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The Daily Star - June 10, 2013

by Rami G. Khouri

The Hezbollah-led Syrian regime’s military victory over opposition forces in the battle of Qusair earlier this week was as predictable as the sun rising in the east every morning. Its consequences for all concerned are just as awesome, though still unclear. We should anticipate six arenas where Qusair’s repercussions will be evident: Hezbollah’s strategy, the Syrian government’s condition, the tactics of the Syrian opposition, Syrian-Lebanese tensions, internal Lebanese conditions, and wider Sunni-Shiite relations in the Middle East.

Qusair and other battles in Syria are significant for Hezbollah because they mark the party’s, (a) openly declared, and (b) enthusiastic entry into, (c) a conventional war in (d) a neighboring country, against, (e) Arab opponents. This totally reverses its legacy of waging a guerrilla-based resistance and deterrence struggle on its home terrain in Lebanon against Israeli occupiers.

Criticism of Hezbollah has spiked recently because of its fighting in Syria, and because its justification of protecting all Arabs against the growing takfiri presence in Syria has been unconvincing. Hezbollah has been a standard-setting movement for community empowerment and resistance against foreign predators, but its track record in political and diplomatic action is less impressive. Its fighting in Syria will tarnish its resistance successes and increase the dangers of its making mistakes politically and among public opinion.

For the Syrian government, the Qusair victory came at the heavy price of exposing its military weaknesses. It regained the town only with heavy Hezbollah participation and leadership in some areas and Iranian support; it required almost three weeks for what should have taken a few days; and in the end it relied on grotesque Russian diplomatic support at the U.N. Security Council to block a resolution that would have opened humanitarian relief corridors to evacuate the dead and wounded. Qusair stunningly confirmed the inability of the Syrian military forces on their own to turn back rebel gains, and more such battles with massive foreign participation will only expose more clearly the Syrian regime’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Syrian opposition forces now must quickly reassess their strategy and tactics, in three arenas. Their military doctrine cannot direct waging conventional warfare against the much greater forces arrayed against them, and will have to be revised if they want to unseat the Assad regime. They must enhance their access to the required military equipment and ammunition to continue to wage war in the face of the regime’s robust counter-offensive. They urgently must achieve a minimum level of coordination and unity in both their political and military leaderships, merging the critical fighters on the ground with the political leaderships in Syria and abroad. The opposition forces can unseat Assad only if they overcome the three profound deficiencies they now suffer, by adjusting their military strategy, enjoying plentiful military supplies, and coordinating to exploit the massive popular and international support they enjoy.

Hezbollah’s direct entry into the war inside Syria has exacerbated already rough Syrian-Lebanese tensions and conflicts, which have played themselves out inside Lebanon for decades, dating back to the days of Syria’s military control over the country from the early years of the Lebanese Civil War. Pro- and anti-Syria and Hezbollah groups in Lebanon have been quarreling and shooting for a long time.

Those dynamics now will expand, as the Syrian and Lebanese arenas merge into a single battleground, fueled by the determination to fight for survival by both Hezbollah and by Lebanese Salafists and others who see Hezbollah’s bold new militarism as spearheading Shiite-Iranian-Syrian domination of Lebanon.

It remains unclear if the heightened tensions will remain confined to traditional arenas of conflict in the north, north-east and south, or expand into Beirut and other regions.

The Hezbollah-Syria-Lebanon dynamic now also feeds into the newest regional problem arena: deteriorating Sunni-Shiite relations across the Middle East, including increasing incidents of outright ethnic cleansing, bombings, and intense provocations that started after President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair invaded Iraq and turned it into the first modern Arab battleground of Sunni-Shiite mutual demonization and death.

The Syria-Lebanon battlefield is now being defined by this same demon, which is dragging in regional actors. The most frightening example this week was Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti supporting the influential Islamist-televangelist Youssef Qaradawi’s call for all able-bodied Sunnis to fight Bashar Assad, Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. The dangers ahead may make Iraq look like a picnic.

As Syria and its battles rekindle old tensions and create new ones, Hezbollah reflects the dramatic and dangerous new directions in which many Middle Eastern actors navigate through crumbling edifices of Euro-manufactured statehood, battle each other for survival, and cling to older, indigenous identities of sectarianism, ethnicity, tribalism and other sub-national configurations.

One day, they will all have to manage the hard task of rebuilding credible, secure and legitimate states. But that day is down the road.

Now is the time to fight, it seems, and Qusair was only a hint of the stupidity and waste that lies ahead.

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