DEAD SEA, Jordan — Lebanon’s Hezbollah has 5,000 troops fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria, and another 5,000 are getting ready to join them, a World Economic Forum gathering heard Sunday.
Salman Shaikh, director of the Doha Center of the Brookings Institution think tank, said there were also 1,500-2,000 fighters from Iraq in the battlegrounds of Syria. He said that not only was Syria “on the abyss,” but that after two years of civil war, there was growing danger that the fighting could draw in “the entire region.”
Shaikh cited the Hezbollah figures a day after the Shiite group’s leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah admitted for the first time that his group had deployed fighters to Syria, saying his group would not stand idly by while its chief ally is under attack.
Shaikh said Israel “should do its best to stay out of the conflict.” But “it should also give up on the old paradigm of ‘better the devil you know.’” He said his fear was that “Israel will be increasingly drawn in” — in part because of ongoing Russian weapons supplies to Syria, and because the UN peacekeeping forces in Syria and Lebanon were coming under increasing strain.
Shaikh said that the US hesitation over intervention in Syria derived in part from the legacy of the “illegal war” in Iraq. President Barack Obama, he said, “doesn’t want to get involved in the complexity of the Syrian crisis.” He said that hesitancy was likely to persist, though it could be affected by the use of chemical weapons and the degree of extremist involvement in the fighting.
But only a fool would believe that the latest attempts at negotiation were going to make a difference, he said. The Assad regime does not take the so-called Geneva process seriously, he said. Instead, it is looking ahead to elections next year, and has already “calculated” the result — a victory for Assad with 70-75 percent of the vote.
The killing of civilians in Syria “is going to on for a very long time,” he said. “Many more are going to die in the months and possibly years ahead.”
At the same panel, Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, said the regime was responsible for the overwhelming majority of human rights abuses since the fighting broke out. She said HRW had recently found torture devices used by the regime — included devices used “to stretch people to death.” HRW had not found a basis for allegations of widespread rape, she said.
The gathering was told that there are currently some 1.5 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries — and that this number would likely double by the year’s end.
More than 70,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011 and escalated into a civil war. The Syrian government and Hezbollah deny there is an uprising in Syria, portraying the war as a foreign-backed conspiracy driven by Israel, the US and its Gulf Arab allies.