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Bashir al-Asad

Update No: 033 - (31/07/06)

Deją-vu in Lebanon, but how is Syria involved? 
Ever since Israel launched another war in mid July against Lebanon, ostensibly to disarm or at least degrade Hezbollah, there have been unlikely unsubstantiated rumors that Syria (and Iran) instigated the Shiite militia to capture the two Israeli soldiers, triggering the Israeli response. Western powers, the United States in particular, have certainly blamed Syria and Iran for triggering the crisis, much as they, within moments of the outrage, blamed Syria for the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. While Syria is on the edge of being pulled into the war as western rhetoric mounts, Israeli warplanes fired missiles at Lebanon's main border crossing with Syria on Saturday, cutting off one of the last ways to get in or out of the country. The question which we seek to address remains what is Hezbollah's relationship to Syria anyway?
There is no question that Syria is an ally and supporter of Hezbollah. All along the avenues of Beirut's southern suburbs, there are posters depicting Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Hassan Nasrallah, flanked by Syrian President Bashir Al Asad on one side and Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the other. Syria and Iran, in different ways, do undoubtedly have influence over Hezbollah. There is no doubt they help the group with funds for military and economic aid and facilitate the supply of weapons, but this does not necessarily imply that Hezbollah is entirely subservient to either Syria or to Iran, or that, as the White House insists, the governments of these two states played any direct role in starting the recent conflict between Israel and Lebanon. Syria and Iran are anyway not in the same position. Iran from a distance preaches war and damnation for Israel. Syria, the next-door neighbour, would like the Golan heights back but not by warfare, which it knows it would lose. The Hezbollah movement in distinction to both, is the final manifestation of the political and social transformation of the Shiite community in Lebanon in the 1970's and 1980's because of internal socio-economic forces and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. It's what emerged from the wreckage!

There is a common misperception, encouraged in Washington power circles, that Iran and Syria actually created Hezbollah. In fact, Hezbollah, and other Shiite militant groups such as Islamic Amal that emerged during the 1980's, were radical responses to an ongoing Shiite political transformation that started with the Amal movement (still led by parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri). While Amal and Lebanese Shiites were encouraged by the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, they also acknowledged that Iranian solutions could not necessarily solve Lebanese problems. Therefore, Lebanese Shiites rejected the notion of an Islamic republic or an Islamic revolution in Lebanon. However, the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the intransigence of the Maronite Christian government prompted a further radicalization of the Shiites and subsequently a split in the Shi'a movement. The Amal leader Nabih Berri's conciliatory stance within the Salvation Committee formed by President Ilyas Sarkis, lost him the support of those who were pushing for a more confrontational approach toward the Maronite government, which was perceived as an Israeli ally. Amal's soft stance on Israel, because of his participation in the Maronite government, fueled a rift among Shiite leaders resulting in splinter groups departing from Amal, hence Islamic Amal and Hezbollah itself. For many Shiites, Amal's goal of working toward a reform of the existing Lebanese political system was no longer desirable. 

The Shiite grievances with the Maronites were such that the goal went from reform to revolution, and the rift - in which the opinion of the Iranian ambassador to Damascus, Mohtashemi, was asked - served to invite greater Iranian influence in the affairs of the Lebanese Shiite community. 
(Iran, the only Sh'ite nation state, and which moreover has defied the USA, has such an aura of 'seniority' to Shi'ite activists world-wide). Therefore, it is inaccurate to suggest that Iran created Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah today represents a convergence of Lebanese Shiite interests with Iranian foreign policy orientations. The presence of Israeli and American troops and Iran's search for an Arab ally against the many hostile Sunni Arab nations, made Lebanon an ideal target for Iran's policy of supporting an Islamic revolution. The tangible form that always takes is jihad against Israel, seen by them as a western crusader-type colony transplanted in Islamic territory.

Hezbollah's clerical leadership, as noted earlier, enabled it to gain support from the people, but the movement also succeeded in recruiting professional Shiites that had become disillusioned with Amal. It is also true, nevertheless, that, as popular as Hezbollah had become - one in five men admitted affiliation with it in 1987 - many Shiites avoided political affiliation altogether while others continued to hold steadfast to secular radical alternatives like the Communist Party and the Syrian Social National Party. This radicalization was, as noted above, far less as the result of the ideological and inspirational influence of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and much more as a reaction to the Israeli invasion of 1982, and the absence of viable competing secular alternatives. In recent years, Hezbollah within Lebanon has achieved enormous political success by focusing on domestic reform and nationalist politics. Its candidates advocate civic duty and responsible governance over theology or the imposition of Islamic law. Hezbollah rejected pan-Arabist or pan-Islamist associations, though it has clearly given moral support to the Palestinian resistance. After the assassination of prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Hezbollah showed strong support for Syria - after all, it is one of its two principal patrons - but Hezbollah's platform insisted on a nationalist agenda focused on protecting Lebanese territory. To achieve this, Hezbollah was even ready to form a political partnership with General Michel Aoun, Christian leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. In other words, Hezbollah had earned political legitimacy as a political party in Lebanon, whose primary interests lie not with its external supporters, Syria and Iran, but with its constituents at home. The problem obviously is that it maintains a large and well armed militia, outside of the control of the weak government, which is intolerable. 

