Strikes On Syria Could Send Ripple Effects Across Region

Renee Montagne talks to Middle East Institute scholar Randa Slim about the regional implications of a U.S. military strike in Syria.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There is the economy, and there is the other big story on people's minds this week - the proposed strike on Syria. We've been following efforts by President Obama to win support for military action against the Assad regime and in the next few minutes, we're going to look into the possible reactions to such a missile strike from Syria's neighbors in the Middle East. This morning, the State Department announced it was already pulling back non-essential staff from U.S. embassies in Lebanon and Turkey.

And for more, we turn to Randa Slim. She is a scholar at the Middle East Institute, and she's currently writing a book on the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Good morning.

RANDA SLIM: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, the Assad regime has received some crucial help in fighting the rebels from Hezbollah fighters who are coming over the border from Lebanon. Like Syria, Hezbollah is closely allied with Iran. Talk to us about Iran and Hezbollah and how those two might react to a U.S. strike.

SLIM: We have to take into consideration that both Iran and Hezbollah have an interest in the survival of the Syrian regime. So the response that the Iranians and Hezbollah might engage in retaliation to the air strike will be measured in a way not to provoke a wide-scale U.S. military reaction. And their response, if it's going to happen, and that is a big if here, it's likely to be measured.

MONTAGNE: There are reports that the reaction might be specific - that is to say attacks, say, in Iraq on the American embassy there, or attacks on the American embassy in Beirut - say by Hezbollah. Do you think any of that is likely?

SLIM: Look, whatever Iran is going to do and however it's going to respond, it's going to do it via proxies, be it Iraqi Shiite militias, be it Hezbollah, or be it other Iranian proxies, whether it in Yemen or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, in order for the Iranian regime to maintain an element of plausible deniability. In terms of Hezbollah, it has also to think about what will be the repercussions back home in Lebanon.

Even within Hezbollah Shiite base, there is not an extensive and wide support for Hezbollah's deeper involvement in the Syrian conflict, and so they are not likely to engage in the kind of reaction that will provoke a wider American strike against the Syrian assets, against Hezbollah in Lebanon, or even provoke Israeli response against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

MONTAGNE: There's a school of thought that the U.S. action against Syria's chemical weapons beyond this one objective is also a way of sending a message to Iran, saying that the U.S. is ready to act against any Iranian efforts to build nuclear weapons. Is that a message Iran will receive?

SLIM: I think Iran will read indecisiveness on the part of the American administration if, let's say, eventually the strike were not to take place, as an indication of indecisiveness in the future in reaction to its own nuclear program, yes.

MONTAGNE: You've spent significant time in the Middle East. What is the perception there of the U.S.?

SLIM: Right now there is a wait and see attitude in the Middle East. There is fear. There is concerns. And we have to understand that throughout the Middle East there are two feelings that are motivating Arab publics. On the one hand, there is definitely no love lost for the Assad regime and for the atrocity he has committed against the Syrian people.

But on the other hand, you have to understand that the Arab publics are haunted by Iraq and what happened as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and they are afraid that there will be another Iraq-like scenario in Syria as a result of the strike - civil war, chaos, in yet another Arab country. There's also another aspect that's motivating the publics and that is that what the Arab Spring was all about was dignity and freedom and social justice.

But it's also about Arabs saying we want to be masters of our fate. We don't want foreign interventions in our part of the world, and Syrians and Arab people look at this as another war by another foreign force in their own backyards and in their own lands.

MONTAGNE: Randa Slim is a fellow at the New American Foundation and is currently writing a book on the militant group Hezbollah. Thanks very much for joining us.

SLIM: Thank you, Renee.

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