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Dr. Josef Olmert

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How Likely Is an Iranian-Hezbollah Intervention in Syria?

Posted: 06/24/11 03:27 PM ET

100 days and counting for the popular Sunni uprising in Syria, and this is becoming "Black Friday", the day when all hell breaks loose. The demonstrations concentrate around Damascus and Aleppo, along the Turkish border and in many other localities. Defections from the armed forces grow dramatically, the latest from the 1st Division of the army, and the situation seems to be getting out of control.

Syria's foreign minister, the veteran diplomat Walid Muallam, declared this week that within 3 months, Syria will be an exemplary democracy. Good to know that Syrian diplomats maintain their sense of humor in face of the rapid collapse of their regime. Muallam went on to attack the European Union (EU), stating that Syria will behave as if there is no Europe on the map -- this is really diplomatic stand-up comedy, with one major exception: nothing is really funny about the unfolding situation in Syria. When so many innocent people are butchered in the streets by their "own" government, nothing else matters and urgent solutions are required.

Bashar Assad's regime clearly has no such solutions, and killings and more killings just precipitate its inevitable downfall, the precise timing of which is not yet clear, but it is behind the door. Surely, the regime is getting increasingly desperate and with that comes reports about the last resort card to be used by Assad: a regional conflict, involving Iran, Hezbollah, Turkey, NATO and, of course, Israel.

An opponent of the Syrian regime, a cousin living in London, the son of the exiled Rifat Assad, said on BBC, that it is the doomsday scenario worked out by Bashar Assad. This is a dubious source, considering the enmity between the various branches of the Assad clan, but there are other sources.

One of them is the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar (The News), which came out with a story based on unspecified sources, according to which Iran will attack Turkey and NATO targets in its territory, and Hezbollah will attack Israel. All this in order to prevent the final collapse of the regime in Damascus, as this collapse may signal a real threat to Iran's national security. Why a collapse of Bashar Assad would pose a danger to the Ayatollahs in Tehran is not clear, but what is beyond any doubt is that Syria is Iran's only ally in the Middle East.

So, what is behind this report? According to Jewish tradition, prophecy was given to fools only, following the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, but I am ready to take the risk...

Iran will not attack Turkish or NATO targets in Turkey, not even following a Turkish intervention in Syria, which is very likely in the near future. Any look at the map is enough to show that Iran is much more vulnerable to a NATO-Turkish strike than the other way around, and on top of that, almost a third of Iran's population are ethnic Azeris, who are susceptible to Turkish influence.

Hezbollah, for its part, makes its usual belligerent voices, and there are signs that it has raised its military alertness and preparedness, so troubles with Israel should not be ruled out completely, yet here too the likelihood of a collision is low. Syria under Bashar Assad did not come to the aid of Hezbollah during the 2006 fighting with Israel, and Hezbollah is not likely to endanger its very existence by triggering a full-scale war with Israel. The Israelis are aware of the provocative potential of Hezbollah, and they maintain a surprising degree of public reserve, something not always typical of their leadership.

What we can surmise from these stories/reports/rumors is that Bashar Assad is really aware of the severity of his situation, the official propaganda in Damascus notwithstanding. More important is the fact that after 3 decades of an Islamic regime in Iran, characterized by vitriolic anti-Israel and anti-US positions, the Iranians are viewed by the Sunni-Arabs of the Middle East, as a Shi'ite regime, bent on creating a Shi'ite revival in the Muslim world, assisted by the heretic Alawites.

Safe to say, that the Sunni masses in Syria are not particularly impressed with the messages coming from Tehran; in fact, they burn Iranian flags in the streets. Instead, they are much more tuned to the leading voices of Sunni Islam, such as Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who intensifies his calls for them to bring down their government.

Al-Qaradawi is a sworn enemy of the west and Israel, but Iran, Hezbollah and the Alawites in Damascus seem to be much higher on his current agenda.