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.
It is no coincidence that Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah declared in May "that the Syrian opposition and its supporters can neither topple Damascus nor overthrow the regime." And he added, "the battle is long." Then, on June 15, he asserted that "the party will not change its position...we will be where we should, for what we began in taking responsibility for we shall continue doing until the end." Put simply, Hezbollah will partake in the forthcoming decisive battles over Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and their countryside to help the Syrian regime reclaim and impose its authority over a wide geostrategic territory. Writing in al-Akhbar, Ibrahim al-Amin observed that Hezbollah's intervention in Syria was neither a reactionary response nor a favor for the regime that helped it; rather it was integral to its awareness of its new role in the region.
This overly ambitious, though dangerous, involvement by Hezbollah will no doubt cost the party, the antagonists and the Syrian people a staggering number of casualties, with a potential for deadly spillovers, especially in Lebanon. This attests to the high strategic value Hezbollah and Iran attach to creating a sphere of influence in the region. Whether by accident or design, the Shia Islamists are asserting their power in the historical Sunni capitals of Umayyad Damascus and Abbasid Baghdad. Only in this way can they, as they believe, set their imprint on the politics of the region, for they consider the Arab Gulf a spineless body sheltering itself in the cloak of U.S. power. This underlines the strategic link Russia maintains with Syria and Iran, which Moscow uses as a means to have a foothold in the Middle East and to contest Western military and political strategies.
Faced with this Iranian (and by extension, more or less, Russian) commitment to shape a new order in the Middle East, Washington and its allies should disabuse themselves of the notion that by modestly arming the Syrian opposition, a negotiated settlement would be near. The battle is long and its implications for the region are no less than redrawing the map of the Middle East. At the same time, Washington should neither panic nor overestimate Iran and Hezbollah's role in Syria, for they have just opened the floodgates of jihad against themselves from all corners of the Muslim Sunni world. The conflict in Syria has transformed into a sectarian war of attrition. Herein lies Washington’s challenge: how to affect Iranian policy in Syria so that Tehran abridges its regional ambitions? Simultaneously, Washington cannot inadvertently enhance the power of Salafi-jihadis by prolonging the war of attrition. In this respect, Washington has to set its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the right track, for they have been Salafism's transmission belts.
Significantly, Iran and Hezbollah believe that Western society has neither the stamina nor the staying power to cope with protracted conflicts. By recognizing that the conflict has become a pure struggle of power, meant to shape the political map of the Middle East, and expressed in bloody sectarian terms, Washington and its allies should devise a new medium-term strategy: the objective should be to exhaust Iran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Syria, with the goal of bringing a negotiated settlement.
The hope for a judicious outcome in Syria has passed. The country has degenerated into two opposite extremist camps, with little say for moderates; and its recovery would be a long process of work in progress. Yet, it's American resolve and a well-informed and organized supply of weapons to the opposition that will help bring a negotiated settlement. In hindsight, rarely has a historical power been able to impose and maintain its authority throughout the Middle East. Iran is no exception.
Robert G. Rabil is associate professor of political science and the LLS Distinguished Professor of Current Events at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East and most recently Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism.