- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2013

Syria’s civil war turned into a regional conflict when Israeli warplanes bombed a Syrian military base over the weekend to stop weapons from going to Lebanese terrorists, expanding the warring factions and changing “the rules of the game,” as one analyst said.

The 2-year-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad remains a sectarian war at its core, but the countries supporting one side or the other now are engaged in a fight for dominance.

Mr. Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, has been bolstered by support from Iran’s security and intelligence services, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi Shiite militants.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming the opposition Free Syrian Army, which is mostly composed of Syria’s Sunni majority.

“Iran’s involvement has contributed to a chain reaction in Syria, with Iran’s regional rivals, like Saudi Arabia, playing an increasingly active role,” said Daniel Byman, a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University. “In addition, the spiral of intervention has fostered a regionwide perception that this is a sectarian war rather than a straightforward struggle for freedom.”

Iranian support to the Assad regime is “deep, extensive, expensive, well-integrated and well-coordinated,” said Will Fulton, an analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

In an unprecedented move, Iran has deployed its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ground forces on training and advisory missions in Syria, said Mr. Fulton, co-author of a new report on Iran’s role in Syria with the Institute for the Study of War.

Iran’s interests inside Syria are also being furthered by Hezbollah, its Lebanese ally.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah for the first time last week confirmed that his fighters were aiding Mr. Assad’s forces in Syria.

Israel conducted airstrikes inside Syria over the weekend that reportedly targeted arms shipments bound for Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.

“These airstrikes are all about Hezbollah,” said Eyal Zisser, dean of the faculty of humanities at Tel Aviv University and a specialist on Syria and Lebanon.

“For 20 years [Israelis] did nothing about the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah because Syria was a strong state. Now it’s different, and we want to change the rules of the game.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi warned Monday that Israel is “playing with fire,” according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

The Israeli government has not confirmed involvement in the airstrikes. On Monday, it signaled a return to “business as usual,” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arriving in China on a scheduled visit.

The Syrian war has sucked in other regional players as well.

Iraqi Shiite militants in Syria have organized under the banner of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, which includes members of Hezbollah and Iraq-based Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah, according to the report by the Institute for the Study of War and the Critical Threats Project.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising against the Assad regime, according to the U.N. More than 1.1 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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