The Obama administration is heralding a conference later this month in Geneva where representatives of Bashar al-Assad’s regime will ostensibly sit down with the Syrian rebel forces opposing them. The effect will be to prop up Assad. Sen. John McCain, on the other hand, is committed to the Syrian people. We commend him for the courage he showed last week when he became the most senior American official to visit Syria since the shooting started, entering from the Turkish border. Meeting with rebel leaders, McCain could hardly have been surprised to learn that the last thing they want is an intra-Syrian peace process with the ruling clique that slaughtered peaceful demonstrators for a year before the opposition finally picked up arms in its own defense. What the rebels want from the United States, Free Syrian Army general Salim Idriss told McCain, is what they’ve been requesting for a year—weapons and the grounding of Assad’s air force with a no-fly zone. Idriss added one new item to the wish list: Bomb Hezbollah.
This request comes as the Lebanese militia has fully entered the Syrian civil war on the side of Assad—fighting not just to keep its ally in Damascus in power, but also to be of service to the Iranian regime, the patron of both Assad and Hezbollah, and to keep open the conduit that allows Iran to ship armaments through Syria to Hezbollah’s strongholds in Lebanon.
Last week, Hezbollah sent elite forces against Syrian rebel positions, notably in Qusayr, a strategically vital town. Should Assad lose Damascus, he would fall back to the redoubt of his Alawite people, the coastal mountains along the Mediterranean. Holding Qusayr is critical to preserving a land link from that area to Hezbollah-controlled regions of Lebanon. The importance of Qusayr to Assad and Hezbollah can be gauged by the losses the Lebanese fighters incurred there: dozens killed in an ambush during the group’s initial assault, and perhaps 100 dead after a week’s combat. Reports suggest that Hezbollah may be on the verge of retaking the town from the rebels, but it’s come at considerable cost and thanks in no small part to the Syrian regime’s air and artillery support. As it turns out, Hezbollah is not as formidable as advertised.
Nonetheless, in light of Idriss’s plea, it’s worth remembering that Hezbollah’s prestige is built partly on the fact that early in its history it bloodied the United States, killing and kidnapping hundreds of Americans during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. April was the 30th anniversary of Hezbollah’s bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, where 63 were killed, including 17 Americans. October will mark the 30th anniversary of the bombing of the Marine barracks, in which a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed 241 American Marines, soldiers, and sailors. In the aftermath, the Reagan administration withdrew forces from Lebanon and handed Hezbollah a significant victory, one that would not only embolden its patron Iran but also lend credence to Osama bin Laden’s claim that America was a paper tiger in retreat.
Since 1983, Hezbollah has plotted other operations against Americans and waged terror campaigns against our allies in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, especially Israel, whose citizens have been targeted by Hezbollah suicide bombers, kidnappers, snipers, rockets, and missiles. With all the American blood that Hezbollah has on its hands, in addition to the attacks on our allies and interests, the United States has an open account with Hezbollah 30 years past due. Here our interests are aligned perfectly with those of the Syrian rebels.
Nonetheless, American policymakers past and present as well as regional experts are likely to roll their sophisticated eyes at Idriss’s suggestion. And yet it is American Middle East hands who should be embarrassed for not having the good sense to see the issue as plainly as the Syrian rebel commander. For four decades U.S. officials refused to stand up to Hezbollah and chose to look the other way when the terrorist group targeted Americans. Is it any wonder that the murderers of Ambassador Chris Stevens are still at liberty nine months after the Benghazi attack, when the United States failed to take action against the assassins of Navy diver Robert Stethem, whose body was tossed onto the tarmac at the Beirut airport in 1985? American policymakers knew it was Hezbollah, and they knew how to make the party bleed by striking any number of targets in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley. And yet they did nothing.
It was because American officials did not want to challenge Hezbollah that they welcomed the analysis of Middle East experts who told them Hezbollah was nothing to worry about anyway. By integrating itself into Lebanon’s political system, said the experts, Hezbollah ceased to be a terrorist organization. Sure, up until 2000 it fought Israel in southern Lebanon, but that was as a resistance movement determined to compel the occupying force to withdraw. Yes, Hezbollah was affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran, but that doesn’t mean it does Iran’s bidding, assured the regional analysts. It has its own constituency in the Shia community, to whom it delivers social services, while respecting Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance.
The past decade has shown how ludicrous this “Lebanonization” thesis always was. Hezbollah never stopped its terrorist attacks. As recently as last July it blew up a bus of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Closer to home, it targeted its domestic rivals in spectacular operations, like the car bombing that killed former prime minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others on a Beirut street in 2005. In 2006, Hezbollah dragged the country into a war with Israel, incurring billions of dollars worth of damage. And in the fight for Qusayr, Hezbollah has shown that its supposed mission of “resistance” to Israel is just a politically convenient pose; it is in fact an armed wing of the Iranian regime and now ships its fighters off to Syria to kill Sunni Arabs at the behest of its masters in Tehran.
The State Department has condemned Hezbollah’s role in Syria’s war “in the strongest terms”—as if that matters. In fact, the administration should welcome Hezbollah’s deployment of forces as an opportunity to break its back. Hezbollah is unlikely to continue to absorb as many casualties as it did in Qusayr last week. But neither will it be able to recruit and replenish its fighting forces as readily as it did after its losses in the 2006 war with Israel. It’s estimated that Hezbollah lost as many as 600 fighters seven years ago, and many of their inexperienced replacements are among the fallen in Qusayr.
In defending Assad in Syria, Hezbollah has become vulnerable on its home front in Lebanon. There the party prepares for another round of hostilities with Israel and, perhaps more important, watches its back as other Lebanese communities sharpen their knives in anticipation of Hezbollah’s stumbling. With the group’s resources already stretched thin, the Obama administration should see this as an opportunity. A president who prides himself on personally picking drone targets and killing Osama bin Laden should have no problem settling an account long overdue. It’s time to rain some justice on Hezbollah.