Recent developments in Syria have led the Obama administration—which resisted considerable intervention in the country's conflict—to change its ambivalent policy there, declaring last week that the president's "red line" on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime had been crossed and that support of the opposition would be increased. The administration promised modest military support, excluding MANPADS (shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles), but dismissed calls for a no-fly zone. If the president believes this limited approach will hasten the removal of Assad, he is not taking the will of Iran and Hezbollah seriously enough. Their goal is nothing short of reshaping the Middle Eastern order.
To be sure, apparently influencing the latest move was the administration's concern that direct military intervention by Iran and Hezbollah helped turn the tide of the war in favor of the regime. The policy change came before the G8 summit in Europe this week, where the administration is expected to call for further intervention in Syria. Reports have circulated that Washington may yet again change in its policy by setting up a no-fly zone inside Syria—despite its denial that it would do so—enforced by U.S. jets and Patriot missiles already sent to Jordan.
No doubt, if both approaches are pursued, the opposition may reverse its military retreat. Nevertheless, barring a Western invasion, the prospects for removing the regime are now dim. Probably, this partly explains the reluctance with which the administration has approached Syria, and partly vindicates the administration's desire to bring about a negotiated settlement. Whatever may be the case, the administration needs to sharpen its view of the region in which the Syrian conflict plays out. In fact, the West has been far behind reading the political map of the region and the swift changes reshaping it since the removal of the Iraqi Baath regime. At the heart of these changes are popular uprisings and attempts at shaping a new regional order, in which an assertive, Shia Iran is counteracted by conservative Sunni powers backed by the West.
The latest manifestation of this jockeying for power has been the strategic battle for Qusayr in Syria. Iran and Hezbollah's heavy intervention in this battle not only shifted the tide of the battle in favor of the regime, but also derailed the plan of the Syrian opposition to constrict the Assad regime and cut it off from Lebanese Shi'a border areas and the heartlands of Homs and Damascus. It was no easy feat for Hezbollah to overtly intervene in the Syrian conflict and make itself a target of the Sunni world.
Hezbollah's decision to intervene revealed Iran's regional strategy. Hezbollah, at the behest of its patron, entered the battle for three interrelated reasons: 1) to maintain the viability of the Iranian-led rejectionist axis by securing and expanding the territorial connection of Tehran and West Beirut, particularly the area connecting Qusayr with Lebanon's Baalbek-Hermel region; 2) to deny Israel the capacity to undermine Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy/deterrent force by depriving it of its Syrian strategic depth before defanging it in a future war; and 3) to step up to the challenge, as dictated by regional developments, to transform itself into a political and military regional power shaping the new order in the Middle East.