The prescriptions going back over a year by a lot of people who have worked in policy and journalists and so on of backing the opposition is increasingly complicated.

And this is all being exacerbated by the fact that the Syrian regime has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the Middle East, which makes this even more deadly and makes the spillover from the Syria conflict that much more of a threat to international security.

CONAN: Rami Khouri, in its statements, the leader of Hezbollah said he could not afford for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to lose. Iranian leaders have said very much the same thing. What about the foreign backers of the other side, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States, Turkey, Jordan? Can they afford to have the Syrian opposition lose?

KHOURI: Well, politically it would be damaging to them but not as damaging as it would be for Hezbollah to have the Syrian regime change. The Syrian, Hezbollah, Iranian front is a critical core of - makes up the bulk of what is called the resistance and deterrence front, which has been there for many, many years, two, three decades in some cases.

And this is seen to be the bulwark of resistance against the Israeli occupation or threats to Arab countries or Western imperial designs and all of the different things that they say that they're against. And they have actually generated quite a lot of support across the region among public opinion, but that front has always really been those three parties, those three groups, two countries and one group, Hezbollah. And their support is increasingly dropping around the region, especially with Hezbollah now fighting in Syria. There's a lot of reasons why Hezbollah will fight to the end to maintain Syria because it is such a critical logistical and political and other forms of support for it, and linking it to Iran territorially or geo - through the air, et cetera.

So it's a huge loss to Hezbollah if the regime in Syria were overthrown, and then that's why clearly they've come out now and said we're not going to let this happen. And if it does happen, if the Syrian regime is overthrown, Hezbollah is in a real pickle because it is increasingly isolated, and it will increase the pressure against it, particularly by many people in Lebanon. I would say now more than half the people in Lebanon are critical of Hezbollah, and that was probably not the case five years ago. But clearly more and more Lebanese are speaking out against it and politically accusing it. And now you've got some Lebanese even probably fighting it. The same Lebanese who are in Syria fighting the regime are fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon and there may be an escalation of that fighting.

So it's an absolute critical piece for Hezbollah that the Syrian regime - we don't know. We don't know what's going to happen, if Hezbollah's support is enough to keep the regime in place - I personally don't think so. I personally think that the mass uprising of millions and millions of citizens against an autocratic government cannot be stopped. And Americans used massive military force in Vietnam and Afghanistan and the Russians did it in Afghanistan, and they were ultimately defeated. So a military force can never overwhelm mass popular will, and this is the test we're seeing now in Syria.

CONAN: If that's the case, though, does not Hezbollah risk getting more and more engaged in a foreign involvement in Syria?

KHOURI: Yes. It is a real problem for Hezbollah, and it's already facing just in the last week a lot of grumbling in Lebanon, even among some Hezbollah supporters there, asking why are our boys dying in Syria. They were trained to, you know, fight the occupying Israelis. So it is a huge risk for Hezbollah to get bogged down in a war. And if the resistance in Syria proves able to withstand the assault (unintelligible) other places, this could end up being, you know, sort of the Vietnam of Hezbollah, like the Americans got stuck in Vietnam.

And both Iran and Hezbollah run the risk of having Syria become their Vietnam. Hezbollah is probably smart enough to see that and probably has strategies in place to counter it one way or another. That could include maybe changing the regime from inside or something, I don't know. But they're very strategic thinkers. They're very methodical. They plan things out. They don't just sit around and watch this stuff on TV and then react after the fact. So they're already calculating this in their strategic planning, I'm sure.

CONAN: Daily Star columnist Rami Khouri, also director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University at Beirut. Andrew Tabler, also with us, senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, his book "In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Andrew Tabler, the other factor in this is the delivery to Syria reportedly of those advanced anti-aircraft missiles, the S-300 system.

Russia also said to be delivering advanced versions of an anti-ship missile, which if the United States wanted to send aircraft carriers to the Syrian coast, they would have to operate more than 200 miles away now.

TABLER: That's right. I mean what the delivery of those weapons mean once they're operational is that the United States' options are seriously constrained. So basically there will be no intervention in terms of a safe area, a no-fly zone, an option to take out their chemical weapons. There would be very little the U.S. could do other than just arm the opposition on the ground and have them fight it out, which is not necessarily good news for the Russians or for the Assad regime, but more so for the Russians, I think.

The problem is that this escalates the conflict, and it exposes the Obama administration's very weak hand, particularly as concerns their enforcement of the red line on chemical weapons use in Syria, which is currently under investigation. And many intelligence services believe that the regime has used some kind of chemical agents against their own people. It makes intervention that much harder.

CONAN: And there are fresh reports from Britain of evidence that the Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons. Rami Khouri, as the outsiders get further and further involved, the stakes go higher and higher. You wrote about that nightmare scenario where that axis, and that is at least in translation Bashar al-Assad's word, the axis between Hezbollah, Syria and Iran could face opposition against, as you described it, just about everybody else.

KHOURI: Yes, absolutely. That's the Armageddon scenario where you have Hezbollah, Iran and the Syrian government and a few other supporters, smaller groups here and there collectively fighting against virtually everybody else in the region - Arabs, Turks, the Israelis, Americans, et cetera, Europeans. And I don't think that's going to happen. I think people are smart enough to realize that that is a catastrophic scenario that will just throw this region into an incredible nightmare, and countries will start collapsing.

There will be millions and millions of people fleeing across borders. It's a scenario that scares everybody - the Arabs, the Israelis, the Turks. Nobody wants that to happen. So I think something will happen along the way. There will probably be a desperation scenario like somebody will try to just assassinate a leader here or there using, massive air power from a distance to knock out leaderships and cut the head off these institutions that do this. That's one option I think people are probably thinking about, trying to develop a coup from within, which people have talked for two years, but that's probably not going to happen in Syria. So I think people will not let the situation get to that Armageddon scenario, but it could just happen not by accident but just by slow escalation and a certain momentum builds up and people can't stop it.

The existential nature of this battle for the local fighters, the local parties in the region is matched by the Russian-American standoff now, where the Americans want to, you know, break this last Stalinist state in Syria and break these autocratic police states and while the Russians equally fiercely want to break the tradition of Americans and Europeans just designating leaders, manufacturing countries, drawing borders and removing leaders through coups at their will. And so this fierce battle internally is matched by a fierce battle globally, and it's very, very troubling. And we're watching it on television. It's really surrealistic. We're sitting there watching this stuff; sometimes we hear the explosions and things in Lebanon, and people are out on the beach front, swimming and going to restaurants and things like that.

CONAN: Rami Khouri joining us from Amman, Jordan. Thank you very much as always. And Andrew Tabler with us today from Fort Hood. We appreciate both their time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.