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Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh

Robert G Rabil
10 May 2007

A diplomatic highlight of the international summit on Iraq at Sharm el-Sheikh on 3-4 May 2007 was the meeting between the United States secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and her Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem. The thirty-minute talk acquired even more attention in light of the absence an expected substantive discussion between Rice and the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to materialise. Many analysts have portrayed the fact of the US-Syria encounter (and the cursory, three-minute US-Iranian one) in a particular light: as an effective admission by the George W Bush administration of the failure of its unilateral policy in the Middle East in general, and in Iraq in particular.

The encounter was invested too with particular bilateral significance, in that it was the first high-level meeting between Syria and the US since the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005 - widely suspected of being the handiwork of senior Syrian officials close to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. This incident eventually reinvigorated a transnational debate on the merit and/or futility of Washington's engagement of Damascus.

Robert G Rabil is associate professor of middle-east politics and director of graduate studies in the political-science department at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon (Lynne Rienner, 2003) and Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Praeger, 2006)

Also on Syria and Lebanon in openDemocracy:

Nadim Shehadi, "Riviera vs Citadel: the battle for Lebanon"
(22 August 2006)

Carsten Wieland, "Syria's quagmire, al-Assad's tunnel"
(9 November 2006)

Hazem Saghieh, "Lebanon's internal struggle: two logics in combat"
(19 December 2006)

Carsten Wieland, "The Syrian conundrum"
(16 April 2007) – a review of Robert G Rabil's latest book

Some specialists stressed Syria's secular rule and key regional position; the logic of this approach was to encourage United States engagement with Syria as a way to prod Damascus to check the power of Hizbollah in Lebanon and to interdict jihadis trying to infiltrate Iraq. Others asserted that Damascus's overtures to Washington were but a ploy to relieve international pressure on Syria, especially with regard to the probable establishment of a United Nations tribunal (under Chapter VII of its charter) to prosecute Hariri's assassins.

Meanwhile, within each camp were voices arguing that a potential US-Syrian deal over Iraq could, if it were concluded, carry a heavy price: in terms both of compromising Lebanon's sovereignty (which Syria has never fully accepted) and of the international tribunal (involving a deal whereby members of the ruling al-Assad family would avoid implication in the murder). The Syrian president displayed confidence on the investigation issue on 1o May with a firm statement rejecting "(any) cooperation requested from Syria that compromises national sovereignty".

The road from Damascus

This debate touches upon important matters. But it also misses the most real and central issues relating to the role of Syria and Iran in the region, and its implications for developments elsewhere (not least Lebanon). A close look at Syria's geo-strategic position in the middle-east demonstrates that Damascus has lost significant regional leverage, thereby limiting its ability to affect regional dynamics. At the same time, it makes it apparent that Iran has emerged as a key regional power attempting to shape middle-east politics. This double conclusion is set in sharp relief with regard to Lebanon.

Syria under its longstanding leader Hafiz al-Assad (who died in June 2000, to be replaced by his son Bashar) managed to play a key regional role transcending the country's actual capabilities. It used terrorism as a strategic instrument to inflict damage on its opponents and to fight its battles by proxy. One aspect of this strategy was its cooperation with Iran in 1982 to help found and support the Islamist party Hizbollah.

Hafez al-Assad went on to support Hizbollah - but only so long as it heeded Damascus's directives. In 1987 when Hizbollah showed some defiance, Syrian troops entered Shi'a areas in west Beirut under the pretext of stopping Shi'a infighting and killed over a dozen Hizbollah fighters. This was al-Assad's message (to Iran as well as to Hizbollah) that he was the only master of the country.

In the 1990s, al-Assad came to envision a new, dual role for Hizbollah, combining "resistance" movement and political party. This vision was fulfilled, partly thanks to favourable conditions: Iran under its new president Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) was espousing a pragmatist regional outlook, and a new generation of Hizbollah leaders had emerged that recognised the importance of adapting the Islamist party to Lebanon's changing circumstances. During this period, al-Assad used Hizbollah as a proxy military force to exert pressure on Israel and as a proxy political force to keep potential opposition to Syria within Lebanon on the defensive.

Also in openDemocracy on Middle East summit diplomacy at Riyadh, Mecca, and Sharm al-Sheikh:

Khaled Hroub, "Palestine's argument: Mecca and beyond"
(6 March 2007)

Yossi Alpher, "Riyadh's Arab summit: a precious opportunity"
(28 March 2007)

Ghassan Khatib, "The Arab League summit: two challenges"
(28 March 2007)

Richard Youngs, "The European Union and Palestine: a new engagement"
(29 March 2007)

Hazem Saghieh, "Sunni and Shi'a: coexistence and conflict"
(17 April 2007)

Omid Memarian, "Iran and the United States: time to engage"
(2 May 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "Axis of Evil vs Great Satan: wrestling to normality" (2 May 2007)

The year 2000 marked a new phase in Syria's patronage over Lebanon. Hafez al-Assad passed away, Israel withdrew from Lebanon and middle-east peace negotiations that had raised the promise of a regional settlement collapsed. The combination of these three events had a significant impact on both the Lebanese-Syrian relationship and the Hizbollah-Iranian-Syrian triangle.

