Syria, Hezbollah, Iran mobilising 'thousands of troops'

Published September 7th, 2013 - 09:14 GMT
Yemeni supporters of Shiite al-Huthi group hold up a portrait of Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasarallah(L) and of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration in Yemen. (AFP)
Yemeni supporters of Shiite al-Huthi group hold up a portrait of Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasarallah(L) and of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration in Yemen. (AFP)

Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have set up a joint military operations room to coordinate closely in the event of a U.S. strike on Syria, with Hezbollah mobilizing “tens of thousands” of fighters, senior political and diplomatic sources told The Daily Star Friday.

Even though the U.S. has so far succeeded in keeping the “axis of the resistance” guessing about the targets and scope of the strike, the sources said, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have geared up for the worst-case scenarios.

While nearly every aspect of the expected U.S.-led strike remains in flux, the three players have agreed on a specific course of action if American missiles smash into Syrian territory.

Hezbollah has even called up “tens of thousands” of fighters and reservists in anticipation of the strike, according to political sources.

“Iran, Syria and Hezbollah don’t have a clear picture about what Americans have planned,” said one diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous. “But those countries too are prepared for various scenarios.”

The sources said that Iran and Hezbollah would throw their weight and military skills behind President Bashar Assad if the strike presented a serious threat to the regime or would significantly weaken the Syrian army, the regime’s backbone.

“Short of that,” one diplomat said, “Hezbollah and Iran are unlikely to be involved.”

The diplomatic sources explained that Iran and Hezbollah considered the targeting of key Syrian army posts, military airfields and strategic weapons depots – including long range missiles – a direct threat to Assad’s rule and a reason to intervene.

While Syria and Hezbollah have mobilized forces, the sources said the Iranians have begun to prepare themselves for the likelihood that they will launch “strategic missiles” in response.

“The aim of the move was to demonstrate to the United States that Iran was serious,” the diplomat said.

Diplomatic and political sources also revealed Syria too has a bank of targets to hit in response to any U.S. attacks, namely in Israel as well as U.S. military bases in neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan.

The alliance among Syria, Iran and Hezbollah took shape in the 1990s and despite several attempts to fracture it has so far proven to be resilient.

The alliance is frowned upon by Israel and many Arab countries, which describe it as sectarian and accuse the two countries and Hezbollah of looking to form a “Shiite crescent,” comprising Middle East countries – Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran – where the majority of people are Shiite or where there is a sizeable Shiite minority.

Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have long refuted the accusations, saying their alliance is solely meant to counter Israel and support the rights and interests of the Palestinians.

But coordination among the three key regional players has never been interrupted even before the unrest in Syria started in March 2011.

The highest-profile tripartite meeting so far took place in February 2010 when Assad, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah and then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held talks in Damascus.

Another key event came in April 2013, almost two years into the Syria war, when Nasrallah paid a visit to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Nasrallah has vowed unequivocal support for Assad in the face of a rebellion by what he dubbed “takfiri groups,” arguing that the family offered political and logistical support to his group in their struggle to liberate Lebanese territories from Israeli occupation and later on during the 2006 war.

Hezbollah fighters have supported Assad troops at many instances in the past two years, securing a triumphant victory for the Syrian Army against rebel groups in the town of Qusair, just kilometers away from the Lebanese border.

Despite domestic and international chiding for its involvement in the Syrian quagmire, Hezbollah seems unwilling to pull out and plans to fight alongside the regime and make use of its full fighting capacity in case Syria comes under attack.

Political sources said the party put on alert “tens of thousands” of fighters and reservists – part timers and full-timers – in anticipation of a U.S. strike.

The sources said ever since August 2006, when a 34-day war with Israel concluded, Hezbollah has launched a large-scale operation to take on new recruits and has organized training camps during the summer for thousands of young people in south Lebanon and the Baalbek and Hermel regions in the northern Bekaa Valley.

Everyone in Hezbollah who has been trained to use weapons has been put on high alert,” one political source explained. “The party is ready for all eventualities.”

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