Spillover

09.10.13

Assad’s Threats Aren’t Just Trash Talk

Assad said to expect everything. What does that mean? Jamie Dettmer on how Syria’s anxious neighbors may face retaliation for an American attack.

Bashar al-Assad’s warning wasn’t as colorful as Saddam Hussein’s threats to light up the Middle East with the “mother of all battles.” But, with an eye no doubt on spooking a war-weary American public, the Syrian autocrat talked of regional “repercussions” if U.S. military strikes are launched against his country—and Assad’s anxious neighbors, already suffering spillover in the form of refugees and violence from the Syrian civil war, are taking the threat seriously.

What those repercussions might be and whether limited punitive raids by the U.S. to punish Assad for the alleged use of chemical weapons last month will be enough to trigger retaliation by the Syrian strongman’s key regional allies—the militant Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah and Iran—remain unclear. But Assad told CBS on the weekend, “You should expect everything.”

Now debate is raging in the Middle East and among Western military analysts about what that “everything” could be and what it might entail for a region on edge and riven by sectarian division. A complex web of alliances in the region is raising the stakes, and miscalculation could have dramatic consequences.

A Hezbollah source told The Daily Beast that limited strikes wouldn’t automatically prompt a response, but that if a U.S. attack degraded Assad’s forces and started to shift the balance of power on the battlefield in favor of the Syrian rebels, that would prompt reprisals. Selecting his words carefully in a meeting in downtown Beirut, the source said Hezbollah leaders were ready to strike at Israel but had little motive to bring the Syrian war closer to Lebanon. “But if the strikes are more extensive and are damaging Assad, we will act,” he says.

Tehran would have little alternative but to respond in order to make sure it doesn’t lose face over a civil war that has developed into a proxy war between regional powers.

He also warned that cruise missile strikes on Hezbollah forces in Syria would invite a response. Hezbollah is believed to be sitting on a stockpile of more than 60,000 missiles supplied by Iran. Since its 2006 war with Israel, fighters have been trained in more offensive tactics, say Hezbollah sources, and have been prepared to take the battle onto Israeli soil.

For former NATO commander and retired U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark, the threat of repercussions by Assad and his allies is merely what he calls “trash talk.” “What would you expect Assad to say? ‘We are really weak, please don’t hit me.’ No, he’s going to say we are tough, we are going to clean your clock.” Clark sees the biggest danger coming from “efforts at terrorism” but ones that can be contained and don’t risk drawing the U.S. into a quagmire in the Middle East.

Likewise, senior U.S. officials have played down the dangers of fallout from a strike on Syria, arguing there’s little Israel needs to fear from Hezbollah or Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that “Israel feels very confident about Israel’s ability to be able to deal, as they have previously, with a miscalculation by Assad.”

It is a point Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been emphasizing in closed-door briefings on Capitol Hill.  According to Hill sources, Dempsey has stressed that Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system is well able to handle any rocket strikes launched by Hezbollah. During last week’s Senate hearing Dempsey said, “We’re postured for the possibility of retaliation, and I can assure you that our regional partners are as well.”

Postured maybe, but that doesn’t mean Syria’s neighbors aren’t nervous and fearful of retaliation or worried that miscalculation could lead to spread and wider conflict. Last month Jordan asked for surveillance airplanes and intelligence assistance to upgrade security on its border with Syria. The Pentagon has deployed air-defense- missile batteries in Jordan, along with F-16 warplanes. Jordanian intelligence sources say they fear Assad could wake “sleeper” terrorist cells to destabilize Jordan.

Nerves are frayed in Lebanon, which has been roiled by spillover violence from the Syrian conflict with two car bombs detonated over the summer in Beirut strongholds of Hezbollah and frequent clashes in the north in Tripoli between Shia and Alawi supporters of Assad and Lebanese Sunni Muslims backing the rebels. The Syrian civil war has inflamed sectarian Muslim divisions across the Middle East but has done special harm to Lebanon, bringing to the fore radical Sunni clerics baying for the blood of apostate Shiites and propelling Hezbollah into an intervention in Syria on behalf of its patron Assad.

The Lebanese fear that an American attack could prompt full-scale sectarian warfare between Sunni Muslims and Shiites across this small Mediterranean country, reigniting their 1975–90 civil war that left more than 120,000 dead, and wounded one in four Lebanese. The Lebanese parties are split about the U.S. striking Syria. Hezbollah officials echo Assad’s threats of repercussions while Sunni politicians express support for American punishment for a sarin gas attack that the Obama administration claims killed more than 1,400, including hundreds of children.

“They are targeting Syria not for democracy or political reforms but to transform Syria’s position and resistance identity and role,” says Sheikh Nabil Qaouq, the deputy head of Hezbollah’s executive council. “They want, through its destruction, to surround and weaken resistance (to Israel) and make it bleed.”

A U.S. strike, if it goes ahead, would be the first against a key Iranian ally, and some terrorism experts believe that Tehran would have little alternative but to respond in order to make sure it doesn’t lose face over a civil war that has developed into a proxy war between regional powers. As the Middle East’s main Shiite regional power and a staunch ally of the Assad government, providing arms, military training and cash, Iran can’t afford to see Assad fall and lose out to its bitter foe Saudi Arabia.  

Iran has no more important ally than Syria, and Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says an attack on Syria would be “considered an attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.”

Retaliation, if it comes, would most likely be in the form of terrorism undertaken by proxies such as Hezbollah or Shia militias in Iraq targeting Western interests and allies either in the Middle East or further afield. Hezbollah has a reach beyond the Middle East blowing up an Israeli tourist bus in Bulgaria in 2012 that killed seven and wounded 36. Earlier this year a Lebanese-Swede on trial for a plot against tourists in Cyprus told a court Hezbollah paid him.

Hezbollah as well as Iran’s intelligence services and Tehran’s revolutionary Quds Force could seek to attack U.S. missions and embassies. According to counterterrorist expert Matthew Levitt, a former senior U.S. Treasury Department official, Hezbollah and Iran have in recent years been developing overseas capabilities. In congressional testimony last spring, he said Iran “maintains a network of intelligence agents specifically tasked with sponsoring and executing terrorist attacks in the Western Hemisphere.”

Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese Army general, believes that neither Iran nor Hezbollah have an incentive to strike at Western targets in the event the U.S. attacks as that would invite further American action against Assad, spelling the Syrian leader’s doom. And neither Hezbollah nor Sunni militants want a full-scale conflict on Lebanese soil while Lebanon is useful as a logistical base for both sides in Syria. But he warns that may not always be the case. “If the situation in Syria changes in a dramatic way—in this case it will move directly to Lebanon and we will lose control,” he said.

While arguing a regional war is unlikely as a result of American action, Christian Lebanese politician Samir Geagea argues a military strike will have an impact on Lebanon—“one way or another.”