The Current Crisis
While there are conflicting versions over circumstances leading to the Hezbollah raid in Israel to capture two soldiers - some sources suggest the Israeli soldiers were captured after they entered Lebanese territory - it seems doubtful that Hezbollah would take such risks at the behest of Syria or Iran. Meanwhile, as Israel's response has been widely described as exaggerated or disproportionate (in diplomatic language), Hezbollah has started to gain respect from unusual sources. Lebanese prime minister (by no means pro-Syrian, as is president Emile Lahoud) Fouad Siniora, in the wake of the bombing of a residential building, which killed 60 people in Qana, publicly praised Hezbollah for "its sacrifices" in defending Lebanon and its sovereignty. This suggests that Hezbollah will emerge even stronger from the latest conflict with Israel, not on Syrian or Iranian account, but on nationalist grounds. The reaction of Lebanese politicians of all persuasions is deeply resentful of Israel and by extension the USA, at the prolonging of the horrors of indiscriminate bombardment. Hezbollah meanwhile maintains its massive and indiscriminate rocketry onto Israel.

Therefore, at present, the recent crisis in Lebanon cannot be described as a war by proxy, where Hezbollah fights Israel on behalf of Syria or Iran. An immediate ceasefire would help contain it and possibly even prevent any internal Lebanese repercussions, while Hezbollah earns more political currency and legitimacy. Ironically, by forcing Syria to withdraw its military from Lebanon last year, the United States and its allies weakened the direct leverage Syria had over Hezbollah. As long as Syrian troops were deployed in Lebanon, Damascus could control the flow of weapons to Hezbollah, as well as its activities, fueling or curbing them in the interest of strategic goals. Syria no longer has such control, even if it wanted Hezbollah to stop launching rockets into Israel. This is because the conflict has taken a course independent of Syria, as all elements of the Lebanese government are furious with Israel and the international 'community' for failing to stop Israel, and also because nothing has been offered to Syria in exchange for cooperation - let alone being contacted to be asked to cooperate. 

Raising the prestige of Hezbollah and Syria
The United States, ironically, is helping to boost Hezbollah's position, while the United States, and Israel, blame the war on Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. Just weeks before, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice were praising Lebanon as an example of democracy in the Middle East after they sent Syrian troops home. Now they are fueling the war by giving Israel the time and space to help it heap more destruction on the 'democratic' Lebanon. Moreover, the total devastation has also stopped the investigation into the murder of Rafiq Hariri, given the extreme logistical difficulty - and danger - of operating in Lebanon now. Finally, setting aside any suggestions that the United States, in the midst of a renewed neo-conservative ideological fervor, is interested in fanning the flames of the Israeli-Lebanese war to engulf both Syria and Iran, if there is to be any chance of an effective ceasefire in the short term, Syria's help is probably essential. 
Syrian president Bashir al-Asad has been ignored since the war in Iraq. The murder of Rafiq Hariri was used as an opportunity to destabilize his regime, by forcing Syrian troops to leave Lebanon. President Asad was even refused a visa to attend a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Moreover, while Syria maintains an ambassador in Washington, the United States has recalled its ambassador to Syria and the two countries do not have meaningful communications on any international issue. In Asad's favor is the fact that the American drive to democratize the Middle East has demonstrated, and tragically so, that the countries in the region are still too divided along sectarian or ethnic lines to help generate the kind of strong national identity that facilitates democratization. 
Meanwhile, as Newnations has often reported since coverage of Syria began in 2003, Asad has made offers to the United States and Israel to negotiate solutions to their disputes, only to be rebuffed at every turn. Should the United States continue to isolate Syria it would be a mistake - should the goal be to secure a lasting ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon. Israel has also been encountering tactical difficulties. Apart from the public relations disaster that this war has become for Tel Aviv, Hezbollah has proven to be a more formidable enemy than expected by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). While Lebanese victims of the war are some 10:1 compared with Israel, the Israeli dead are mostly military while the Lebanese are mostly civilians, women and children in particular. The IDF met stiff resistance at the town of Bint Jbeil in southern Lebanon. This suggests that Israel conceivably might be snared into a far longer war than it had planned, and prime minister Olmert cannot necessarily count on public opinion to support the campaign indefinitely. A negotiated exit needs Syria's intercession. 
Syria has gained some strength from this crisis then, its diplomatic currency has higher value (even if the would-be buyers are reluctant to show interest yet). For now, Syria can continue to hope that the crisis may offer an opportunity for it to emerge as an important broker in the Middle East. Indeed, given the quagmire in which the US is in Iraq, and Israel is entering into ever deeper in Lebanon, Syria can still openly speak of regaining the Golan Heights. Should Israel have succeeded in defeating Hezbollah swiftly, with minimum civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure, it might have been easier to draw Syria into the war. Syria would have been asked to support its Hezbollah allies. However, as the war prolongs and Hezbollah resists, Syria does not need to get involved directly. However, Syria could be drawn into the fight, if Israel attacks. In the recent past, Syria has been very careful in responding, or failing to respond rather, to Israeli provocations, such as the violation of its airspace by Israeli F-16's, which humiliatingly flew over Asad's palace in northern Syria in June, and again after the outbreak of fighting with Hamas in Gaza. But could world opinion tolerate an actual attack on Syria?

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