BEIRUT, Lebanon — Worries over potential US strikes in Syria have tensions high in neighboring Lebanon, where Syria-related violence has killed scores in recent weeks.
Flights out of Beirut have been almost fully booked in the past week, after rumors Lebanon would close its airspace when any operation starts. The US State Department announced Friday it is pulling non-essential staff and families from its embassy in Beirut, citing security threats.
Much of the fear is centered on the question of how Hezbollah, the powerful Shia Muslim movement and militia that is politically and militarily dominant in Lebanon, might respond to potential intervention in Syria.
Hezbollah forces have been involved in Syria’s 2-year-old civil war for awhile now, backing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and proving to be an invaluable asset on the front lines in the fight against the rebels.
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The group has ratcheted up its support in recent months, linking the longevity of its own powerful position in Lebanon to the survival of the Assad regime.
Hezbollah sees the war in Syria “as an existential threat to their position in Lebanon and therefore their position vis-à-vis Israel,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Middle East Center.
But how Hezbollah reacts “depends on the scale, the duration and the aim of any potential US military action,” he said.
Itani and other analysts say if US strikes are limited in both scope and duration, Hezbollah is unlikely to respond by launching retaliatory attacks against US interests in Lebanon or against Israel.
After the US and other countries accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in an attack on several Damascus suburbs Aug. 21, the Obama administration has led a push for a military response to the atrocity. Congress is expected to vote on authorizing US strikes next week.
Any Hezbollah operation would likely throw the organization into direct confrontation with the US and Israel. It would mean increased pressure for Hezbollah at a time when the group is struggling to balance fighting a war in Syria with staving off rising aggression at home.
“Theoretically, air or missile strikes on Syria would represent a significant threat to Hezbollah as well as the Syrian government,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London.
“But I think Hezbollah is stretched thin enough already in terms of its domestic situation in Lebanon and a few smaller theaters it is currently involved in in Syria,” he said.
Hardline Sunni militants in Lebanon have intensified their rhetoric against Shia Hezbollah, calling for direct confrontation with the group. Three large bombings in Lebanon in the past month — which targeted both Sunni mosques and a Shia neighborhood known for its support for Hezbollah — have only hardened sectarian tensions here.
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The Syrian government says it intends to confront any military aggression by the US or other actors.
Hezbollah, however, has stayed relatively quiet, save for a few condemnations of US plans to strike.
Shortly after Hezbollah captured the strategic Syrian border town of Qusayr in June, one of the group’s fighters returned to Lebanon from the front line. He spoke with confidence about Hezbollah, Iran and Syria’s determination to stand up to any Western-led military intervention in the future.
“They cannot intervene,” said the Hezbollah fighter who fought in the battle of Qusayr. He only gave his first name, Mahdi, because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
“If the West does make a move against Syria, I can guarantee you that you will see 3 million resistance fighters in Syria,” Mahdi said.
But even if Hezbollah does not retaliate against US or Israeli interests, analysts say the group could increase its assistance to the Syrian government if it believes the regime is in danger of collapsing.
“If Obama had a red line in terms of the use of chemical weapons, Hezbollah and Iran’s red line is the fall of the Syrian regime in the configuration we know it,” said Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
If a US-led operation manages to significantly weaken the Assad government, “there will be a request [for help] by the regime,” Slim said. “There will be a request [for help] by the regime. But also, it’s a threshold that will automatically trigger an involvement by Hezbollah to help deter the fall of the Syrian regime.”
Phillip Smyth, a University of Maryland researcher who focuses on Hezbollah and other Shia militant organizations in the region, says the Assad regime “has been a perfect conduit for what Hezbollah has wanted for many years.”
“If they lose that and clearly if any of these rebel groups take control, Hezbollah is not going to have the geostrategic links from Iran through to Lebanon,” Smyth said. “It puts them at a severe strategic disadvantage.”