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Syria and Lebanon: Confusion and mixed signals

Several developments took place in the Arab world last week that reflect the danger in misreading regional and international changes. That has been especially the case in Syria and Lebanon, where local players have been confused in reading the situations and positioning themselves.
To begin with, the Syrian opposition was shocked by the UN’s official endorsement of Russia’s Sochi conference. Regardless of the justifications for the endorsement via the attendance of the UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, it simply appears to undermine the Geneva peace process.
We need to remember that Moscow started its attempts to wreck the Syrian uprising and all the international community’s initiatives through a series of UN Security Council vetoes. This was soon followed by rearming the Damascus regime, and later backing it by a de-facto occupation and active combat.
On the political front, after cowing and blackmailing Turkey, Russia launched with Iranian and Turkish participation the Astana talks. The intention was to marginalize the independent political opposition while giving more say to armed groups dependent on the talks’ three sponsors.
The talks became the first practical alternative to the Geneva process; Moscow called for them after exploiting Tehran’s and Ankara’s worries about strong US support for secessionist Kurds under the pretext of fighting Daesh.

Washington now seems to be more serious about confronting Hezbollah than it was during the Iran-appeasement days of former US President Barack Obama. 

Eyad Abu Shakra


Later, noticing Washington’s turning against the Syrian uprising and the Free Syrian Army, and keener than ever to divide and destroy the Syrian opposition, Moscow decided to finish off the uprising in Sochi, where the UN actually conspired against its own Security Council resolutions.
So it has become absurd to continue talking of “Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” not only in light of displacement and demographic engineering, but also as one looks at the division of the cake on Syrian soil.
The coastal mountainous area is now under Russian control. Ankara seeks the border sector west of the Euphrates, extending from the borders of Turkey’s Hatay province to the town of Jarablus on the river. The US continues to oversee, with its Kurdish allies, affairs east of the Euphrates. The Damascus regime, supported by Iran’s militias, controls the major cities, leaving Daesh and other small and dubious militias spread out and scattered.
But the fate of one part of Syria, the southern tip of the country, remains undecided. It is engulfed by an uneasy silence, only broken by Israeli military operations, weirdly conceived and timed factional skirmishes, and hints by Israel that it will not allow Iran and Hezbollah to threaten its security.
As for Lebanon, it is well known that the border with Syria has technically ceased to exist during the last couple of decades, which has allowed Hezbollah to fight in Syria. Two important factors have made the task of Hezbollah, which is Iran’s political and military wing in Lebanon, easy. One is that the Syrian regime is a vital link in Iran’s expansionist strategy, cutting through the Arab world toward the Mediterranean Sea.
The other is that Hezbollah has been enjoying an effective Christian cover, represented by its alliance with President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM — the most extreme of Lebanon’s Christian parties), and the expressed position of the Syrian and Lebanese Christian clergy that any alternative to the Damascus regime would be worse.
These two factors not only helped Hezbollah’s cause but also Iran’s, especially after the emergence of extremist terrorist groups such as Daesh and Al-Nusra Front in many parts of Syria, and the rush of some Sunni regional players to back them before changing their mind. But this change only took place after the weakening of genuine moderate armed opposition groups.
Meanwhile, the picture in southern Syria became increasingly complicated following Israel’s threats of military action to prevent Iran from establishing itself in Syria, and to thwart Hezbollah’s attempts to turn south Lebanon into a missile factory.
Still, this did not prevent Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil from launching his own war against Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal Movement, which is Hezbollah’s main Shiite ally.
The timing of this war is understandable. Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law and head of the FPM, is preparing for upcoming parliamentary elections. Aounists have always used election season to outbid their Christian rivals and claim that they alone defend Christian rights and privileges.
The Aounists agitated and claimed martyrdom in 2005, then incited against and demonized the Future Movement in particular, and Sunni Muslims in general, in 2009. Since 2011, the Aounists have gone even further by accusing them of being Daesh sympathizers as a means to justify their support for Hezbollah and Iran’s fighting in Syria.
What is new this time is the probable change in how the Aounists are reading the local and regional situation. Washington now seems to be more serious about confronting Hezbollah than it was during the Iran-appeasement days of former US President Barack Obama.
In its attempts to bury any peace deals with the Palestinians, Israel too looks as if it is willing to go to war against Iran, at least with the objective of securing its own sector of influence in the future map of Syria and the Fertile Crescent. Indeed, southern Syria is the only part not yet reserved for any major power in the de-facto partition of the war-torn country.
This area borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and south Lebanon, which includes the corridor that connects Lebanon’s two major Shiite strongholds in the Bekaa and the south.
Both Hezbollah and Amal know why the Aounists, including Bassil, allied with them. Hezbollah rewarded them by imposing Aoun as president. The difference between the two major Shiite parties in this regard is simple.
Amal is a Lebanese organization, whose leader Berri is an Arabist who has never trusted or liked Aoun. Hezbollah, which is an Iranian tool, has forged its alliance with the FPM in order to be Tehran’s cover and Trojan horse within the Middle East’s Christian communities.
Last week, Bassil decided to incite the Christians again and exploit an agitated Christian street against Berri, partly as a test for Hezbollah’s preferences and priorities. But even before accusing Berri of being a thug and threatening to “break his head,” Bassil made some tacit media criticisms against Hezbollah itself.
So Bassil may be trying to distance himself and the FPM from the two Shiite parties. But if this is his intention, this may be a very risky and dangerous gamble, given that overreliance on Washington and Tel Aviv is perhaps even more risky and dangerous.

• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article is also published.
Twitter: @eyad1949