Analysis |

Could Lebanon Escalation Drive U.S. to a Thaw With Assad?

U.S. drone strikes against extremists is the likely, and messy, alternative if diplomacy fails in Syria.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Car bombings are becoming almost routine in southern Beirut. There is no nuance or diplomacy to the “messages” being conveyed to Hezbollah by its foes.

Hezbollah is under attack in Lebanon for its role in the fighting in Syria, where the Islamic movement supported the regime. It no longer matters who “takes responsibility” for the bombings, be it Nusra Front, Islamic Front, Free Syrian Army or militants from villages on the Syrian-Lebanese border, some of which were targeted by Hezbollah for "cleansing."

The establishment of a new temporary government in Syria after months of exhausting debates is stabilizing the political situation, but the war between Hezbollah and its enemies has come to dominate the conflict, making Lebanon and Syria a single front.

This front, which will mark three years of blood-soaked existence next month, is constrained by an international splint that has so far failed to prop up a solution. On the one hand, the president of the United States said, “Right now, we don’t think that there is a military solution.” The European nations, along with Russia and Iran, agree: yet the diplomatic efforts haven't offered an alternative.

Officials close to Obama suspect that in the end, the United States will be compelled to use unmanned aerial vehicles if only to strike at the concentrations of radical Islamic militants or bases established by Al-Qaida. But this does not seem all that reassuring. Even the Pentagon admits that it has no precise data about the location of Al-Qaida’s bases and it says that in Syria it would difficult to perform “surgical strikes” of the kind known in Yemen or in Pakistan, where many civilians were killed as a result of drone attacks, despite "surgical" caution.

Aside from the operational difficulty, American military involvement of any kind could damage the diplomatic processes the United States still backs. Mainly, it could drag Russia and Iran into direct, open military activity inside Syria.

No-fly zones turn into drone attacks

Russia and Iran still remember how the decision to use NATO airborne troops in Libya to create no-fly zones quickly turned into direct drone attacks against the Gadhafi regime that may well have played a decisive part in its overthrow. Hence, too, the assumption that Russia and Iran would ignore drone activity against the Al-Qaida bases is simply an assumption.

Unlike how it views Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Russia sees Syria as belonging to its sphere of influence - and if fighting against Islamist groups is necessary, Russia can offer its own services.

The Syrian opposition might also oppose American military activity against the Islamists since it fears, with some justification, that the American and European stance may change: instead of helping remove Bashar Assad from power, the United States might work with the regime to fight Al-Qaida’s Syria branches. For some time, the opposition has been requesting anti-aircraft missiles, which will help defend against Syrian aerial attack. But so far, the United States has refused to provide such aid and has even demanded that Saudi Arabia refrain from transferring such missiles to the Free Syrian Army for fear they might fall into the hands of extremists.

Also, the opposition is having difficulty accepting the United States' willingness to fight against Al-Qaida’s operatives at a time when Hezbollah fighters “enjoy” immunity when they work on behalf of Assad’s side.

The political and diplomatic obstacles to American military activity against Al-Qaida operatives in Syria are enabling the radical groups to move their organized battlefront forward and not settle for pinpoint terror attacks. If their base of operations was in Pakistan ten years ago, and if, ten years ago, the base in Iraq was established and gave rise to the base in Yemen (the offspring of the base in Saudi Arabia) as well, now the new front is Syria, with extensions in Lebanon.

That is how they go from being terrorist groups to groups that claim and hold territory. Uprooting them will require massive military operations similar to the Egyptian army’s efforts in the Sinai Peninsula.

But without a local strategic partner in the form of a stable and effective regime, this fight will be futile. Since no such regime is evident on the Syrian horizon, the temptation to re-examine the attitude toward Assad is great indeed.

Lebanese emergency personnel work at the site of a bomb explosion in a southern suburb of the capital Beirut on February 19, 2014.Credit: AFP

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