Last Saturday, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah gave
Hezbollah-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati the political
equivalent of a public thrashing. Last Thursday, Mikati gave a speech in
which he tried to project an image of a leader of a government that has
not abandoned the Western world completely. Mikati gave the impression
that his Hezbollah-controlled government is not averse to cooperating
with the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The Special Tribunal just
indicted four Hezbollah operatives for their role in the 2005
assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
But on Saturday night, Nasrallah gave a speech in
which he made clear that he has no intention whatsoever of cooperating
with the Special Tribunal and that since he runs the show in Lebanon,
Lebanon will not cooperate in any way with the UN judicial body. As an
editorial at the NOW Lebanon website run by the anti- Hezbollah March 14
movement wrote, last Saturday night Nasrallah “demolished Mikati’s
authority and the office from whence it comes, and used it as a rag to
mop up what is left of Lebanese dignity.”
The March 14 movement has tried to make the Special
Tribunal the litmus test for Mikati’s legitimacy, demanding that his
government either cooperate with the UN Special Tribunal, or resign. But
the fact is that the March 14 movement is no match for Hezbollah. Its
protests are not capable of dislodging the Iranian-controlled jihadist
movement from power.
Just as it always has, the fate of Lebanon today
lies in the hands of outside powers. Hezbollah rules the roost in
Lebanon because it is backed by Syria and Iran. Unlike the US and
France, Iran and Syria are willing to fight for their proxy’s control
over Lebanon. And so their proxy controls Lebanon. It follows then that
assuming the US and France will continue to betray their allies in the
March 14 democracy movement, Hezbollah will be removed from power in
Lebanon only if its outside sponsors are unseated.
And it is this prospect, more than the UN Special Tribunal, that is keeping Nasrallah up at nights.
Last month, France’s Le Figaro reported
that Hezbollah has moved hundreds of long-range Iranian-built Zilzal
and Fajr 3 and Fajr 4 missiles from its missile depots in Syria to
Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The missile transfer was due to Hezbollah’s fear
that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime is on the verge of being
And there is good reason for Hezbollah’s concern.
The breadth and depth of the anti-regime protests in Syria far
overshadow the anti-regime protests in Egypt and Tunisia. As Victor
Kotsev noted this week in the Asia Times, something like half a
million people participated in the anti-regime demonstrations in Hama
last Friday. Since, according to Syria’s 2009 census, Hama has just over
700,000 residents, the rate of public participation in the anti-regime
protests dwarfs anything seen in any other Arab state since the
anti-regime protests began last December.
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According to Tariq Alhomayed, the editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat in
English, Assad fired his provincial governor of Hama following last
Friday’s demonstration for not shooting the demonstrators.
Assad’s move is yet another clear sign that he has
no intention of compromising with his opponents. He will sooner destroy
his country then let anyone else rule it.
this makes sense. A son of the Alawite sect that makes up just 12
percent of Syria’s population, Assad has no serious support base in
Syrian society outside his family-controlled military. He has repressed
every group in his society including much of his own Alawite sect. As
Syria expert Gary Gambill noted in Foreign Policy on Thursday, Assad has no post-regime prospects.
And so he can entertain no notion of compromise with his people.
Hezbollah, Assad’s ability to survive is also going to be determined
elsewhere. To date, the US has backed Assad against the Syrian people
and Europe has gone along.
For their part, the Iranians and their Hezbollah
proxies are actively working to ensure their favored outcome in Syria.
In testimony before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee
on Tuesday, IDF Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi repeated his
claim that Iran and Hezbollah are actively assisting Assad’s forces in
killing and repressing the Syrian people.
Kochavi explained, “The great motivation Iran and
Hezbollah have to assist [Assad] comes from their deep worry regarding
the implications these events might have, particularly losing control of
their cooperation with the Syrians and having such events slide onto
their own territories.”
From Iran’s perspective, the prospect of a renewal
of the Green Movement anti-regime protests is the gravest threat facing
the regime today as it reaches the nuclear threshold. As Iran expert
Michael Ledeen wrote this week at Pajamas Media, the Iranian regime
itself is plagued by internal fissures due to escalating estrangement
and rivalry between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme dictator
Their infighting can be compared to pirates arguing
over the division of their stolen loot as their ship sinks to the bottom
of the ocean. Iran’s economy is failing. Its inflation rate is around
50%. Its people hate the regime. Lacking the ability to win the public
over through politics, since the Green Movement protests in 2009 the
regime has simply terrorized the Iranian people into submission.
Their fear of their people has only grown since the
anti-regime protests in the Arab world began last December. And in line
with this heightened fear, the regime has tripled its rate of public
executions since the start of the year.
The Iranian regime understands that if Syria falls,
it is liable to lose its ability keep its people down. The
Alawite-dominated Syrian military is far more loyal to the Assad regime
than the Iranian army is to the Iranian regime. And there have already
been defections from the Syrian army among the junior officer corps.
