The writer is a professor and director of the conflict management program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, as well as a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He is publisher of the blog peacefare.net.
The military situation in Syria has turned against the U.S.-supported opposition over the past year, due mainly to Russian intervention. Now, the failed coup in Turkey and subsequent crackdown there stand to reduce the capabilities of a key U.S. ally. Without some rebalancing now in favor of the opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the prospects for a satisfactory negotiated political transition are dim.
In a dissenting internal memo last month, 51 State Department diplomats advocated attacks on Syrian government forces to end their aggression against the country’s civilian population, alter the military balance and bring about a negotiated political solution. President Obama has focused instead on fighting terrorism in Syria, but U.S. targets are limited to Sunni extremists such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates.
There is also a Shiite terrorist organization in Syria: Lebanon-based Hezbollah. It should not be immune.
Hezbollah was founded to resist the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the early 1980s and takes credit for the eventual Israeli withdrawal from that country. Tightly allied with and supported by Iran, it has become the dominant political force among Shiites in Lebanon, where it not only participates in national politics but also runs its own security forces and provides social services to Shiite populations.
Covertly since 2012, and overtly since 2013, Hezbollah has deployed forces inside Syria, where its thousands of fighters are aligned with Assad’s army and mainly Shiite and Alawite militias against mainly Sunni forces that Assad regards as terrorists. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps pays Hezbollah’s bills and provides its command-and-control operations. Hezbollah forces have been particularly effective along the border with Lebanon, which provides it with strategic depth and supply lines.
Hezbollah is a major factor in the military balance in Syria. Along with the Russian air intervention begun last September and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah’s fighters have enabled Assad to make progress against his opponents, especially those associated with the Free Syrian Army fighters backed by the United States. That progress has hardened Assad’s negotiating stance and blocked the U.N. search for a political solution. Assad is winning, and he sees no reason to accept a transition away from his rule.
A shift in the military balance is essential to ending the war, which is what Washington says it wants. But Obama has steadfastly refused to go to war against the Syrian, Iranian or Russian government. Even if he wants to, it is doubtful he has authorization from Congress to do so.
But Hezbollah is a non-state actor. It is also a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has murdered Americans, among many others. Most Republicans and Democrats would applaud an attack on Hezbollah, even if some in both parties would bemoan a move that suggested widening commitments overseas.
Washington could inform Tehran, Moscow and Beirut that Hezbollah should withdraw from Syria by a certain date or the United States would target any of its troops attacking non-extremist opposition forces in and around Aleppo and elsewhere. If Hezbollah failed to withdraw, the United States would then need to be ready to attack as soon as the ultimatum expired.
Hezbollah’s withdrawal or U.S. targeting of Hezbollah would send a strong but still limited message to the Syrian opposition and its allies in Turkey and the Persian Gulf: We are prepared to attack Shiite as well as Sunni terrorists, but it’s up to you to take advantage of the opportunity and come to the negotiating table ready to reach a serious political settlement. It would also send a strong but likewise limited message to Iran and Russia: We will not continue to tolerate your intervention in Syria without responding. The time for a political settlement is now.
How would the players in Syria react? Hezbollah would likely try to strike at accessible U.S. assets or citizens in neighboring countries, most likely in Lebanon or Iraq. It might also launch rockets into Israel. The Islamic State, which uses Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria as a recruiting tool, would be undermined. Russia and Iran could in theory up the ante, escalating their involvement in Syria, but in practice they both appear to be close to the limit of lives and treasure they are willing or able to expend there. Assad would be outraged and promise revenge, but the Syrian government is even more clearly at the limit of its capabilities.
Meanwhile, the non-extremist Syrian opposition would applaud and press hard against the territory where Hezbollah is deployed. Gulf states would likewise welcome the U.S. action and redouble their efforts to support the opposition. Israel knows all too well how to react to Hezbollah attacks in order to reestablish deterrence. Turkey might complain that the United States was not also acting against the U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters whom Ankara regards as terrorists, but the Turks would still benefit from any consequent military progress against Assad by non-Kurdish forces.
In short, U.S. targeting of Hezbollah would mostly please and embolden Washington’s friends and discomfit its antagonists. It would also reassert U.S. commitment to fighting terrorism of all sorts, renew Washington’s commitment to holding Hezbollah accountable, hasten an end to the Syrian civil war and make a political settlement more likely. That is not a bad balance of risks and benefits.