Arab World: The sectarian logic of events in Syria

The fall of the Assad regime would be a disaster for both Hezbollah and Iran.

Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
Hezbollah has been caught off balance by the uprising in Syria. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s recent words of solidarity with his embattled ally in Damascus led to the burning of the Lebanese Shi’a Islamist leader’s image by angry Syrian crowds during last Friday’s demonstrations.
The movement’s stance on Syria reveals a basic contradiction between Hezbollah’s practical interests and the image it likes to project of itself.
This contradiction in turn may reveal the inherent limitations of the Iranian, Shi’ite-led “resistance bloc” in the overwhelmingly Sunni Arabic-speaking world.
On a practical level, it is not difficult to see why the fall of the Assad regime would be a disaster for both Hezbollah and its Iranian patron.
Syria is the secure conduit through which Tehran is able to arm its Lebanese proxy on the Mediterranean.
Significant elements of Hezbollah’s armory are stored safely under Assad’s care. The M-600s and Fateh-110 missiles, which might provoke an early Israeli strike if deployed in Lebanon, wait in secure facilities across the border for the appropriate moment.
But Syria is much more than a storehouse for Hezbollah. Since the accession of Bashar Assad, the relationship between the two has become increasingly symbiotic. Hezbollah was the instrument whereby Syria was able to regain influence in Lebanon following its inglorious retreat in 2005. Syria provided a vital logistic hinterland for Hezbollah during the 2006 war.
There are suspicions that the two may have cooperated in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
So the relationship is strategic, grounded in a variety of shared interests. Neither party is entirely a client or a senior partner of the other. Rather, the patron of the two is Iran. Nasrallah’s expressions of support for Assad derive from the same impulse as the large-scale practical support currently being offered to Syria by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. These are members of an alliance, uniting in the defense of a member of the team currently in trouble.
No proof has emerged to confirm the rumors of Hezbollah fighters engaged on the ground in Syria.
And it is difficult to see what they could achieve that Assad’s own men could not. The Syrian leader is not short of gunmen. But the “moral support” that Hezbollah has offered Syria serves to lay bare the emptiness of Nasrallah’s oft-stated claim to represent the broad, popular will of the Arabs.
Both Assad and Nasrallah use the language of “resistance,” yet the two are today united in resistance to the plainly expressed will of the Syrian people.
There is a deeper logic at work here than simply the timeless spectacle of dictatorial regimes and movements having the emptiness of their rhetoric made apparent. The Iran-led bloc may have presented itself as the voice of regional authenticity and resistance.
But if one looks at its component parts, it rapidly becomes apparent that this was and is largely an alliance of Shi’ite (or at least non-Sunni) Arab forces behind a large, non-Arab Shi’ite state.
The core members of the alliance are Iran, the Shi’ite Hezbollah, the Alawite-dominated Assad regime, and the Shi’ite movement of Muqtada al- Sadr in Iraq. Iran has sought to make gains from the current ferment in the Arab world. But its arena of activity has been limited mainly to areas of majority- Shi’ite population, such as Bahrain. Outside the narrow bands of Shi’ite Arab communities, there is a built-in suspicion of the Iranians.
The Iranian war on Israel is intended to disprove these suspicions, and this has seen some success. But the kudos gained by Shi’ite elements for fighting Israel do not seem to be easily transferable to other areas.
The single major exception to the largely Shi’ite complexion of the Iran-led bloc was and is Hamas. The Hamas enclave in Gaza was maintained by Iranian money and weaponry. But one of the most noteworthy fallout events from the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt has been Hamas’s apparent attempt to reorient away from the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, and back toward Sunni Arab Egypt.
The (Sunni) Emirate of Qatar, meanwhile, which has flirted with the resistance axis in the past years, has directed its hugely influential Al Jazeera network firmly against the Syrian regime in recent weeks. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, too, has grown critical of Assad and is hosting gatherings of the Syrian opposition.
Syria, in short, is hemorrhaging Sunni friends. Its Shi’ite ones, by contrast, have fewer options and are staying loyal.
So Hezbollah’s and Iran’s cleaving toward their Syrian ally has the look of a non-Sunni alliance closing ranks to defend itself against a ferment in the Sunni Arab world. Lebanese analyst Michael Young has noted a growing view that the Syrian regime is engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Syrian Sunnis from the town of Tal Kalakh, near the border with Lebanon.
Tal Kalakh is a Sunni enclave in a largely Alawite area.
Whether the regime’s motivations are indeed sectarian is almost immaterial. The fact that they are widely believed to be so lays bare the sectarian logic at work.
From Israel’s point of view, the built-in limitations of the Shi’ite-led resistance bloc are good news. The lessgood news is that rival centers of anti-Western and anti-Israel Sunni power are emerging in the region.
Hamas’s rebuilding of ties with Egypt, after all, is based on the rapidly deteriorating relations between Cairo and Jerusalem. The Sunni Islamist AKP, meanwhile, looks set to win another term in office in Turkey.
Nor is the “Shi’a crescent” itself about to collapse. At the moment, its unrivaled capacity for brutality looks set to keep its Syrian client in its seat. But its claim to represent the forces of Arab “resistance” to the West and Israel has taken a heavy blow as a result of the turmoil in the Arab world. And meanwhile, a rival “Sunni crescent,” with a rival claim to this mantle, is in the process of being born.