When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited southern Lebanon to great fanfare last month, he did more than irk Israel and the West, which seek to diminish Iranian influence in the Levant. The visit served to underscore the increasing polarization in the broader region, placing the divergent views of Iran and the Arab states in stark contrast, with Syria in the middle. As a result, Syria is under newfound pressure.
Can Syria afford to maneuver as an ally of Iran and its proxies and risk its central role in the Arab world? Or is it willing and/or able to change course and join the Arab world in blunting the expanding growth of Persian influence? Syria’s answers to these questions could shape the development of events in the near future, especially between Israel and Lebanon.
Prior to Ahmadinejad’s visit, numerous developments indicated that Syria was on the rise, reasserting itself as a central player in the Arab- Israeli conflict. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, to the surprise of many, absolved Syria from any wrongdoing in the assassination of his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Syria and Saudi Arabia engaged in a rapprochement, with a highly publicized joint visit to Beirut, symbolizing a new-found partnership and tacit recognition of Syria’s renewed power in the Levant.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been seeking to improve US-Syria ties and to jump-start Syria-Israel peace talks. President Barack Obama nominated a US ambassador to return to Damascus earlier in the year, and numerous envoys and elected officials have traveled to Damascus for high-level talks with President Bashar Assad and his associates. Furthermore, Syria has expanded its economic ties with numerous nations, most notably France and Turkey, and has taken significant measures to liberalize its economy in an effort to invite foreign investment and prepare the economic infrastructure conducive to long-term growth.
All the while, however, it has continued to work with Iran to provide Hizbullah with logistical and political support and advanced missile systems. Hizbullah is reportedly now in possession of more than 40,000 rockets and missiles.
AFTER A year of progress, Ahmadinejad’s visit may be a game-changing chapter for Syria. It has intensified Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shi’ite tension – already high after the UN tribunal on the assassination of Rafik Hariri, which implicates Hizbullah operatives and is likely to point the finger at Damascus for plotting it – sparking fears of renewed sectarian violence. To the Arab world, already vexed that the most influential states in their region – Israel, Iran and Turkey – are non-Arab, Ahmadinejad’s trip provoked concerns that Syria’s influence in Lebanon is being surpassed by Iran and Hizbullah. That neither Syria nor Saudi Arabia could have stopped the visit signifies how powerful and decisive Hizbullah has become.
The renewed rift places Syria in a bind. As long as a pressured atmosphere remains – and the findings of the tribunal will strengthen, not dissipate this pressure – Syria will inevitably lose much of its maneuverability. It cannot continue its balancing act whereby it strengthens ties to the West and the Arab world, while simultaneously supplying Hizbullah and strengthening Iranian influence in Lebanon. Syria’s dilemma will become considerably more acute should there be a new round of violence between Israel and Hizbullah.
Warning signs suggest that it may be a matter of when, not if, a new war breaks out along the Lebanon-Israel border. In a recent farewell meeting with the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, outgoing Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin stated explicitly his concern that the next war could be much longer and could lead to a wider conflagration, including Syria. It is likely that in any conflict with Hizbullah, Israel would seek to do no less than to wipe out its arsenal of weapons and its infrastructure.
Facing the possibility of such a bloody conflict, Syria has to make a choice: Will it enter such a conflict to aid Hizbullah and open itself up to a direct military confrontation with Israel in which it will suffer a devastating blow? Or, will it turn its back on Hizbullah and Iran? Syria will have to choose sooner rather than later between Hizbullah and its larger interest in all of Lebanon. It could be forced to make this choice should an incident occur similar to the cross-border attack by Hizbullah that sparked the war in the summer of 2006. With Hizbullah significantly strengthened, whether Damascus could keep such an incident from occurring is doubtful.
Even more troubling is how Iran might come to the aid of its proxies, Hamas and Hizbullah, in the event of renewed violence, and how it would pressure Syria to do so as well. Meanwhile, just as Saudi Arabia was tacitly supportive of Israel’s effort to wipe out Hizbullah in the Second Lebanon War, it would likely seek to use its improved ties with Syria to press it to remain on the sidelines of a new conflict.
Moreover, Syria’s continued aid to Hizbullah could lead to an Israeli strike on Syrian targets utilized in the weapons supply line, dragging Syria into a violent conflict. Faced with such a scenario, Syria’s balancing act will no longer be possible. If it does not find a solution to this dilemma before a new round of conflict begins, Damascus’s newfound influence and ties in the region will be undermined severely.
Critics argue that Syria is not facing such a dilemma. It has and will continue to play both sides of the coin in the Arab-Persian and Sunni- Shi’ite battle for influence in the region. Some may argue that just as Syria stayed out of the Second Lebanon War, it would likely refrain from entering the conflict. But such arguments underestimate the state of the Iranian-Arab divide and Syria’s increasingly dangerous balancing act.
With Arab states eager to regain power in the region, which has been
ceded to non-Arab actors, and with regimes such as Saudi Arabia and
Egypt expected to undergo leadership transitions in a few years, the
Arab world is especially reticent about the expansion of the Iranian
proxy state in the Levant created by Hizbullah. But Syria’s continued
aid to Hizbullah is enabling exactly that.
Syria can no longer
sit on the fence. If Damascus does not take critical corrective measures
now, it could face a precipitous fall and bring the prospects for peace
and stability in the region down along with it. This is exactly what
Iran would like to see happen, which by no means would serve Syria’s
mid- or long-term strategic interests.