x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Hizbollah's fight in Syria could destroy both

The Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is taking a big gamble by becoming involved in the Syrian civil war.

Hizbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, appears to have put all his eggs in the basket of the Syrian regime. In a televised speech on Saturday, the reclusive leader vowed to fight alongside Bashar Al Assad to the bitter end - wherever that end may lead.

No doubt these are explosive vows in a conflict that is quickly spiralling into a regional nightmare. Hizbollah's involvement in the Syrian civil war was already a poorly kept secret; coffins draped in the party's flag have been photographed arriving from the Syrian front for months. But Nasrallah's statements will not make the situation any more stable.

And yet, Hizbollah's bluster is just one of the reasons why this crisis continues to ravage Syria, to the tune of 94,000 dead and counting.

On the very day the Lebanese militia chief was declaring his support for Mr Al Assad's forces, those charged with bringing the regime to its knees were holed up in an Istanbul conference room, unable to even agree on a starting point. It was a shameful display of ineptitude.

For months the Syrian opposition has been divided on issues of leadership, structure, foreign support and how to create a more representative body. They are worthy questions but the timing couldn't have been worse. As the US and Russia continued to lobby for a peace conference in Syria, and Syrian leaders said they agreed "in principle" to attend, the one outlier was the National Coalition, once Syrians' only hope. There are serious doubts now as to whether the opposition will even be in Geneva when the talks commence.

Hizbollah's involvement in this war is a gamble - for the organisation, for Lebanon, for Iran and for Syria. But at the moment it seems to be a gamble outside forces are unwilling or unable to challenge. Given that foreign military intervention is unlikely, the endgame for the Syrian conflict now seems more elusive than it did just a few weeks ago.

If there is one place to look for an opening it is the planned gathering in Geneva. Opposition leaders still have time to join those talks. They must agree without delay. Only with a unified, viable opposition, will the US-Russian effort be worthwhile.

The regime's participation is also critical; the first order of business must be ending the carnage, but that must be followed by talks on what the post-Assad era might look like.

Hizbollah's now-open support for the Assad regime can be read two ways: either the sign of a desperate regime with few friends playing a final card, or the beginning of a war that will engulf the entire region.

Every Syrian will hope it's the former.