There was an absurd moment in the battle for the small city of Qusair when, last Monday, an old Israeli military jeep was paraded before Syrian state television cameras. According to the state news agency SANA, the jeep, which the army had supposedly captured in Qusair, was clear proof of Israeli involvement in the Syrian civil war. In fact, it added: "This confirms that Israel, Turkey and Qatar are leading the aggression against Syria with a joint operations center."
The SANA report did not explain why they would do so with a vehicle model that was taken out of service 10 years ago. As it turned out, the jeep was from a museum's inventory. Before that, it had been used in the Khima military prison, in southern Lebanon, to transport prisoners until the Israeli army withdrew from the area in May 2000. After that, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah set up a memorial at the prison, and now it had apparently brought the vehicle to Qusair. This would explain why a tractor could be seen in front of the jeep in the photos.
But despite the propaganda, the bitter battle for Qusair could become a turning point in the Syrian civil war. For the first time, Hezbollah fighters are openly leading the ground war against the insurgents, while the Syrian army provides backup with tanks and, most of all, airstrikes.
Iran, an ally of the Syrian regime, has also sent troops to fight for President Bashar Assad. The rebellion threatens to expand into a sectarian conflict beyond the country's borders along the Middle East's most tension-filled divide: the one running between Sunnis and Shiites. The centers of conflict between the two major denominations of Islam, isolated until now in Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, could be drawn into a wider conflict that would quickly engulf the entire region.
On April 30, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah dramatically announced a policy that would lead to the conflict now being waged in Qusair. After a visit to Tehran, he declared nothing less than a holy war, referring to the rebels in Syria as "Takfiris," or Sunni fanatics who view Shiites as heretics and aim to fight them and desecrate their shrines. For this reason, Nasrallah said, they must act preemptively and do everything in their power to support their fellow Shiites fighting for Assad.
After Nasrallah's speech, Hezbollah units streamed across the border for weeks, closing the ring of siege around Qusair. On Sunday, May 19, they launched an assault on the city, which has long since been bombed to bits. Last Monday, Syrian state media reported that government troops were on the verge of victory, even though rebels were still fighting in the ruins last Friday. In addition, more rebel units are on their way from Aleppo to Qusair, while more Hezbollah fighters continue to arrive from Lebanon.
About 100 rebels and 40 elite Hezbollah fighters were killed on the first two days of the battle alone. For Hezbollah, it was the largest casualty figure since the 2006 war with Israel.
Mounting Antagonism Between Sunnis and Shiites
In the past, Hezbollah buried its fighters killed in Syria discreetly, but now they are carried to their graves in ostentatious processions. The message seems to be that each dead fighter represents an obligation to continue fighting.
But the propagandistic act of desperation with the museum jeep also shows how uncomfortable it makes the "Party of God" to jeopardize its image, developed over the course of three decades, as Lebanon's defender against Israel. Hezbollah, which portrays itself as the Arab "David," repeatedly defying the Israeli "Goliath," has turned into a sectarian army in the fraternal struggle within Islam.
Rather than being a unified state, Lebanon has been held together for years primarily because of a standstill agreement among its religious groupings. But now it is being sucked into the war in neighboring Syria. Last week, the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli saw its worst fighting in years between Sunni radicals and militias made up of Alawites, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Unrest also erupted at a Hezbollah funeral procession in the southern city of Sidon.
The numbers of Sunni jihadists coming to Syria from the entire Arab world is still low. Their old way of defining their enemy was shaped by al-Qaida, which champions the struggle against the West, the Jews and all infidels in general. But this image is changing, and the Sunnis are now opposed to those demonized as the betrayers of true Islam: the Shiites. Indeed, Nasrallah's call for holy war against the Sunnis is being met with a thundering echo.
The Key City of Qusair
Qusair lies about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the Israeli border. The fact that Hezbollah is now fighting against the very people who sheltered Lebanese citizens fleeing from Israeli bombing in 2006 doesn't make their campaign any more popular in Lebanon. But Qusair is important because one of the routes the rebels use to reach the former industrial city of Homs passes through the town. More important than the city is the nearby highway. If the Syrian regime keeps it open, it can move troops between the territory it holds along the coast and Damascus, and it can move missiles and other military equipment arriving at the port of Tartus to the capital.
In the last two months, Assad's army has established a ring around the Damascus metropolitan area, thereby encircling thousands of rebels in the suburbs. The country could be divided into two parts. Assad's forces have been reduced in size but are still loyal to the president. They are made up of elite units, Alawite militias and Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters. Together, they hold the western edge of the country, from Damascus to the northern coast, as well as the Druze province of Suwayda in the south and parts of the desert east of Damascus and Homs. Except for a few Syrian army bastions, the rebels hold the rest: Idlib in the north, large parts of Aleppo and the Kurdish regions, Dayr Az Zor in the east, and the southeastern part of the country.