Bashar al-Assad, the new ruler of Damascus, relaxed his control over Hizbollah's operations in a way that helped strengthen the movement's power to become "a state within a state". The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005 - in light of the intense criticism it received following Hariri's murder, and the flowering of mass protest in Lebanon hopefully (and briefly) designated as the "cedar revolution" - completed the transformation of the Hizbollah-Syrian relationship from a patron-client relationship to a tactical one. This had two major, and somewhat contradictory, aspects: on one side, Hizbollah still needed Syria in as much as Syria needed Hizbollah; on the other, Syria could no longer impose its will on Hizbollah. The movement's new confidence and ambition was exemplified in its declaration of a "divine victory" over Israel after the war of July-August 2006.

The Hizbollah factor

The claim is at the heart of the crisis gripping Lebanon today, which is largely an outgrowth of the summer conflagration. For the core of this crisis is nothing less than an attempt by Hizbollah to control Lebanon's politics. In the last nine months Hizbollah and its allies in the opposition have undertaken a series of actions - preventing the parliament in Beirut from convening, stalling on the establishment of the Hariri tribunal, calling for open-ended mass demonstrations without limit - that converge on a single objective: forcing the collapse of the Fouad Siniora government and its supporters in the so-called "March 14" anti-Syrian coalition.

On the surface, it may look as if Hizbollah is doing Syria's bidding in Lebanon to safeguard its ally, the Damascus regime. But a deeper analysis suggests that Hizbollah's actions go beyond protecting the Syrian regime, and beyond forcing the collapse of the Beirut government too. Hizbollah, after all, has regularly escalated its political brinkmanship in ways far in excess of what are needed merely to counteract the government's policies.

It has, for example, consistently changed its position on several highly sensitive national matters. Here are three cases in point:

  • after its botched attempt in late January 2007 (known as "black Tuesday") to extend its authority over Lebanon by blocking the country's major transport arteries, the Islamist party dropped its demand to participate in a new government on the basis of a share-out of ministries (nineteen for the majority March 14 camp, eleven for the opposition)
  • Hizbollah denied that it supported the seven-point plan of prime minister Siniora, which had helped bring about the end of hostilities between Israel and Hizbollah in summer 2006
  • Hizbollah is trying to pre-empt the government from placing the Shebaa farms under United Nations jurisdiction in the event of Israel's withdrawal from this contested sliver of territory (even though point three of Siniora's plan supports a "commitment from the Security Council to place the Shebaa farms area and the Kfarshouba hills under UN jurisdiction until border delineation and Lebanese sovereignty over them are fully settled").

Meanwhile, Hizbollah and its allies have called for more ostensibly "democratic" measures that are evidently calculated to advance its power: early national elections, a referendum so that the public would determine the country's decisions and a president elected directly by the people. Hizbollah's deputy secretary-general, Naim Qassem, has simultaneously asserted that the party has "rebuilt its defenses in a way to respond to any new Israeli attack."

The clear pattern that emerges from all these developments is that by keeping Lebanon in a state of constant socio-political and military flux, Hizbollah is not part of the solution but part of the problem.

Tehran's finger

In light of these political developments in Syria and Lebanon, it becomes difficult to conceive that Damascus is behind Hizbollah's bold political challenge. This is not to deny that Damascus could, if it wished, use its agents in Lebanon to wreak havoc. But the reality is that Damascus - in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s - can no longer match its ability to inflict damage on Lebanon with an ability to force the major parties in the country (particularly Hizbollah) to reconcile - as it did in 1989 when it helped broker the Taif accord that ended Lebanon's civil war (1975-90). Syria's role in Lebanon today is far less powerful today than it was then.

Rather, it is Iran which is orchestrating and backing Hizbollah's - and to some extent Syria's - moves. Tehran is confident that the Bush administration is in deep crisis in the middle east and will not be able to regain its capacity to "manage" the region before its term ends in January 2009. It also feels secure in its new influence in both Lebanon and Iraq.

In Iraq, Iran's allies and proxies have gained in strength since the United States-led invasion of 2003. Tehran's loyalists have infiltrated Iraq's security apparatuses and militias (in the form of the Badr brigades and Mahdi army). In Lebanon, Tehran's agents have managed to consolidate a state within a state. Here, the Islamic republic has adopted Damascus's former role in the country - while sending a message to the US as well as to the Arabs that Lebanon and Iraq's crises cannot be resolved without Iranian involvement. But - and this is the twist - in order for that involvement to be substantive, the logic of Iran's position is that America's role in the region has to be reduced.

This and only this can explain why Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki purposely avoided a proper meeting with Condoleezza Rice at Sharm el-Sheikh, even to the extent of virtually slapping in the face the Iraqi leaders who strove to bring the two actors together around one table. Instead, Mottaki took the opportunity to criticise the United States for its "arrogant, one-sided policy." Meanwhile, Hizbollah's political adventurism in Lebanon continues and is leading the country towards a bleak future.

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