x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Squeeze Hizbollah to stabilise Syria

An emboldened Hizbollah, perhaps backed by Iran, could take the Syrian crisis to a whole new level.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's cloistered leader, has drawn a line in the sand that threatens to escalate the Syrian conflict. In a televised speech on Tuesday, Nasrallah confirmed for the first time that his group's fighters are helping Bashar Al Assad survive.

The pledge of support for the Assad regime is confirmation of a poorly kept secret. Hizbollah's military involvement in the Syrian conflict is already well documented by the steady flow of young fighters returning to southern Lebanon in coffins. But Nasrallah's message was meant more as a warning to foreign powers - that outside involvement in Syria's conflict will have broader implications.

Hyperbole or not, it's a threat that must not go unchallenged.

A year ago Nasrallah's words may have been meaningless. Opposition fighters appeared strong, unified and confident of a swift victory. But today, as new evidence of potential chemical weapons use mounts and the opposition stumble, it seems only a matter of time before outside forces take a more active role. President Obama has said that if concrete evidence of chemical weapons emerges - something some intelligence analysts say already exists - it would represent a "game changer" forcing the US to "rethink the range of options".

There already is a range of options at the international communities' disposal. As the UAE and UK foreign ministers wrote on these pages yesterday, support of moderates inside Syria, and opposition leaders outside the country, must continue.

But there are other tools that could control the crisis and reduce the chances of a regional spillover. One includes targeting Hizbollah with hefty economic sanctions.

The US has long labelled Hizbollah a terrorist entity, but not so most of Europe. In Germany alone, about 950 members are doing business in the country, based on records by German intelligence. Washington has urged the EU to classify the group as a terrorist organisation, but European leaders have expressed concerns over the possible consequences.

The consequences of not challenging Hizbollah's apparent escalation would be far greater. If foreign forces are to take a more active role in Syria, an emboldened Hizbollah, backed by Iran and possibly even Russia, could turn Syria's civil war into the region's nightmare.