Western news services have reported that the fall of Qusair would cut the rebels off from all weapons supplies. But these claims are incorrect because only one of several smuggling routes passes through Qusair. With the exception of one border crossing, rebels control the entire border with Turkey. A similar situation applies along the border with Jordan and even the border with Iraq, whose government tolerates Assad.
It isn't the transport routes that are blocked. The shipments of ammunition, AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, sanctioned by Turkey and Jordan, have been brought to a virtual standstill for weeks. Without American approval, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states are also unable to send weapons to the rebels. But now Washington wants to wait and see what comes of the international peace conference planned for June in Geneva.
The Widening Sectarian Divide
Nevertheless, the United States and Europe still don't quite know what to do. At a meeting that stretched well into Monday night, EU foreign ministers couldn't agree on a unified position to determine what happens after the arms embargo expires at the end of May. France and Great Britain are leaning toward providing military aid for the rebels, while the German government feels that the best strategy is to keep out of the conflict altogether. Other EU members, including Austria and the Czech Republic, are vehemently opposed to providing any military assistance to the rebels.
Meanwhile, Assad's allies are keeping the dictator's military machinery running. Last week, Awad al-Zoubi, a Syrian Air Force general who defected to the Jordanian capital Amman in 2012, said that Department 720 of the Syrian Air Force intelligence service compiles an order list for Tehran every evening. After 15,000 missions, says Zoubi, Assad's forces are not just running out of bombs, but also materiel, such as tires, hydraulic fluid, spare parts and kerosene. "Iranian cargo planes arrive almost daily with the ordered materials," says Zoubi, who is now the guest in the villa of a Saudi Arabian tribal leader. "If they stopped delivering," he adds, "the air force would be finished after two weeks."
Iran and Hezbollah are standing firmly behind Damascus. Although Syria's Sunni neighbors have held back militarily, they are in the process of taking positions along the new front. In late 2011, the Palestinian Sunni group Hamas withdrew from Damascus, where its leadership had lived for years under the sponsorship of Iran.
The majority of Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq are also Sunnis. This may have helped bring about the successful outcome of recent negotiations between the Kurdish separatist organization PKK and the Turkish government, after 30 years of civil war. Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani played a key role in achieving the breakthrough. For weeks, his troops have been ready to fire on army units under the command of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki, for his part, is forcing Sunnis out of government and military posts in Baghdad, while the country is being shaken by the worst attacks in years.
Everything is interconnected. Like slivers of iron on a magnet, countries, ethnic groups and combat units are sorting themselves out along sectarian lines as the divide between Sunnis and Shiites widens.
Israeli's Role in the Complicated Equation
The civil war in Syria also threatens to reignite another longstanding conflict. So far, Israel has tried to wage a war within the war, not against Assad's military machinery, but only against shipments of missiles and other high-tech weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah. As always, the leadership in Damascus, which for decades cultivated its image as a front against the "Zionist aggressors," put up no resistance against the Israeli airstrikes. Even after the latest bombardment, on May 5, it merely issued a tepid protest, saying that a continuation of the attacks would "heighten tensions in the region."
The tacit understanding between the two enemies, the Assad dynasty and Israel, benefited both sides for decades. Damascus kept the peace along the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied and administered since the Six-Day War in 1967. In return, Israel largely left the regime alone, despite its hostile rhetoric, with the exception of a few targeted airstrikes. Proxy wars were waged in Lebanon. Even after the attack in early May, the Israeli government made an effort to appease the Syrians, saying that its intention was not to bring down the regime but merely to stop arms from reaching Hezbollah.
Israel resembles Hezbollah in its belief that it can choose who it wishes to fight. Hezbollah wants to strike at Sunni rebels in Syria, and yet it wants to avoid conflict with Sunnis in Lebanon. But how much longer will this approach work?
Israel is under pressure to halt any future missile deliveries to Hezbollah. The Lebanese organization, for its part, has to live up to its own propaganda. Hezbollah can hardly justify sending more than 1,000 men to fight in Qusair, where there are neither Shiite shrines nor Israeli soldiers, while simultaneously doing nothing as Israel bombards an arsenal intended for its use.
The two sides are still merely threatening each other, and despite the propaganda, an open war still seems a distant possibility. Moscow's decision to provide Syria with the modern S-300 air defense system does make a war slightly more likely, but it is still unclear whether the Russians will change their mind at the last minute. Even after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Moscow on May 14, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Moscow would still deliver the S-300 to Syria, noting it was contractually obliged to do so.
If the S-300 -- which, under the agreement with Moscow, would include six batteries and 144 missiles -- were ready for use in the near future, it would destroy Israel's absolute air superiority. Its jets would be within range of the S-300 missiles shortly after takeoff. Russia has an interest in keeping Assad in power. But Hezbollah would also be largely immune to attacks under Syria's air-defense umbrella.
"Israel cannot and will not allow this to happen," says Giora Eiland, a retired general and former national security adviser. "This is a very difficult issue for us. After all, we don't want a war with Russia. But if they do go ahead with the delivery, the response will likely be dramatic."