The Battle for Southern Syria Has Been Joined and a Regional Conflict May Just Be the Main Event

One shouldn't be surprised, looking back in a few months, to find further death and destruction in the region as a result of our collective inability to prevent yet one more aspect of the conflict in Syria from bursting forth.
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Beirut -- If reports in the Arabic media and now the English language media bear out in the coming period, an exceedingly dangerous new battle in the almost four-year-long Syria revolt/war is apparently now being joined.

According to several Lebanese daily newspapers, the combined military axis represented by the militant Lebanese party Hezbollah, the Syrian army under the control of President Bashar al-Assad together with Iranian soldiers and commanders is now engaged in a series of coordinated military maneuvers against what is perceived, at least here in Beirut, in Damascus and in Tehran, as an opposing axis of Syrian rebel groups (including some formerly and currently affiliated with the Free Syria Army), Al-Qaeda's franchise in Syria called the al-Nusra front, Jordanian intelligence elements and (indirectly) the Israeli army and intelligence services.

Of course, credible evidence for the activities of the former alliance on the ground in Syria has been longstanding, stretching back at least two years. Indeed only last month, several Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general were killed by an Israeli strike in Southern Syria near the Golan Heights that Israel has occupied since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

It seems likely that the figures who were killed were both surveying the ground for the expected offensive against the Syrian rebels that have been ascendant in the area over the past year, as well as, possibly, exploring military positions that could also be set up and used against Israel as both deterrence and as possible retribution should Israel continue in its repeated attacks against Syrian-Hezbollah facilities and personnel operating in both Syria and in Lebanon.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given its politically explosive nature, the opposing alliance has been much more difficult to understand and document. The main exhibit over the past few months has been a single, published UN report at the end of last year detailing increased Israeli-rebel contacts and coordination in and around the occupied Golan. Since Al-Qaeda's franchise, al-Nusra, is known to mostly control the area where the Israeli contacts are reported to have taken place, and since some Israeli attacks in the area have materially benefited Nusrah's advance against the Syrian army, it hasn't exactly been a tough sell in the region, at least, to argue that Israel is likely engaged in an effort to coordinate and support some of the most bitter (and well-equipped) opponents of Hezbollah, Iran and Syria in the hope of, quite possibly, staking out a "security zone" in Southern Syria (beyond the Occupied Golan) that would more effectively buffer it from its main foes.

Be that as it may, what we are now witnessing is an indication that the self-proclaimed "Resistance Axis" is apparently not waiting for a journalistic or official confirmation of the exact alliance that has been gathering in Southern Syria.

The Israeli strike in the area last month and Hezbollah's counter-strike in a piece of territory occupied by Israel near the Lebanese-Syrian border have apparently only quickened the pace of conclusions that had been brewing as open questions for months, if not longer.

The main thrust of the "new" thinking is simple: A long axis of open confrontation and violence, with uncertain rules and boundaries, has been opened for all concerned players along a line stretching from the Mediterranean to the northwestern tip of Jordan.

The core problem - and the great danger - we all face is that four years into the Syria conflict, a multi-sided battle for Southern Syria dramatically raises the likelihood of a far greater, regional confrontation; one which many analysts, on all sides, have been expecting since the inconclusive end of the July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Indeed, on top of all the reasons for another Lebanon war and for yet another ratcheting up of the violence in Syria, the area in and around the occupied Golan Heights are sharply drawn "red lines" for both the "Resistance Axis" and the Israelis. Neither can now afford the other side to maintain a "security belt" or a string of military positions since doing so opens up an array of military, political and diplomatic vulnerabilities and limitations that both sides seem to judge as intolerable.

Given this, and given the widening prospect of miscalculation, unintended consequences and even "false flag" operations from any interested party (and there are now possibly thousands of such parties in the imploding regional system), the U.S., Europe, nearby states and the world at large should move immediately to focus their energies and attention on this crucial, developing battlefield - one that has all the potential of plunging everyone into a far worse, far more intractable conflict, beyond even what is possible with the rise of the Islamic State.

Unfortunately, one of the only remaining ways of avoiding a further conflagration in the region is to end the overall conflict in Syria through a political settlement.

Even though a possible rapprochement between Iran and the U.S. could help in this regard, and even as international support (especially U.S. support) for a negotiated political settlement in Syria is reportedly growing, both of these supportive developments will take months, possibly years to ripen and finalize, if at all.

The reality then is that events on the ground are moving far quicker than the pace of diplomacy, which of course is often the case even in conflicts where the potential for great pain regionally and internationally is evident early on.

As a result, one shouldn't be surprised, looking back in a few months, to find further death and destruction in the region as a result of our collective inability to prevent yet one more aspect of the conflict in Syria from bursting forth.

In this particular case, however, with Israel more directly involved, one thing will be certain: Putting back together all of the broken pieces will be far more of a difficult, painful and expensive task than we have hitherto become accustomed.

Nicholas Noe is the Co-Founder of and the editor of "Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah" (Verso, 2007).