Arab World: Syria’s comeback game

Recent clashes in Beirut may be Assad’s way of telling Hizbullah that its unquestioned primacy in Lebanon is now open to debate.

Syria Lebanon (photo credit: Associated Press)
Syria Lebanon
(photo credit: Associated Press)
President Bashar Assad of Syria this week reiterated his country’s firm strategic alliance with Hizbullah. The occasion for the dictator’s remarks was the latest visit by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to the Syrian capital. Assad’s statement was particularly noteworthy because some in Lebanon and further afield have claimed to discern in recent weeks a growing distance between Syria and Hizbullah. The Syrian president’s latest verbal endorsement of the “resistance” was followed by reports in a Kuwaiti newspaper of a military alliance between Syria and Hizbullah which if correct would make Syrian involvement a certainty in a future conflict between the Shi’ite Islamist movement and Israel.
Hariri’s visit came against the backdrop of the latest mini-crisis to have swept through Lebanon. The clash between Hizbullah members and militants of the small Sunni al- Ahbash group in the neighborhood of Bourj Abi Haidar, which led to three deaths, has raised once again the issue of privately held weapons. Some observers identified in the fighting a coded message of the type through which Syria sometimes communicates.
The Ahbash group is Sunni Islamist by ideology, but it is also staunchly pro-Syrian. Some Lebanese analysts concluded that last week’s events were much more than simply a squalid brawl between two sets of local Islamist toughs. According to this view, Syria deliberately activated its Sunni Islamist friends against its Shi’ite Islamist ones to make clear to Hizbullah that its unquestioned domination of Lebanon at street level was now open to question.
This contention forms part of a larger view that has emerged in recent weeks, which sees Syria moving away from its close alliance with Iran, in order to reestablish its dominance of Lebanon with the blessing of the West and the Arab world. Whatever the precise reasons for the brawl at Bourj Abi Haidar, however, this larger view is mainly the product of wishful thinking.
Re-domination of Lebanon is certainly a goal of the Syrian regime.
Syria’s agenda by no means coincides with Hizbullah’s in every way, and the record shows past moments of disagreement and tension between them. But as Assad’s ringing endorsement of the “resistance” makes clear, the strategic link between Syria and Iran, and hence Syria and Hizbullah rests on foundations too firm to be disturbed by any momentary or tactical differences.
This is so for two main reasons: Firstly, Syria benefits directly and very significantly from its alliance with Hizbullah and Iran.
Secondly, Syria does not have the power to move back into Lebanon except in cooperation with Hizbullah.
THE 30-YEAR-OLD alliance between Syria and the Islamic Republic of Iran has served Syria well – particularly in the last half decade. There were many in its early days who saw the link as a marriage of convenience against the jointly-hated neighboring regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Yet the alliance survived the fall of Saddam and indeed has proved at its most useful to Syria in the post-2003 period.
Five years ago, following the US invasion of Iraq, and Syria’s subsequent expulsion from Lebanon, the Ba’athist regime in Damascus looked on the ropes. Its demise was being predicted by many Western and regional pro-Western commentators. Yet today, Syria is riding high. The alliance with Iran, and the cover it brings Syria to engage in subverting its neighbors and supporting proxies against them, is the instrument which has enabled the Syrians to engineer their return to strength. It has been said that Syria is a strategic tool, rather than a strategic ally, of Iran. If this is so, Syria is a rare kind of tool which knows how to make its masters work to its benefit.
The Syrian power of disruption in Iraq, in Lebanon and among the Palestinians meant the regime had either to be engaged with or pushed back. The alliance with Iran, with its region-wide ambitions and reach, has given the regime the strategic partner necessary to pursue the path of subversion and confrontation, and deterred those who might have objected to it from putting Syria back in its place.
If Syria is to return to dominate Lebanon, it will do so in partnership with the Iranian power on the ground represented by Hizbullah, not instead of it. This is not a matter of sentiment for Damascus. The Ba’athist regime simply lacks the power to enforce any decision in Lebanon to which Hizbullah is opposed.
Syrian agents have skillfully succeeded in undermining civil order and confidence in Lebanon over the last half decade. But it is Hizbullah which possesses the real power on the ground. The days when Syria could dictate terms to all the players in Lebanon are long gone.
Hizbullah, as a client and instrument of Iran, has effectively outgrown the Lebanese context. Assad’s declaration reflects his awareness of this reality.
It appears that other internal Lebanese elements are aware of it too.
As a result, the initial outcry over the possession of weapons by Hizbullah in Beirut predictably led nowhere.
Interior Minister Zaid Baroud and Defense Minister Michel Murr met with Hariri on Monday, following his return from Damascus. The subject they were scheduled to discuss was an agreement on the control of possession of arms in Beirut. The ministers were quick to state that of course Hizbullah’s arsenal would not be discussed. The weapons of the “resistance” are out of bounds for discussion whether they are being used to strike at Israel, or to defend parking spaces against Sunni Islamists in residential neighborhoods of Beirut. This stance reflects an acknowledgement of reality.
Syria too is unable to ignore this reality. Neither does it wish to.
The Saudi role in backing the government of Lebanon and the growing friendship between Syria and Turkey do not in any way contradict this.
The deep, long-standing alliance with Iran is the cornerstone of Syrian strategy. The latest indications suggest that Syria is with the Iranian alliance until the end.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.