Hizballah forces went on alert Thursday, Feb. 21, upon the expiry of a 48-hour ultimatum slapped down by Syrian rebels to halt the Lebanese group’s military support for Bashar Assad – in particular, its artillery and mortar backing for Syrian troops from bases in Lebanon.
debkafile’s military sources report that relevant to this chain of events is the Syrian claim that its anti-aircraft missiles downed an Israeli drone Wednesday over the Lebanese village of Deir al-Aachayer in the Rashaya region.
Those events were touched off by the onset in Moscow of preparations for a political process between Syria’s warring parties for determining the country’s future. Representatives of Bashar Assad and the Syrian opposition will be facing each other under the Russian aegis, but Hizballah and Israel are also involved and the Lebanese group is bidding for a strong voice in the process on three issues:
1. Will the HIzballah-ruled Lebanese Beqaa Valley continue to serve Assad and his army as their strategic hinterland?
2. Will the Syria-based Hizballah units, especially those securing the Shiite villages around Homs, stay there under accords reached between Assad and the rebels?
3. Will the ceasefire deals on which talks are due to begin soon in Moscow apply to HIzballah?
The general wisdom in the West and Israeli media is that Assad’s fall is inevitable and imminent.
The facts on the ground tell a different story. debkafile’s military sources report that Assad goes into political talks with his army controlling enough of the country to keep his regime in power for another two years at least, until the next presidential election expected to take place in 2014.
The Syrian ruler will seek to have Hizballah covered by a Syria ceasefire, hoping for Moscow’s backing on this point. Inclusion of this ally would strengthen his standing and boost his army.
It would also keep Tehran in the picture and gain its acquiescence to any deals struck in the Moscow talks. Assad understands that Iran will want to be sure Hizballah’s interests are protected and is fully capable of torpedoing any accords that throw its proxy to the wolves.
The downing of the Israeli drone Wedneday over the Beqaa Valley was a move by the Syrian ruler to push Israel out of any discussion on the future role of Hizballah and the Beqaa Valley, as well as putting a stop to Israeli Air Force flights over the Beqaa and the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Israel has not so far responded to this step, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will remain passive or stop its Lebanese overflights.
This chain of events could culminate over the weekend in the Syrian rebels making good on their ultimatum and attacking Hizballah targets. The Syrian civil war would then be thrust into the byway of a Sunni-Shiite showdown athwart the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Militarily, the rebels can’t stand up to Hizballah’s far more organized and professional capabilities. If they do decide to go on the offensive, they are liable to suffer heavy losses.