Fearing insubordination in the ranks of its military
and Revolutionary Guards, in 2009 the regime reportedly brought
Hezbollah operatives to Iran to kill anti-regime demonstrators.
If Assad falls, Hezbollah will lose its logistical supply line from
Iran. Moreover, Hezbollah will be so busy fending off challenges from
no-longer-daunted Lebanese Sunnis empowered by their Syrian brethren,
that its operatives will be less available to kill Iranian protesters.
With the US compliant with Assad and maintaining its
policy of appeasing the Iranian regime, the only outside government
currently making an attempt to influence events in Syria is Turkey.
Although it is being careful to couch its anti-Assad policy in the
rhetoric of compromise, given Assad’s inability to make any deal with
his opponents, simply by calling for him to compromise, the Turkish
government is making it clear that it seeks Assad’s overthrow. Turkey’s
talk of sending troops into Syria to protect civilians and its
willingness to set up refugee camps for the Syrians from border towns
fleeing the Assad regime’s goons, make clear that Ankara is vying to
expand its sphere of influence to Damascus in a post-Assad Syria.
Ankara's plans are all the more apparent when seen
in the context of Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan’s moves to
reinstate Turkey as a regional hegemon along the lines of the Ottoman
Empire. To this end, according to a report this week in The Hindu,
since Erdogan’s Islamist AK Party formed its first government in 2003,
it has been actively cultivating ties with Muslim Brotherhood movements
throughout the region. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has deep ties to
the Turkish government and the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood branch
Hamas has been publicly supported by Erdogan’s government since 2006.
In the event that Turkey plays a significant role in
a post-Assad Syria, it can be expected that the Syrian Muslim
Brotherhood would fairly rapidly take control of the country.
Many commentators have argued that Turkey’s anti-Assad stance indicates
that the recent warming of ties between Tehran and Ankara, (which among
other things saw Erdogan siding with Iran against the US at the UN
Security Council), is over.
But things in the Middle East are never cut and
dried. While it is true that Turkey and Iran are rival hegemons, it is
also true that they’re also allied hegemons. The Muslim Brotherhood in
Egypt, Syria and Gaza have close ties to Hezbollah and Iran as well as
to Turkey. Al-Qaida in Lebanon has close ties to Syria and working
relationships with Hezbollah.
Then again, if Assad is overthrown, and his
overthrow reinvigorates the Iranian Green revolution, given the
pro-Western orientation of much of Iranian society, it is likely that at
a minimum, Iran would drastically scale back its sponsorship of
Hezbollah and other terror groups.
For Israel, Assad’s overthrow will be clear
strategic gain in the short-and medium-term, even if a post-Assad Syrian
government exchanges Syria’s Iranian overlords with Turkish overlords.
Syria’s main threats to Israel stem from Assad’s support for Palestinian
terrorists and Hezbollah, and from his ballistic missile and nuclear
programs. While Turkey would perhaps maintain support for Palestinian
terrorists and perhaps for Lebanese terrorists, it does not share
Syria’s attraction to missiles and nuclear weapons as Iran does.
Moreover, Ankara would not have a strong commitment to Hezbollah and so
the major threat to Israel in Lebanon would be severely weakened.
Moreover, if Assad’s potential overthrow leads to
increased revolutionary activities in Iran, the regime will have less
time to devote to its nuclear program, and its nuclear installations
will become more vulnerable to penetration and sabotage. A successor
regime in Iran, seeking close ties with the West and be willing to pay
for those ties by setting aside Iran’s nuclear program.
In the long-term, the reestablishment of a Turkish
sphere of influence in the Arab world in Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian
Authority and Egypt through the Muslim Brotherhood will be extremely
dangerous for Israel. With its jihadist ideology, its powerful
conventional military forces, its strong economy and its strategic ties
to the US and Europe, Turkey’s rise as a regional hegemon would present
Israel with a difficult challenge.
Despite the massive dimensions of the anti-regime
protests, it is still impossible to know how the situation in Syria will
pan out. This uncertainty is heightened by the US’s passivity in the
face of the uprising against its worst foe in the Arab world.
Given the strategic opportunities and dangers the
situation in Syria presents to it, Israel cannot be a bystander in the
drama unfolding to its north. True, Israel does not have the power the
US has to dictate the outcome. But to the extent it is able to influence
events, Israel should actively assist the non-Islamist regime opponents
in Syria. This includes first and foremost the Syrian Kurds, but also
the non-Islamist Sunni business class, the Druse and the Christians who
are all participating the anti-regime protests. Israel should also
oppose Turkish military intervention in Syria and openly advocate the
establishment of a democratic, federal government in Syria to replace
It might not work. But if it does, the payoff will be extraordinary.
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