U.S. Draws Down Embassies in Lebanon and Turkey

A Syria strike may yield widespread Hezbollah retribution, a retired official warns.

A riot policeman stands guard behind portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad during a pro-Syrian regime demonstration on Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, near the U.S. embassy in Aukar, Lebanon.

A riot policeman stands guard during a pro-Syrian regime demonstration Friday at the U.S. embassy in Aukar, Lebanon.

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The U.S. and Israel should brace for retribution from Hezbollah and other Islamic extremist groups if they proceed with military action against Syria, according to a former security official with experience in the region. And those strikes likely won't be limited to the Middle East.

"The moment we do anything in Syria -- Tomahawk missiles or a special operations team -- there is going to be blowback on U.S. diplomatic missions," says Fred Burton, a former Diplomatic Security special agent, who contributed to multiple investigations on terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies.

[READ: Obama to Make Public Case for Syria Tuesday]

Revenge attacks may not be limited to embassies and consulates, he warns, but also toward synagogues and other Jewish facilities worldwide. Burton helped investigate the suspected Hezbollah 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina and cites that as an example of the range and scope of the Lebanese militant political party. That attack was believed to be in response to the Israeli assassination of Hezbollah Secretary General Abbas al-Musawi.

 

The U.S. and the E.U. have designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The group has had a significant presence in the Lebanese parliament after first competing for elections in 1992.

Burton spoke with U.S. News shortly before the U.S. State Department announced Friday it was withdrawing non-essential employees from its embassy in Lebanon and a consulate in Turkey.

 

"Given the current tensions in the region, as well as potential threats to U.S. government facilities and personnel, we are taking steps out of an abundance of caution to protect our employees and families, and local employees and visitors to our facilities," said Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman.

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The U.S. had existing travel warnings for Lebanon and Southeastern Turkey -- its border with Syria.

"The potential in Lebanon for spontaneous upsurge in violence remains," one of the warnings states. "Lebanese government authorities are not able to guarantee protection for citizens or visitors to the country should violence erupt suddenly."

That second point is particularly important, as U.S. Diplomatic Security relies primarily on local forces to provide protection to its facilities. Security experts, including Burton, and critics in Congress point to that shortcoming in Libya as one of the causes behind the attack in Benghazi last year that killed four Americans.

"Hezbollah, as a result of whatever we may do in Syria, certainly has the reach, to strike all over the world," said Burton, who recently co-authored a new review on the Benghazi attacks titled "Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi.""You will see more American death, or Israelis killed, as a result of what we do in Syria," he says.

[READ: Rep. Grayson Says Syrian Intelligence Manipulated]

The State Department warning goes on to say access to borders, airports, roads and seaports in Lebanon can be interrupted with little or no warning. Public demonstrations can also occur spontaneously and can become violent.

Local disputes can quickly escalate to involve gunfire or other violence, it states.

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Corrected on : 09/07/13: A previous version of this story stated the embassy in Lebanon and consulate in Turkey had closed. A State Department official confirmed it had only withdrawn non-essential staff.