Russia is using the threat to deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems (similar to the U.S. Patriot) to Syria to get the West to back away from openly supporting the Syrian rebels. This is not working, nor are any of the other Russian efforts to support the Assad government. Meanwhile, Israel is determined to prevent the S-300s from becoming operational if they do arrive. The S-300s are a threat to Israeli aircraft and Israel will continue its air raids in Syria to stop any new weapons from getting to Lebanon and Hezbollah and to halt activation of the S-300. If the S-300 did show up in Syria (or Lebanon) Israel would probably attack it right away, before these systems could become operational. If Syria wanted to get the S-300s operational quickly they would need the help of the Russians, who would probably become casualties from the Israeli air attacks. The Russians might risk it because they have seen their weapons used on the losing (Arab) side in the Middle East for over four decades. Sure would be nice to turn this around. An attempt at this would tempt Russia to introduce more than a few troops and technicians to help activate the S-300 systems. Even then, the Russians would be up against more experienced and determined troops and risking another embarrassing defeat. This game of bluff has been played out in private by Russian and Israeli diplomats for years. The three Israeli air raids on Russian weapons in Syria this year were the Israeli response to Russians flying in more missiles (anti-ship and less capable anti-aircraft systems). The Russians keep changing their minds on the S-300s, which, if operational, can detect and attack aircraft 200 kilometers away, deep inside Israel. Against this threat Israel has electronic protection on its warplanes, but these defenses are not perfect and commercial aircraft are unprotected. In short, Israel cannot afford to allow S-300s into the region, not with terrorist groups like Hezbollah or al Qaeda standing by to get their hands on these missile systems. The Russians could have delivered the S-300s three years ago, when they were ordered, but have not. The delay is all about the Russians understanding the Israeli situation and not wanting to trigger a response that would hurt Russia. The continued threats to deliver S-300s is, however, much less risky.
Russian diplomats believe they have a chance to make a deal with the rebels to keep the Assads in power. This all depends on the rebels continuing to be divided and uncooperative with each other. There are no problems with the Assads remaining united. The core Assad supporters, about a quarter of the population (Alawites, other minorities and the many families whose businesses have benefitted from Assad support for decades) stand to lose everything (or mostly everything) if the Assads are driven out. Some have accepted their fate and fled, but most are willing to fight on as long as there is a chance of victory. Russia and Iran are willing to put up a lot of money and such to help the Assads. Russia is willing to risk its diplomatic and military reputation in this effort and Iran is spending billions of dollars and ordering its Lebanese Hezbollah ally to send thousands of gunmen to help the Assads. Along with the soldiers and militias loyal to the Assads, this might be enough to defeat the various rebel factions one at a time. It is possible, but risky. So far the Assad supporters have been willing to give it a try. But if there are not some victories over the rebels in the next month or so, more Assad supporters are going to cut and run. That means you save your lives and some of your assets rather than risk getting caught in Syria by the victorious rebels and massacred. Russia is trying to arrange peace talks with the rebels, in part to see if getting the Assads out, but not the Assad supporters, is viable. This is a tricky subject to even bring up, as it means supporting a coup by some Assad supporters to remove the Assad clan from power and accept a real democracy. Some Assad supporters would support that, but many others are not sure the rebels can be trusted to not go for revenge later.
At the moment Hezbollah is heavily engaged in trying to take a border town (Qusair, 10 kilometers from the Lebanese border) from the rebels. This battle has been going on since May 18th, with the Assad forces making progress but unable to take the entire town. The rebels are bringing up reinforcements and the battle appears likely to drag on. This is not good for the Assads or Hezbollah. There are secular and Islamic radical rebels defending the town, and that means the Assad soldiers and their Hezbollah allies are facing some fanatic opponents. Thus the first lesson from this battle is that the Assad/Hezbollah alliance cannot blitz (hit hard, demoralize, and roll over) the rebels, at least if the defenders have some of these fanatics among them. Most of those involved at the moment appear to be Hezbollah and rebel, with Syrian army infantry largely withdrawn. Syrian army artillery and air power are still present, mostly killing civilians (there are over 20,000 of them still in the town). There have been several thousand casualties so far, including fifty or so Hezbollah men.
