BEIRUT — The leader of the powerful Lebanese militant group Hezbollah on Saturday decisively committed his followers to an all-out battle in Syria to salvage the rule of President Bashar Assad, saying the organization founded to defend Lebanon and fight Israel was entering “a completely new phase,” sending its troops abroad to protect its interests.
“It is our battle, and we are up to it,” the leader, Hassan Nasrallah, declared, in his most direct embrace yet of a fight in Syria that Hezbollah can no longer hide now that dozens of its fighters have fallen in and around the strategic Syrian town of Qusair. Outgunned Syrian rebels have held on for a week there against a frontal assault by Hezbollah and Syrian forces.
The speech signaled a significant escalation in Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria, enmeshing the group more deeply in the war across the border. It could put new pressure on the Obama administration and on Europe, where more countries have begun pushing to list the group as a terrorist organization as the United States does. It was also likely to further inflame tensions in Lebanon, where Syria’s civil war has spilled over into sectarian violence.
Nasrallah, a shrewd political operator, appears to be calculating that the West, thrown off balance by the rise of jihadist factions among the Syrian rebels, will not jump in. His confidence showed that he had little fear of the U.S. policy of calling for a political solution while allowing Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm the rebels has, for now at least, failed. Instead, Assad can head into negotiations planned for next month with a stronger hand while the Syrian opposition is as divided and disorganized as ever.
“They wouldn’t do this if they thought there was going to be some kind of reaction,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They’re basically calling Obama’s bluff.”
Ali Rizk, the Beirut bureau chief for PressTV, the satellite channel of Hezbollah’s patron Iran, who also acts as Nasrallah’s English interpreter, said the leader — who had long equivocated about the depth of the group’s involvement — had revealed that “Hezbollah is in it militarily and is in it very deeply.” Rizk, who speaks often to Hezbollah officials, said Nasrallah was “convinced that the outside powers aren’t going to do anything.”