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A widening war

As if there weren't enough issues in the Middle East, a new dimension has been added with Hezbollah announcing its commitment to support President Assad in Syria.      This piece "Hezbollah Widens the Syrian War" from The New Yorker highlights why this new development should not be ignored.

"It’s official: the war in Syria has spread to Lebanon. In an extraordinary speech Saturday, Hassan Nasrallah, the bearded and bespectacled leader of the Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah, promised an all-out effort to keep the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria. “It’s our battle, and we are up to it,” Nasrallah said in a televised address. The war, he said, had entered “a completely new phase.”

This is a terrifying development; the beginning of a regional war. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed armed group, has been fighting inside Syria for months, something I detailed in an article on the group in February. But Hezbollah was intervening in Syria covertly, in large part because it feared a backlash at home. Month after month, Nasrallah denied that his men were fighting for the dictator across the border. When Hezbollah fighters were killed in Syria, they were memorialized in bizarre funerals back in Lebanon, in which the causes of death were not mentioned. In public, Nasrallah maintained that Hezbollah was the same thing it always had been: an armed group dedicated to protecting Lebanon from the depredations of Israel. In a speech in October, he said: “As of now, we have not fought alongside the regime.” As more and more Hezbollah fighters died inside Syria, that lie could no longer be sustained. The truth is out.

On Saturday, by declaring his undying loyalty to the Assad regime, Nasrallah has signalled an escalation in Hezbollah’s involvement. Nasrallah is now personally committed to the survival of Assad’s regime, no matter how murderous it becomes. His logic involves naked self-interest: Syria provides Hezbollah with its crucial link to the regime in Iran, Hezbollah’s creator and benefactor. Without Assad, Hezbollah might not be able to survive.

It’s difficult to overstate how dangerous this new phase is. At the moment, the conflict in Syria is a war of attrition, essentially a contest between the country’s Sunni Muslim majority and its Alawite-dominated government and military. Each side is doing its best to butcher the other, but neither appears to be prevailing. A massive intervention by Hezbollah would obviously be aimed at tipping the balance in Assad’s favor. Indeed, it was no coincidence that Nasrallah decided to give his speech during a big battle for the Syrian city of Qusayr, where Hezbollah appears to have suffered heavy losses. Qusayr lies on the road between Damascus and the Syrian cities on the Mediterranean coast, the stronghold of the Alawites, the minority sect that is loyal to Assad. For obvious reasons, the Assad regime in Damascus wants to hold the highway to the coast. It’s unclear how much a difference a new infusion of Hezbollah fighters will make, but it can’t hurt.

But the most serious effects of Hezbollah’s stepped-up intervention in the Syrian war will be felt in Lebanon itself. Lebanon—which, like Syria, was created from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in the years after the First World War—had its own civil war, which lasted from 1975 until 1990. (That’s fifteen years.) Since then, the peace in Lebanon has depended on a delicate balance among the country’s main sects: the Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians. To a great extent, this peace has depended on each group refraining from trying to grab too much power at the expense of the others. Over the past several years, Nasrallah has pushed this arrangement to the limit; Hezbollah is not just a political party but an army that is more powerful than the Lebanese state. Inside Lebanon, it its unassailable. Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria—essentially, a Shiite army crossing the border to kill Sunnis—represents a flagrant violation of Lebanon’s fragile sectarian pact."

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