With the White House closer to launching a surgical military strike on Syria, questions swirl over the extent to which such an attack could trigger a wave of terrorism directed at the U.S. and Israel.
Some analysts say that Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia fighting in support of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, likely would be inspired to ramp up operations in Iran’s “shadow war” with the U.S. and its allies.
Tensions between the West and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program have fueled the protracted and secretive war — a tit-for-tat exchange marked most often by operations and attacks carried out from the Middle East to Eastern Europe and Asia by Hezbollah and Israel’s lead intelligence agency, the Mossad.
“These are groups that have long memories,” Matthew Levitt, who heads the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Monday.
“I think that the type of asymmetric activities that we’ve been seeing already in the context of the shadow war over Iran’s nuclear program would continue with [an American military strike in Syria] serving as yet another factor motivating Hezbollah.”
Iran’s government, which most in the U.S. intelligence community think exerts heavy influence over the activities of Hezbollah, sought Monday to downplay the likelihood of a U.S. strike. But some officials in Tehran said that if a strike occurs, Israel would be targeted in response.
The Associated Press quoted Hossein Sheikholeslam, a member of Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly, as saying that “the Zionist regime” — a reference to Israel — “will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria.”
The remark seemed to dovetail with what has for months been a claim by some lawmakers in Washington — Republican and Democrat — that Iran’s proxy presence in the Syrian war presents all the more reason for the Obama administration to get the U.S. military more deeply involved.
“Addressing the crisis in Syria at this stage will be extremely difficult, but every day that Assad remains in power helps Iran and Hezbollah and threatens stability across the region,” Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat, said Monday. “Iran and terrorist organizations, like Hezbollah, are plotting against the United States and its allies every day.”
Some Middle East analysts, meanwhile, said a U.S. strike likely would inspire the cadre of military and intelligence officials running Syria to commission their own terrorist activities with the goal of disrupting the existing U.S. military presence in the region and deepening instability surrounding Israel.
Joshua Landis, who heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, suggested that the Assad government in Syria already has backed terrorist activities in Lebanon.
“Assad is not powerless,” Mr. Landis said. “We just saw car bombs go off in Tripoli that killed many Sunni Muslims. So he can do things like that to destabilize things and inflame sectarian tensions in Lebanon.”
“The reaction of the Assad regime will depend on how hard the strike is,” said Mr. Landis, who added that the Assad government might respond by hiring Palestinian groups to target U.S. military officials believed to be in Jordan.
Citing rumors that American special forces officers are presently “camped out” at hotels in Jordan’s capital of Amman, Mr. Landis said the Assad government might aim to commission terrorists to try and “blow up a hotel” in the city.
Away from the region, there were signs Monday that Mr. Assad continues to enjoy rhetorical support but likely would struggle to draw another international power into the conflict in the event of an American military strike.