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Hezbollah mulling response to Syria strike

  • File - Hezbollah members parade during a ceremony in Beirut's southern suburbs, Monday, Nov. 12, 2012. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Hezbollah signaled Wednesday it might not stand idle if Syria is attacked by the United States and its Western allies over its alleged use of chemical weapons.

The remarks by Hezbollah’s caretaker Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan were the closest so far by a senior party official about the group’s readiness to retaliate for a possible massive U.S.-led military strike on Syria.

“We should deal seriously with the U.S. decision to attack Syria. Hezbollah is following up and watching the situation and will do what is appropriate at the appropriate time,” Hajj Hasan told Al-Mayadeen TV station.

He did not elaborate on how Hezbollah, which has sent fighters to help forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in the war against armed rebels seeking to topple the regime, would react in the event of a large-scale assault on Syria.

“Any [Western] aggression on Syria is doomed to failure,” Hajj Hasan said.

He added that the planned attack on Syria was aimed at “weakening the Syrian Army,” which has been making military achievements recently against opposition groups backed by Western and Arab Gulf countries.

Hajj Hasan’s remarks come as the United States and its Western allies laid the groundwork for a possible punitive military strike against Syria amid warnings by Russia and Iran, Damascus’ key allies, of the dire consequences of such an attack.

A week after the purported chemical attack on rebel-held areas outside Damascus, momentum has been building among Western powers for a possible strike against the Assad regime.

The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons against civilians. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem challenged Washington Tuesday to present proof backing its accusations that the Assad regime was responsible for the alleged chemical attack last week that killed hundreds of civilians in eastern Ghouta outside Damascus.

Political analysts and a senior source close to Hezbollah expected the group to respond only in the event of a massive strike on Syria aimed at changing the balance of power in the strife-torn country by firing rockets into Israel.

Fears of fallout from any Western attack on Syria on Lebanon’s security and stability, already shaken by the war in Syria, and the specter of a new wave of car bombings, have sparked calls from leaders of both sides of the political divide for national unity and a new Cabinet to confront security challenges.

President Michel Sleiman renewed his call to distance Lebanon from regional conflicts in light of rising tensions in the country following a spate of security incidents, including deadly car bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs and the northern city of Tripoli.

Sleiman urged all political parties to respect the disassociation policy based on the “Baabda Declaration” and put national interests above all others in order to preserve security, stability and protect civil peace, according to a statement read by caretaker Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour after meeting the president at Baabda Palace.

The “Baabda Declaration,” reached between rival March 8 and March 14 leaders in 2012, calls for “keeping Lebanon away from the policy of regional and international conflicts and sparing it the negative repercussions of regional tensions and crises.”

Sleiman and March 14 leaders have accused Hezbollah of violating the “Baabda Declaration” with its military intervention in Syria.

In incidents related to the Syrian conflict, two car bombs exploded in Tripoli last Friday outside two mosques, killing at least 47 people and wounding more than 500.The attack came eight days after a similar car bombing ripped through the Hezbollah-controlled Beirut suburb of Ruwaiss, killing 30 people and wounding at least 300. On July 9, a car bomb exploded in nearby Bir al-Abed, wounding over 50 people.

Speaker Nabih Berri reiterated his demand for the formation a national unity government to meet security challenges, while voicing bitterness over Arab stances on a possible Western strike on Syria.

“An all-embracing national unity Cabinet should be formed now more than ever because it has become a necessity in these exceptional circumstances,” MPs quoted Berri as saying during his weekly meeting with lawmakers at his residence in Ain al-Tineh.

“I am bitter over the Arab stance toward developments in Syria and if a possible strike against Syria is confirmed,” he said.

The Arab League Tuesday slammed Assad for the gas attack, in what diplomatic sources interpreted as political cover for any possible military strike by Western states. Saudi Arabia also called on the international community to take a “decisive and serious” stance against Damascus.

Former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, head of the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc, called for national unity and for distancing Lebanon from the repercussions of regional conflicts.

“The country and the region, particularly Syria, are in these hours going through a dangerous stage as storms and hurricanes are gathering on the horizon,” Siniora said, addressing the Lebanese people, referring to a potential Western attack on Syria.

“This is a time for unity and not for separation. This is a time for solidarity and not for disunity ... This is a time for wisdom and not for insanity and recklessness,” he said. “The Lebanese should work together to keep Lebanon away from conflicts in the region and spare it the repercussions from the coming dangers and evils.”

The car bomb attacks have sparked calls from Sleiman as well as religious leaders for the formation of a new government comprising all the political parties to face security challenges and prevent the country’s drift toward sectarian strife.

Sleiman appealed to political leaders to safeguard Lebanon by forming an all-embracing government, return to National Dialogue and disassociate the country from regional conflicts.

But the Future bloc and its March 14 allies are still studying Sleiman’s proposal for a Cabinet that would include all major political parties, including Hezbollah.

“We have welcomed the president’s initiative, but the all-embracing government proposal is still being examined with our allies,” Future MP Ammar Houri told The Daily Star. The March 14 coalition has supported the formation of a neutral, nonpartisan government, rejecting Hezbollah’s participation in the Cabinet before it withdraws its fighters from Syria.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 29, 2013, on page 1.
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