Posted by Joshua on Friday, June 22nd, 2007
Iran's and Syria's plan: an interpretation
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Many Lebanese, particularly in the majority camp, have been preoccupied with the court being set up to try suspects in the assassination of the late Rafik Hariri. The resignation of Serge Brammertz from the International Criminal Court to devote himself full-time to the upcoming Hariri trial suggests there is something there for them to look forward to. However, they miss the larger picture. The court has become just one utensil in a much broader conflict to determine the future of Lebanon and of the Levant, in the context of a regional power struggle between Iran, Syria and their allies Hizbullah and Hamas on the one side; and all those who would deny them the advantages they seek on the other.
In recent days, some have suggested that Hizbullah intends to do in Lebanon, or part of Lebanon, what Hamas did in Gaza. The reality may be worse, if more subtle. A statement on Sunday by Hizbullah's Nabil Qaouk could be read as notification that the party might defend what he termed "Lebanon's unity" by force – shorthand for a military coup. Qaouk's warning that foreign observers should not deploy on the Lebanese-Syrian border, his describing such a project as "Israeli," his presumption that he had the right to impose a new "red line" on the state, all suggest a new mood in Hizbullah, one that is dangerous.
Hizbullah's attitude is only convincingly explained in the framework of Iran and Syria implementing a project to reclaim Lebanon, but more importantly perhaps to eliminate international, particularly Western, involvement in the Levant. After having won in Gaza, Tehran and Damascus are now pushing forward in South Lebanon. Their joint objective, regardless of their different priorities on other matters, appears to be to remove the Siniora government, undermine United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, and create a situation where the international community would have to accept a Syrian return to Lebanon, which would, by extension, scuttle the Hariri tribunal.
How would such a project be carried out? Here's one interpretation. The priority is to emasculate the Siniora government, whether by taking control of its decisions or through the creation by Syria of a parallel government. In this context, the opposition's calls for a national unity government don't favor unity at all. Opposition parties will only enter a Cabinet they can control and bring down. We know that because they rejected the 19-10-1 formula proposed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which would have given them the means to block decisions they didn't like. But the opposition's insistence on a 19-11 division is valid only for torpedoing a government through the resignation of its 11 ministers. The aim is apparent: to bring to office a president sympathetic to Syria.
If its conditions for a unity government continue to be rejected by the majority, the opposition might create a parallel government or engineer a situation allowing President Emile Lahoud to remain in Baabda. There are surely problems in a second government, not least of which that Sunni representation is bound to be anemic. This could create a troubling sense that a Sunni-dominated Siniora government is facing off against a Shiite-dominated pro-Syrian government, which could backfire regionally against Hizbullah and Iran. There is also the fact that Michel Aoun's bloc might begin cracking if the general enters such a government.
What would the purpose of this second government be, beyond wreaking havoc in the country and putting pressure on Siniora's government? Simply, to neutralize the effectiveness of the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL in the South, by making their interlocutor in the state unclear. Many have overlooked that the Nahr al-Bared fighting might have been a stage in a process to render the army less effectual in South Lebanon. Several units have been pulled out of the South in the past six months – first to prevent sectarian clashes in Beirut after the opposition built its tent city in the Downtown area last December; then to engage in fighting in the North. This has given Hizbullah much more room to maneuver in the border area, while also opening space up for groups operated from Syria. Even if Hizbullah did not fire the rockets against Kiryat Shmona on Sunday – probably the work of pro-Syrian Palestinians – it almost certainly was aware of the attack, and did not oppose it.
Iran's, Syria's and Hizbullah's purpose in reopening a northern front against Israel, aside from reviving Hizbullah as a military force (which is essential for its own survival), is to empty Resolution 1701 of its content. Better still, if cross-border rocket attacks continue, it will be Israel, not Hizbullah, that will start casting doubt on the UN resolution's merits. Hizbullah's recent insistence that the Cabinet return to its 2005 policy statement as a condition to end the governmental crisis only showed the party's true intentions toward Resolution 1701. The policy statement defends the right of armed resistance, unlike the later UN resolution.
For Syria and Iran, as well as for Hizbullah, Resolution 1701 is the door through which the international community entered Lebanon in force, after Resolution 1559 and the Hariri tribunal. That's the reason Tehran and Damascus want to render UNIFIL powerless, even though there will remain useful idiots in Europe who think they can reach an understanding with the Syrian regime to protect UN forces. Syria has no interest in this, however, because it has likely taken a strategic decision with Iran to remove any vestige of international influence in Lebanon – as it did in Gaza – with the goal of reviving its domination over the country.
