The Corner

Hezbollah Says Hello to Syria

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, spoke about Syria on Tuesday, and it is fair to say that he is not intimidated by American policy. Here is a story entitled “Syria Allies Will Prevent Fall of Assad Regime: Hezbollah,” from Beirut’s Daily Star:

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah hinted Tuesday that his group, as well as President Bashar Assad’s other allies Iran and Russia, could intervene militarily to prevent the downfall of the Damascus government.

The head of the resistance group also said his fighters would continue to defend Lebanese in Syrian border villages from rebel attacks, arguing that the Lebanese state was unable to fulfill the task itself.

“Syria has real friends in the region and the world that will not let Syria fall in the hands of America, Israel or Takfiri groups. They will not let this happen,” Nasrallah, Assad’s closest ally in Lebanon, said in a televised speech.

“How will this happen? Details will come later. I say this based on information…rather than wishful thinking,” Nasrallah added.

Yesterday reporters asked President Obama about his disappearing “red line” on chemical weapons, and today’s reviews suggest that the president did not impress the media. “Obama Appears at a Loss to Define the Way Forward in Syria,” said a story in National JournalThe “red line” was once use of chemical weapons, but now the president speaks of  ”systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations.” Just what does systematic mean? How many more times must chemical weapons be used, or how many people have to die, for us to call the use of chemical weapons “systematic”?

The Nasrallah speech is a reminder that use of chemical weapons is not the only issue we face in Syria. The intervention of Iranian IRGC and Hezbollah troops is another. They are in Syria already, as press reports have stated — and as funerals of Hezbollah soldiers in Syria confirm. The American reaction has been weak, and certainly has not been strong enough to deter either party – Hezbollah or Iran – from sending more fighters to help save Assad.

Their involvement apparently is not a red line for the United States either, not yet anyway, and one can’t help wondering if there are any limits at all. Perhaps there are: Hezbollah may worry about its position inside Lebanon, where this intervention is very unpopular, and it certainly worries about a potential Israeli response. But what would we do if Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria became larger and more visible — 500 men, then 1,500, then 2,500, and more? Would we allow a terrorist expeditionary force to go save Assad? The president’s performance yesterday suggested that the crossing of that chemical-wepaons red line has to be accepted by the “international community,” not just asserted by the United States. What “international community” is that, exactly? The Security Council, with Assad’s ally Russia in a position to veto? 

Loose tough rhetoric is not the answer, for no one wants the president to bluff. Nor can he act if the facts do not support the claims he is making. But the facts regarding Syria include, now, 75,000 dead, 4 million displaced, 515,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan (growing by 60,000 per month), two uses of chemical weapons, the presence in Syria of roughly 5,000 jihadis, and the intervention of of Iranian IRGC and Hezbollah soldiers. The American response, two years into this war, has been pathetic: Humanitarian aid went largely through the Assad government until just weeks ago, non-lethal support has just started arriving, and lethal aid has been ruled out until now (the administration is said to be considering it). And what if Hezbollah and Iran see us and raise us, increasing the number of their fighters in Syria?

The president said two years ago that Assad must go, and he said it again yesterday. It always weakens a president, and weakens the United States,when such talk is not matched by a policy that will achieve the stated goal. It’s long past time for the president — who has previously rejected proposals from his top advisers for more vigorous action — to adopt and to implement a determined policy that will bring Assad down.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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