Possible US strike on Syria divides G20 – and prompts threats from foes

Iran weighed in again on a possible strike against the Assad regime over alleged chemical weapons use, saying the US will 'definitely suffer.'

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (l.) walks past President Barack Obama (c.) to join with other leaders for the photo at the G-20 summit at the Konstantin Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, Sept. 6, 2013.

In St. Petersburg, the US push for a possible punitive strike on Syria in response to the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons is deeply dividing Group of 20 members. But it is also prompting increasingly direct threats from US foes.

CNN reports that Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: "We believe that the Americans are committing a folly and mistake in Syria and will, accordingly, take the blow and definitely suffer," he said.

The message, aired on state-run Press TV, came as the US said it intercepted an order from Iran to militants in Iraq to attack the US embassy in response to an attack in Syria, according to The Wall Street Journal.

As the paper reports:

The State Department issued a new alert on Thursday warning against nonessential travel to Iraq and citing terrorist activity "at levels unseen since 2008." Earlier this year, an alert said that violence against Americans had decreased. That reassurance was dropped from the most recent alert.

The Iranian message, intercepted in recent days, came from Qasem Soleimani, the head of Revolutionary Guards' Qods Force, and went to Iranian-supported Shiite militia groups in Iraq, according to US officials.

In it, Mr. Soleimani said Shiite groups must be prepared to respond with force after a US strike on Syria.

It is not clear whether Mr. Khamenei's comments and the reported Iranian intercept are an indication of a change in tone by the Iranian government, which – at least in the offices of President Hassan Rohani – have been taking a less confrontational tone over Syria as of late. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that Mr. Rohani has noticeably avoided mention of any military support for Syria. And more broadly, the Iranian government's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has become somewhat muted.

[A] shift in tone from Tehran has become increasingly apparent in recent days, with public comments by Iranian officials and commentary in government-controlled newspapers suggesting that Tehran’s support for Assad may not be entirely unconditional. Iran’s state-run airwaves have lately been filled with programs reminding people that Iranians suffered chemical weapons attacks during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. ...

Domestic broadcasters’ support for Assad has become muffled, though Iran has joined other Syrian allies in suggesting that rebels, and not the Syrian government, may have carried out the alleged Aug. 21 chemical attack that killed more than 1,000 civilians.

Khamenei's comments came Thursday, the same day Hezbollah issued its first statement on the growing hostility between the West and the Assad regime. It called any military strike "a form of direct and organized terrorism," according to CNN. "These threats fail to conceal the true objectives of this strike aimed at mobilizing Israeli [strength] in the region in an attempt to impose the Western colonial grip," Hezbollah alleged in the statement.

Doubts about US actions are rooted in uncertainty about how the region would be destabilized by a military intervention.

An opinion piece in The Herald of Scotland sums up three key questions today:

There is no getting away from the fact that should US military intervention commence and air strikes begin, the potential for some kind of
regional blowback - as the intelligence community calls the unintended consequences of any military operation - would be profound indeed.

With respect to this, it is worth pausing to consider three players beyond Syria itself. What, for example, will be the response of Hezbollah, the Shi'a Islamic militant group and political party based in Lebanon that has been a key battlefield ally to the Syrian Alawite regime?

What, too, will Hezbollah's benefactor Iran do to support its proxy in the region? That in turn brings us to Israel, the one nation both Hezbollah and Iran would like nothing more than to see embroiled in a wider Middle East showdown.

Those queries are growing louder as President Barack Obama seeks to get the international community behind a strike on Syria during the last day of the G20. Reporters from NBC in St. Petersburg report that the US hopes to, on the sidelines of the summit, get at least 10 members to align with its position:

Of the 20 governmental bodies that make up the G-20, the White House believes it has eight leaders on its side. Some are obvious like Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK, who was unable to push his parliament into using force against Syria, but has been outspoken about the need to hold Syria accountable. It is also expected that the leaders of Australia, Canada, France, South Korea, and Turkey would, at the very least, rhetorically support a strike on the Syrian regime.

But the BBC reports that the US faces an uphill battle, especially from Russia, the G20 host. As reporter Steve Rosenberg writes: "With the US looking increasingly isolated over Syria, Vladimir Putin will be satisfied with the way the G20 is going. He has made no secret of his opposition to US military intervention. From what world leaders have said over the last 24 hours, he will assume Moscow's message has been getting through. From China to the EU to the Vatican, the message is clear: there can be no military solution to the Syrian conflict."

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