Neither the Sunni rebels nor the Assad-led Shiites who are involved in the Syrian civil war are friends of the United States or Israel. Israel and the US’s best strategy should be to help maintain the status quo where neither Assad nor the rebels are strong enough to defeat the other militarily.
In this context, the Obama administration’s decision to finally help arm the rebels was the correct decision even though it was as a response to Assad’s forces crossing the red line and using chemical weapons on their own people. But the main reason to heavily arm the rebels should be to counter balance Hezbollah and Iranian involvement and reverse recent Assad territorial gains in the strategic city of Qusair on the border of Syria and Lebanon, which has served as the rebels’ supply corridor from Lebanon.
It must be clear that both the US and Israel’s strategic interests would be compromised if the Americans allow Assad and his allies to win.
At the center of the Shiite mobilization is Iran, which is seeking to preserve its regional influence by funding and supplying a Shiite network of armed support for the Syrian government, which is dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. It includes thousands of experienced combatants from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah as well as Iraqi Shiites. It also include a paramilitary militia of thugs and gangs known as the Shabiha, whose 50,000 members primarily consist of Alawites loyal to Assad and who are believed to be responsible for undertaking the Sunni massacres and other sectarian atrocities.
On the other side, the Syrian rebels’ disorganized opposition consists mainly of several major Arab-Sunni rebel factions. The biggest umbrella group is the Saudi and Qatar backed groups who are not hard core Islamists. The second largest rebel coalition is dominated by hardcore Salafist Muslims, a more extreme offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The most dangerous group in the mix is the Jabhat al – Nasra, which is an offshoot of al–Qaeda in Iraq. The Sunnis consider the Alawites and the Shiites greater infidels than Christians or Jews. The opposition is in control of vast areas in the north and northeast of Syria.
Contrary to most experts’ opinion over the last two years, Bashar Assad will never step down or leave Syria to save himself because he is an Alawite protecting the Alawite minority - which consists of only 12% of the Syrian population - from genocide by the Sunnis. His top military leaders who are Alawites will fight to the end to secure the center of major cities and the west coast where most Alawites reside.
While the Assad regime has conventional military superiority including jets, ballistic missiles, and artillery, it also can count on a steady supply of arms and ammunition from loyal allies such as Iran and Russia. At the same time, the rebel force has received until now only sporadic supplies of relatively low caliber weapons from its regional Arab allies. Supplying heavy weapons to the rebels such as long range missiles and imposing a no- fly zone over rebel-controlled areas will result in a war of attrition for years to come, similar to the war between Iran and Iraq, while both sides survive in a divided Syria.
Hezbollah is already taking significant casualties in Syria and the sectarian nature of its military involvement will likely open another front for them in Lebanon from the Sunnis. As the group’s forces and resources are drawn into the fight, its ability and willingness to confront Israel will be reduced.
Those in the administration, who claim that it is unclear what national interest the US has in preventing an Assad victory, ignore the following.
First, if Assad wins, the US will lose the remainder of its credibility and its deterrence power in the Middle East. It took six months after chemical weapons were first used by the Assad regime against the rebels for the US to acknowledging that fact, despite the fact that the UN, Britain and France had already confirmed its use. Moreover, Obama’s hesitancy to help the rebels for over two years has encouraged thousands of Hezbollah fighters to cross the border from Lebanon into Syria and to publicly declared a month ago their intention to fight on behalf of Assad despite Obama’s warnings against outside intervention. It was Hezbollah forces who drove the rebels out of Qusair and Assad’s forces are now advancing on the rebel dominated area of Aleppo.
Second, If Assad wins, Russia’s military and diplomatic loyalty to Assad will make Moscow once again an attractive ally too many of the Gulf Sunni nations who are already suspicious of Obama after his betrayal of Mubarak, and who are worried about Iranian ambitions.
Third, Iran will become stronger than ever. A weakened Assad will owe everything to Iran, and become its puppet. Moreover, Iran will doubt Obama’s resolve in preventing them from developing nuclear weapons.
Fourth, Hezbollah will become stronger by sharing Syria’s dangerous arsenal and by influencing a weakened Assad to be more militant against Israel. Syria’s last war against Israel was in 1973, but since then Israel has had at least two wars with Hezbollah.
Fifth, the sectarian war will spread. Hezbollah military’s involvement against the Sunnis has transformed it from a revolutionary force to a sectarian one. A Shiite victory will pose a threat to Jordan and Iraq as well as the Gulf States.
An Assad win over the rebels will unravel decades of American influence in the Middle East and endanger Israel in the process.
Shoula Romano Horing is an attorney. Her blog: www.shoularomanohoring.com