In this context, even an illegitimate parallel government to that of Fouad Siniora could prove useful in the long term. Look what the Soviet Union did in Poland during World War II. It created the so-called Lublin Committee, which initially had far less clout than the London-based Polish government in exile. However, when the balance on the ground in Poland shifted, it was Moscow's puppets who were recognized as the power in Warsaw.
The Syrians and Iranians may be thinking along the same lines in Lebanon. Create a parallel government; erode UNIFIL's effectiveness while compelling the Lebanese Army to manage Syrian-created security brushfires; press your advantage against the drained Americans, the spineless Europeans, and the debilitated Arabs; and then, when the international community and Arab states are truly lost, strike using Hizbullah and drive your coup toward its logical conclusion: a new Pax-Syria in Lebanon, supported by Iran.
Such an ambitious project could fail, as so many others do in Lebanon. The real question is whether the country can avert civil war. Has Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, forgotten that at the funeral of Walid Eido, many of the Sunni mourners provocatively shouted "USA! USA!"? Has the party forgotten that after the fighting between Sunnis and Shiites in Tariq Jedideh in January, there was talk of sectarian war? These are disquieting trends, and while Nasrallah may have no latitude to challenge the orders of Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei – as party members frequently remind us – that only says we may soon be paying the price for the conceit of an Iranian leadership with negligible knowledge of inter-Lebanese relations.
Several measures can dent Iran's and Syria's plans. The first is for the Lebanese Army to make a statement that it opposes the setting up of a parallel government, but also that it can no longer protect Lahoud when his mandate ends, for constitutional reasons. This is not as easy as it sounds, because there are conflicting loyalties in the officer corps. However, the army has never been as united as it is today, thanks to Nahr al-Bared. There would be nothing unseemly for army commander Michel Suleiman to warn that a parallel government or yet another extension for Lahoud would only lead Lebanon into the unknown, and that the armed forces might not be able to manage the consequences. That statement would probably not check Syria, but it could induce those vacillating Lebanese politicians to reconsider participating in the scheme.
Second, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir should take a much firmer position against Christian participation in a parallel government. He's already declared his opposition to such a move, but now it's time to name names. Michel Aoun is vulnerable, and while it may be hopeless to expect anything from a man now playing Syria's game, a direct warning to the general from Bkirki, even if it angers pro-Aoun bishops, could considerably impair his preparations to enter such a government. Sfeir can back this up with the influence he enjoys over several Aounist parliamentarians, and can play on Michel Murr's reluctance to stand athwart of Maronite public opinion, and of the Gemayels, in the Metn.
Third, the Saudis and the Egyptians have to display more nerve. Iran and Syria humiliated them both by demolishing the Mecca agreement in Gaza. What have the Arab states done in return? Almost nothing, though Egypt has said it would cut its ties with Hamas unless Gaza was returned to the Palestinian Authority. Iran's expanding power poses existential threats to the regimes in Riyadh and Cairo. More efforts are needed to impose a consensus that isolates Iran and puts Syria on the defensive. The Saudis have a range of tools they can use in Lebanon, including helping Fatah financially in the refugee camps, giving the Lebanese Army better weaponry, and working more actively in the Arab world to suffocate establishment of a parallel Lebanese government.
And fourth, the UN must draw the consequences of its own reports that Syria is sending weapons across the Lebanese border – a direct violation of Resolution 1701. Some UN members with troops in the South have to stop trying to cut deals with Damascus to protect their own troops. What is happening today threatens UNIFIL in its entirety. Iran and Syria never accepted Resolution 1701, so efforts to offer Syria "incentives" miss the point that Syria intends to win back, with Iran, the whole Lebanese pot once international forces are intimidated. The Italians in particular must be less timorous. Foreign Minister Massimo d'Alema won't get from Syrian President Bashar Assad what the Saudis and the Americans couldn't. Whether the UN likes it or not, it is at the center of a regional battle, and its forces cannot afford to be as craven as they were in Srebrenica.
In the coming months, the trick will be to abort the reckless Syrian and Iranian adventure, while also avoiding a descent into sectarian carnage. This is achievable, but only if everyone realizes what is at stake.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.