Undeterred, the Assads are reinforcing their forces in the north in order to counterattack the rebels who have taken most of Aleppo. Hezbollah is less likely to be a factor here, as the Hezbollah forces would have to travel through some rebel held territory to reach the Aleppo area. Hezbollah operations in Syria have caused a negative reaction in Lebanon, where the non-Shia majority (which tends to be anti-Syria and anti-Iran) and even some Shia groups are threatening another civil war to bring Hezbollah to heel. Anti-Hezbollah forces have been more active inside Lebanon and more violence is threatened. Since the 1980s, Hezbollah has largely used bluff and threats of another civil war to force the non-Shia (mostly Christian) majority to back down and let the Iran-backed Hezbollah have its way. Billions in Iranian aid was spent to hire a lot of Shia and improve the lives of Shia supporters. A lot of this loyalty will go away if a lot of Hezbollah fighters are killed in Syria. Most Lebanese, including a lot of Hezbollah supporters, are hostile towards Syria (which considers Lebanon part of historic “Greater Syria”) and are not comfortable about supporting any faction in the current civil war there. Whoever wins will still have a hostile attitude towards Syria.
The Syrian rebels continue to have leadership problems. The basic problem is the different goals of the nationalist and Islamic radical groups. The nationalists (political and tribal groups, along with moderate Islamic groups like the Moslem Brotherhood) want a democratic Syria while the Islamic radicals (al Qaeda and the like) want a religious dictatorship and strict lifestyle rules. This is unpopular with most Syrians, but the Islamic radical militias contain the most radical fighters. Islamic terrorist fighters are a minority among the rebels and many of them are foreigners.
Russia is trying to organize a peace conference and the rebels are having a difficult time putting together a united delegation. None of the nations supporting the rebels will tolerate (at least officially) the Islamic terrorists among the rebels, but you can’t have a true “rebel delegation” without some Islamic radical members.
May 28, 2013: The Syrian rebel leader threatened Hezbollah with more violence inside Lebanon if Hezbollah did not withdraw its forces from Syria. This is not a new threat, and Lebanese supporters of the Syrian rebels (mainly Sunnis) have been fighting Hezbollah gunmen in Lebanon for over a year. This violence has, so far, been small scale (more brawls than battles). If it escalates Hezbollah could find itself with a two front war. When 2,000 Hezbollah gunmen entered Syria earlier this month they said they were there to defend 17 villages just across the border that contained a lot of Lebanese Shia. Hezbollah has since said it is doing more than that and is at war with the Syrian rebels.
May 27, 2013: The EU (European Union) agreed to continue economic sanctions against the Assads, while dropping an arms embargo against the Syrian rebels. This move made the Assads, Russia, and Iran very mad. The EU arms embargo ends on June 1st, but the rebels are already getting a lot of weapons from their Arab supporters (the oil-rich Gulf states). What the rebels want from the EU and NATO is air support or more modern portable anti-aircraft missiles (that could bring down a lot more Assad helicopters and warplanes).
May 26, 2013: Outside the capital a car bomb went off, killing six Assad supporters.
In Lebanon two rockets hit a Hezbollah neighborhood in Beirut, the first bit of anti-Hezbollah violence there in a long time.
May 25, 2013: Iraq moved some 20,000 soldiers to the 600 kilometer long Syrian border and began attacking Sunni terrorists and blocking their movement across the border. The main objective of this operation is to halt support for Syrian rebels from Iraqi Sunni and to keep the road to Syria open for Iranian supply convoys (for Syrian government forces and pro-government militias). The Iraqi troops are attacking known Sunni terrorist and smuggler bases along the border.
In Lebanon the leader of Hezbollah made a televised speech in which he admitted that Hezbollah was at war with the Syrian rebels and would continue that fight until the rebels were defeated.
May 24, 2013: The Syrian rebels said they would attend the upcoming Russian sponsored peace conference only if the Assads agreed to quit the government at the end of the conference. The Assads have already said they would not voluntarily give up power.
In northern Lebanon (Tripoli) fighting between backers of the Syrian rebels and the Assads finally tapered off after five days. In that time at least 24 have died and over 200 were wounded. The Lebanese army has been unable to shut down all this violence, which has been going on for over a year.
May 22, 2013: The head of the Israeli Air Force openly warned that Israel could go to war over Syria on very short notice. If Israel determined that something was happening in Syria that was a serious threat to Israel (like the arrival of S-300 missile systems from Russia or more attacks across the Israeli border) Israel would respond quickly and forcefully.
May 21, 2013: In north Lebanon eleven were wounded when rockets were fired at funerals for two Hezbollah men killed in Syria.