Sunday, 18 April 2010

Power play

To follow on from my previous piece ("Syria – a hard nut to crack"), one might reasonably ask which component of the Syria-Iran-Hamas-Hizbollah axis is top dog?

Certainly not either of the two Islamist movements that have acquired power in Gaza and Lebanon respectively – Hamas and Hizbollah. Each is heavily dependent for financial and military support on the two sovereign states that make up the rest of the axis. So which leads the pack – Syria or Iran?

Unless (or regrettably until) Iran acquires some form of nuclear capability, Syria can reasonably stake a claim to hegemony of the "rejectionist" front in the Middle East – the grouping that is viscerally anti-Israel and vehemently opposed to the idea of a peace settlement based on a two-state solution of the Palestine-Israel conundrum. To play a key role like this in one of the central aspects of Middle East politics realises, in part at least, Syria's long-cherished ambition, a staple of the "Assad Doctrine" that dominated the agenda of President Bashar al-Assad's father, and a hark-back to the "Greater Syria" dream of regional domination.

Until 1920 "Syria" referred to a region that, in today's terms, comprised Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, plus the Gaza Strip and the port of Alexandretta in Turkey's Hatay province. This area, known since 1920 as Greater Syria, is what their presidents and officials dream of reclaiming.

In his book "Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition", Daniel Pipes describes going through passport control on entering Syria, and seeing a military map on the wall. To his surprise he noticed that the map showed the Golan Heights under Syrian control, though they have been occupied by Israel since 1967. Israel did not exist; instead, there was a state called Palestine which was separated from Syria by a line designated a "temporary border", and a "temporary border" was also all that separated Syria from the province of Hatay, a part of Turkey since 1939. Syria's boundaries with Lebanon and Jordan appeared not as international, but as something called "regional", borders.

The Syrian dreams of re-establishing this regional empire, this "Greater Syria", are most certainly not shared by its Islamist partner, Iran. Their close collaboration and expressions of eternal friendship smack somewhat of the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1940 – a marriage of convenience, to be ditched whenever it suits either party to do so. Not to say that it does not pose enormous dangers to the Middle East and to the world while it lasts.

For it is undoubtedly the case that Iran, too, is seeking domination in the region (Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has spoken of Iran seeking to "devour the Arab world"). Not only is Iran bidding for leadership of the rejectionist front as far as a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement is concerned, but additionally it takes a lead in supporting the extremer Islamist forces that are seeking to overthrow more "moderate" Muslim governments, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Pakistan.

Does Iran support the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood – the SMB – the thorn in the flesh of President Bashar al-Assad as they were to his father, Hafiz? Probably not directly. Assad, heading an essentially secular regime, regards Islamic extremism as its core enemy, and has been grappling for a long time with the SMB, the extreme Islamist grouping within Syria. Pragmatically, this has not inhibited his support for the Islamist Hamas group, or his using that extremism as a political weapon in his struggle against Israel. So Hamas operatives from the Gaza Strip are rotated to Syria for basic training. Thousands may have been trained in Syria by instructors who learned their techniques in Iran.

One might have thought that Iran would have supported its client regime, Hamas, at every turn. Hamas, after all, is as dedicated as Iran's President Ahmadinejad to the fight against Israel and against the prospect of a two-state solution to the long Palestine-Israel dilemma. But when in 2009 Egypt attempted to act as honest broker between Hamas and their rival Palestinians, Fatah, in discussions aimed at leading to a reconciliation between them, Iran was not pleased.

The terms of a reconciliation deal were laboriously hammered out, but when it came to actually signing up to an agreement, Hamas demurred, There was first one postponement, and then another. Finally, in Cairo last October Fatah lost patience with the delays and unilaterally signed the pact. Hamas, however, said it still had reservations and needed another few days to consider the document. Six months later they have still not signed it.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has blamed Iran for impeding the reconciliation. “Iran doesn't want Hamas to sign the Cairo reconciliation document,” he said, declaring that the Palestinians should be “free from Iranian tutelage.” He and Fatah certainly are (their engagement in the peace process, not to mention their determinedly non-Islamic form of government, render them beyond the pale, as far as Ahmadinejad is concerned).

The complexities of these relationships do not end there. Although it suits Iran's book to support Hamas with weaponry and in other ways, the suspicion remains that they may be even more sympathetic to the militant and jihadist groups allied to Al-Qaeda which have taken root in Gaza, and are baying at Hamas's heels. Thoroughly dissatisfied with the non-fundamentalist nature of the administration that Hamas has set up in Gaza, these various groups have taken direct and violent action against Hamas officials and "anti-Muslim" establishments in Gaza like internet cafes, music shops and pharmacists that sell contraceptives.

How about Hizbollah in Lebanon? Is Iran competing with Syria's influence there?

It was towards the end of February that Sheikh Naim Qassem, the Deputy Secretary-General of Hizbollah, attended a banquet in Damascus hosted by President Assad in honour of Iran's President Ahmadinejad. The next day a Kuwaiti newspaper reported that at the meeting Ahmadinejad passed $300 million over to Nasrallah, who had asked Ayatollah Khamenei for the money. The funds, which were donated, inter alia, for "exporting the Islamic revolution", are to be disbursed by Hassan Mahdavi, the Force Commander of the Lebanese Quds Corps, part of the 125,000-strong Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (the IRGC).*

The Syria-Iran-Hamas-Hizbollah axis may look firm and formidable. Things are not always what they seem.

*Note on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps(the IRGC)
What is a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard doing in Lebanon? Good question. The IRGC, founded following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has developed into a highly influential body exercising power way beyond the military sphere. It operates also in the social, political and economic fields inside Iran and beyond. It began deploying fighters abroad during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, to "export the ideals of the revolution". The Quds unit was set up in Lebanon in 1982, where it was instrumental in the formation of Hizbollah.

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