Sunday, 12 May 2013

Post-conflict Syria

When the dust settles on Syria’s civil war, what sort of a situation will the world in general, and the Middle East in particular, be facing? Even if Russia and the US manage in their current discussions to agree that a negotiated settlement is the way forward, there is no guarantee that either the Assad régime or the official opposition would come to the table without imposing conditions that the other side would find unacceptable. A negotiated settlement, moreover, takes no account of the aims, ambitions and interests of the score of other bodies – jihadists, Islamists, extremists – that have attached themselves to one side or the other in the conflict, hoping to achieve some particular advantage at the end of the day.

Chief among these “hangers-on”, in what began as a home-grown protest movement à la Arab Spring, is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Iran has long had political ambitions regarding Syria. Over the years it has invested huge resources in converting Syria to the Shi’ite version of Islam, and in its heyday the Assad régime freely allowed Iranian missionaries into the country to strengthen the Shi’ite faith. Now, in addition to instigating the transfer of tens of thousands of Hezbollah troops from Lebanon to fight for Bashar Assad in Syria, Iran is reported to be building up a sister organisation to Hezbollah, recruited from Shi’ite forces in Iraq, to further strengthen Assad’s régime. The particular mission of these troops, known as the League of the Righteous and Kateeb Hezbollah, is to defend the Shi’ite centres in Damascus.

Syria is an indispensible element in Iran's strategy to achieve hegemony in the Middle East. In January 2012 General Qasem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, declared that, in “one way or another”, the Islamic Republic controlled Iraq and South Lebanon. Now, with the old collaborative arrangement between two independent régimes looking increasingly shaky, control of Syria is in their sights. Mehdi Taaib, who heads the think tank of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, recently stated that “Syria is the 35th district of Iran and it has greater strategic importance for Iran than Khuzestan [an Arab-populated district inside Iran].”

A few weeks ago, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah paid a secret visit to Tehran where he met with the top Iranian officials headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and General Suleimani, who had prepared an operational plan for winning the civil conflict in Syria. The Arab political weekly, Al-Shiraa, published in Lebanon, reported on 15 March 2013 that the Suleiman plan includes three elements:

1) the establishment of a popular sectarian army made up of Shi’ites and Alawites, to be backed by forces from Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, and symbolic contingents from the Persian Gulf;

2) this force is to total 150,000 fighters;

3) it will be integrated with the Syrian army.

Suleimani himself visited Syria in late February-early March to prepare for the implementation of his plan.

It is, perhaps, significant that all this Iranian-led manipulation of Hezbollah does not go unchallenged within Lebanon. NOW is an on-line Lebanese journal, published in English and Arabic, covering Lebanon, the Lebanese diaspora and the Middle East. On 4 May it published an article claiming that, in his visit to Iran, Hassan Nasrallah received guidance on how to present Hezbollah’s escalating – and increasingly unpopular – involvement in Syria to the Lebanese public.

Hezbollah, though in fact a sectarian Shi'ite militia, has long sought to enhance its legitimacy in the Sunni Arab world by presenting itself as a non-sectarian, pan-Islamic resistance movement against Israel. But its activities in Syria do not fit this picture, and Hezbollah has been having trouble in portraying its involvement to the Lebanese public, especially in view of the increasing number of fighters killed in the conflict

Subhi Tufayli, the first head of Hezbollah who was dismissed from its leadership by Iran at the start of the 1990s, has been one of the prominent critics of Hezbollah’s incursion into Syria. Tufayli recently claimed that 138 Hezbollah fighters had been killed there along with scores of wounded who were brought to hospitals in Lebanon. Ceremonies for burial of the dead are frequently held clandestinely, sometimes at night, so as to avoid anger and resentment. The families, however, have raised harsh questions about such unnecessary sacrifice that is not within the sacred framework of jihad against Israel, which Hezbollah claims as its raison d’être.

Hezbollah needs a convincing narrative, beyond the fact that it serves Iran’s regional interests, to justify the toll of dead and wounded from its Syrian adventure. Conjuring up the spectre of hostile Sunnis coming after Shi’ite villages and religious places serves that purpose. So, in a recent speech on Hezbollah’s TV station, Nasrallah offered that up as the rationale for the movement’s involvement in Syria.

But Hezbollah, and Iran standing behind it, relies on its pan-Islamic, anti-Israel stance for its popular support. Which explains the despatch of a drone over northern Israel a few weeks ago. . As NOW put it: “Although Nasrallah reiterated his party’s denial that it was behind the drone he, and the group more broadly, were clearly taking credit for it and boasting about it as an achievement.”

The drone was almost certainly authorised by Iran’s leaders during Nasrallah’s visit to Tehran – as was Hezbollah’s reaction following it. The drone, via a nod and a wink, would be Hezbollah refocusing the public’s attention on its anti-Israel activities, but it would not go the whole hog and claim responsibility. A retaliatory Israeli attack on Lebanon is far from what Iran’s leaders want at present; they would prefer to safeguard Hezbollah’s military capabilities in readiness to counter any strike on their nuclear programme.

So in Syria Hezbollah is engaged in building Iran’s new strategy, acting in tandem with Iran against the Sunni Islamic groups that threaten Iran’s interests in that benighted country. For at the end of the day, Hezbollah is not a Lebanese national movement but a creation of Iran and subject to its exclusive authority.

As Dr Shimon Shapira, of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, wrote recently: “For the Islamic Republic, this is a war of survival against a radical Sunni uprising that views Iran and the Shi'ites as infidels to be annihilated. This is the real war being waged today, and it is within Islam. From Iran’s standpoint, if the extreme Sunnis of the al-Qaeda persuasion are not defeated in Syria, they will assert themselves in Iraq and threaten to take over the Persian Gulf, posing a real danger to Iran’s regional hegemony. Khamenei does not intend to give in.”

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 13 May 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 15 May 2013:

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