Where Russian and Iranian aircraft carriers clash
The claim came hot on the heels of the Sochi meeting, in which Russian President Vladimir Putin officially asserted his control over the Syrian dossier, at least as far as one side of that tragedy is concerned. Did the mullahs want to contest Putin’s role as “savior of Syria” by advancing an even bigger claim on behalf of Soleimani?
It is almost certain that regardless of what happens next in Syria, Tehran is unlikely to grab the leading role in shaping that nation’s future. Besides Russia, there are several other major players in Syria who will not welcome a takeover bid from Tehran, so there is no chance of a Soleimani statue in Damascus anytime soon.
The same can be said about Baghdad, where Tehran is suffering from the loss of some of its staunchest allies. Many Iraqi Shiites are beginning to feel confident enough to reject Iranian tutelage.
Keeping Iran far from Lebanon and, through the Golan Heights, also away from Israel is an essential condition for US endorsement of Putin’s Syria plan.
As for Iraqi Kurds, only the remnants of the Talabani faction still look to Tehran for guidance and support. Iran’s bizarre decision to join Turkey in threatening the use of force over the abortive secession referendum has torn the mask of “friendship for the Kurds” that the mullahs had worn for decades.
That leaves Beirut, where Soleimani’s Hezbollah gunmen may still look able to plant his statue. But even that is now open to question as dark clouds gather on the horizon. Having illegally extended its term, Parliament is still tempted by the idea of prolonging its own life yet again. That would mean the continuation of a presidency and premiership on the basis of decisions by a Parliament that lost its legitimacy years ago.
Elected on the basis of quotas for Lebanon’s 18 religious communities, the self-perpetuating Parliament is split down the middle and unable to decide anything one way or another. Half of it is controlled by a coterie of politicians who spend more time abroad than in Beirut. To them, Lebanon is more of a milking cow than a country.
A former president retired with $200 million, most of it immediately invested in Parisian property. Another top leader has spent more time building a Crusaders-style chateau than mingling with his constituents.
Because top posts and juicy contracts are distributed according to sectarian quotas, sect leaders wield immense powers of patronage in pork-barrel politics. Half of the Parliament wants Lebanon to reassert its “Arab identity” and join the front against Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. The other half, controlled by a coalition led by Hezbollah, sees Lebanon as “Iran’s aircraft carrier on the Mediterranean,” as Kayhan put it.
For Hezbollah, what matters is the interest of the sectarian Khomeinist movement led by the mullahs in Tehran. In that context, Iran has sent thousands of Hezbollah fighters to Syria, helping Bashar Assad kill his own people. According to Iranian media, Hezbollah sustains heavy losses so Iran can avoid sending its own fighters to Syria.
With a heavily armed militia of 30,000, Hezbollah is better equipped than Lebanon’s Army. It is also the public face of more than 400 companies, banks and Shiite associations financed and controlled by Iran, often acting as a state within the state. With a mixture of bribes and threats of assassination, Iran also runs a network of political clients in other communities. Its generosity includes some Christians, Druze and even Sunni Muslim personalities and groups.
Iran’s priority in Lebanon is to ensure the territorial contiguity of Shiite areas from the Syrian border to the cease-fire line with Israel. This means annexing Christian, Druze and other minority villages that resemble an archipelago in a sea of Shiism.
To achieve that, according to local reports, Iran is paying generous prices to buy those villages. Where money does not work, the shadow of the gun does the trick. By some estimates, Iran might achieve its aim within a year or two.
So far, the two halves of Lebanon have managed not to come to blows because neither side is sure of winning. An important reason is that right now, only one camp is armed and the other exposed. But the fragile balance is in danger for two reasons.
The first is that the Assad regime may not be able to hang on much longer. Despite Russia’s diplomatic gesticulations, which included a brief seaside encounter between President Vladimir Putin and Assad, when it comes to Syria’s future regime, Moscow and Tehran do not sing from the same hymn sheet.
Tehran still pursues the dream of restoring Syria’s unity under Assad, even if that means many more years of war. But Moscow is reviving the old French colonial scheme of “la Syrie utile” (useful Syria). This means carving out a mini-state between the mountains west of Damascus and the Mediterranean.
In that enclave, Assad’s Alawite community represents a plurality. Russia is already building bases and stationing troops there. The ports of Latakia, Al-Soda and Tartus, located in the would-be mini-state, could provide the Russian Navy with a presence in the Mediterranean for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. Syria could become Russia’s “aircraft carrier,” which could mean cutting off Iran from its Lebanese “aircraft carrier.”
The “de-escalation plan” would divide Syria into five zones controlled by Russia, Turkey, Iran, Jordan, and the US and its Kurdish allies. But the problem, as far as Iran is concerned, is that the zone assigned to it in Syria may not be contiguous to Lebanese territory. Keeping Iran far from Lebanon and, through the Golan Heights, also away from Israel is an essential condition for US endorsement of Putin’s Syria plan.
The second reason why the Lebanese balancing act may be in danger is the popular anger seething under the surface, which could sweep away a corrupt, cynical, and in some cases criminal elite.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
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