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Syria to ignite renewed Cold War – or worse?

WASHINGTON – The United States is in the unenviable position of siding with an opposition that increasingly is becoming impregnated with al-Qaida and Salafists backed by Saudi Arabia to oust the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

However, there doesn’t appear to be an end game in a U.S. policy that geo-strategically could alter the balance of power from the Middle East to Central Asia, with the prospect of creating a potential new Cold War confrontation with Russia and China.

This is the outlook based on a series of interviews I did in the last several weeks in Lebanon with senior members of Hezbollah and Shiites affiliated with the group, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.

Given U.S. backing of a Syrian opposition increasingly being infiltrated with al-Qaida and Salafists, the United States is “backing the wrong horse – Saudi Arabia – and instead should consider working with Hezbollah and Iran to prevent a shift in the balance of power that won’t benefit the U.S.,” one senior Hezbollah member told me.

Of course, Hezbollah and Iran hardly offer an unbiased viewpoint. It clearly represents their own self-interests. However, what they say is worth considering by both the U.S. and Israel given the significant risk that the power vacuum left by the departure of Assad could produce a regime far more destabilizing and catastrophic for the region’s Christians and those of other minority faiths.

“There are at least 50,000 Salafists along with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria,” another Hezbollah source said. In addition, the Syrian opposition is smuggling arms and personnel into Syria through northern Lebanon, which has pitted Hezbollah against a concentration of the Syrian Free Army and other Salafists there.

There currently is no contact between Hezbollah and the U.S., but it “would have no problem” with such contact, I was told.

“I am also 100 percent sure Khamenei will talk to the Americans, even though he doesn’t trust them,” one source said, referring to Iranian Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei.

The United States and Israel regard Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. However, the “Party of God” regards itself as loyal to the resistance against any attack on Lebanon.

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These Hezbollah sources believe the U.S. has been forced to serve the agenda of an increasingly aggressive Saudi Arabian foreign policy to spread the very conservative but radical Sunni form of Islam called Wahhabism and Salafism to which al-Qaida belongs.

They say it isn’t in the nature of the Shia to show aggression, as they claim the Saudis have demonstrated in financing and backing the spread of Salafism and al-Qaida from the Middle East, North Africa to Central Asia.

In an interview with Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abd Alkarim, he said he doesn’t understand U.S. opposition to Syria since the al-Assad regime doesn’t back Islamic extremists as Saudi Arabia does. He also pointed out that Syria has a history of protecting other minorities, including Christians, Druze, Alawites, Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.

With al-Assad’s ouster, independent human-rights groups in the region said these minorities, especially Christians, would be forced out of Syria, creating a refugee overflow of catastrophic proportions for the entire region.

Nevertheless, Syria is the latest in a series of proxy wars between Shiite Iran, which seeks to extend its influence among the Arab countries, and Sunni Saudi Arabia, which has sent troops into Bahrain, is waging a battle in neighboring Yemen against a Shiite minority and is aiding Sunnis against Iraq’s Shiite government.

Hezbollah sources also point to the recent capture of Saudi intelligence agents in Syria and in the northern part of Lebanon, a Salafist stronghold.

“The devil behind all this is Bandar,” another Hezbollah source said, referring to Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was the Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005.

Today, Bandar is secretary general of the Saudi National Security Council and in July was appointed to the additional position of director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency.

These Hezbollah sources point out that the U.S. has more in common with Iran than with Saudi Arabia. While Iran doesn’t begin to match America’s form of democracy, these sources point out that Iran holds elections and has a parliament.

Saudi Arabia, however, is a monarchy that is totalitarian, intolerant of opposition and doesn’t hold elections or give its citizens an ability to change the leadership in power. This view has been recently buttressed by increasing demonstrations by Shiites not only in the Saudi kingdom’s eastern province but now in the country’s capital, Riyadh.

Those demonstrations have been met with brutal force. The U.S. has been silent on Saudi methods of quelling dissent, while bitterly criticized how Iran treated demonstrators in 2009 and is doing the same for Syria’s treatment of its opposition.

With Israel’s fixation on wanting to bomb Iran because of the Islamic republic’s ongoing nuclear development program, Hezbollah sources say the Jewish state should not be too eager to see al-Assad ousted given the potential of a Salafist takeover next door.

“Shiites believe Israel in some way is a blessing because it has contained the Salafists,” one source close to Hezbollah said.

Russia and China, meantime, are backing Syria’s al-Assad. Russia also has an important intelligence base at the Syrian port of Tartus. Moscow and Beijing see the Islamic republic and its alliance with the al-Assad regime as a geo-strategic bulwark to the spread of Salafism into Russia’s North Caucasus region and in China where the Uighurs want to turn its western-most Xinjiang province into a separate Islamic caliphate. As a consequence, neither country trusts Saudi Arabia because of its backing of the Salafists.

Unless the U.S. reassesses its current role to oust al-Assad, its efforts not only could throw the entire region from the Middle East to Central Asia into turmoil but also may set the stage for a disastrous confrontation with Russia and China.

Read F. Michael Maloof’s report, “Turkey on pins and needles about Syrian crisis.”