Sunday, August 21, 2016

Why Syria Lost Big in Lebanon

By Daniel M. Zucker, Thursday, June 05, 2008, and published at 
Middle East Times as "Syria Lost Big in Lebanon", Thursday, June 05, 2008

Caroline Glick, columnist and editor at The Jerusalem Post is normally right on the money with her comments about Middle-East politics. Her column of Friday, May 23, 2008, “Column one: Assad's week of triumph”[1] was a rare exception. As the title of her essay indicates, Glick believes that Bashar al-Assad had his best week since becoming President of Syria. With all due respect to Ms. Glick’s fine understanding of the area’s complex politics, I believe that she and her title miss it, by what we in Middle America call “a country mile”. Rather than being his best week due to Hezbollah’s successful power play in Lebanon two weeks prior, and the capitulation of the “March 14th” Coalition at the Doha talks last week, which cemented—at least temporarily—Hezbollah’s power to control Lebanon and Lebanese politics, the victory of this Iranian-backed Shiite militia proved to be the fulfillment of Assad’s worst nightmare.  

Why do I say this? The truth is that Hezbollah is not subservient to Syria, but rather to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Syria, which dearly desires to regain control of Lebanon, if not to actually swallow the Levantine coastal nation outright, just saw Beirut become a satellite of Iran. With Iran controlling Lebanon through its Hezbollah proxies, Syria now is further from its goal of retaking Lebanon under is influence and control. Assad lost, and lost big time, when Hezbollah won. The Lebanese commentator Nizar Abdel-Kader, former deputy chief of staff of the Lebanese army, put it aptly when he wrote last week: “…the future role of Syria will be reduced to serving as a conduit for Iranian logistical support to Hizballah.”[2]  

Given this twist in Syria’s Levantine fortunes, it now becomes understandable why Damascus authorized the publication of its three month old clandestine peace negotiations with Israel. Syria is economically in the doldrums as more than one analyst has noted,[3] and despite massive infusions of Iranian money, is in rough shape economically. Assad, a secularist, is not overly enamored of Iranian fundamentalism and is less than pleased to see Lebanon fall to the Shiite fundamentalists whose allegiance is vowed to Ali Khamenei, the Iranian faqih (Supreme Leader). Assad, in his own strange way, is desperately reaching out to the West—especially the United States, to try to break out of the isolation that he feels, as well as to remove the choking bear hug that Iran has placed around him. Peace with the implacable foe—Israel—if achieved on good enough terms, now looks better that being choked to death by Iran, or worse yet, being engulfed in the possible conflagration that may come when the United States and the West finally confront Iran. Dr. Bashar al-Assad is not as shrewd as was his father Hafez, but he has learned one trait from the old fox: longevity trumps everything else in importance.

As Syria essentially has maintained peaceful borders with Israel since the 1974 Disengagement agreements, we need to ask what it is that Assad seeks to gain from formalizing peace with Israel. Ostensibly it is the recovery of the Golan Heights, lost in 1967. However, Syria’s interest in regaining the Golan pales in comparison to its desire to regain Lebanon as a protectorate. If we realize that Hezbollah really is “Hizbullah” (the Farsi pronunciation), by which I mean to say that Hassan Nasrallah’s Shiite militia is controlled by Iran and not by Syria, we may begin to see—contrary to Caroline Glick’s analysis and that of Amos Harel and Avi  Issacharoff in the May 26, 2008 edition of Haaretz[4], as well as that of Barry Rubin in the May 26, 2008 edition of The Jerusalem Post[5]—that Syria lost when Hizbullah won control of Lebanese politics. And Assad does not like the idea of being muscled out of his own backyard by his “ally and benefactor,” Iran. Harel and Issacharoff point out that this is the second time in less than a year that Syria operated on a major concern without consulting or even informing its Iranian allies. Syria did not receive Iranian aid on its clandestine nuclear program—aid came from North Korea—and it did not inform Tehran about its secret negotiations with Israel, held under Turkish auspices.

Barry Rubin is right on the money when analyzing Syrian motives; his six points listing Syria’s reasons for participating in talks with Israel are very insightful except for his failure to see that Syria feels outmaneuvered by Iran in Lebanon. That point is critical however, as it explains the timing of Syria’s publication of its talks with Israel. Syria was registering a protest with its Iranian benefactor.

The February 13, 2008 assassination in  Damascus’ uptown neighborhood of Kfar Suseh of “Hajj Radwan”, aka Imad Fayez Mughniyeh, Hizbullah’s international operations chief, has generally been attributed to the Mossad, Israel’s secretive intelligence and covert foreign operations agency. However, more than one online blogger has suggested that  Hizbullah’s number two officer was the target of a Syrian Mukhbarat hit meant to signal Assad’s desire to draw closer to the United States,[6] and no less a figure than Druze leader Walid Jumblatt  is reputed to have made a similar accusation.[7] Assuming for a moment that Jumblatt and these bloggers are correct, Syrian motives again would demonstrate Damascus’ desire to remove any impediments to a renewal of Syrian (not Syrian-Iranian) domination of Lebanon. Undermining Hizbullah’s operative strength at a time that Syria had little real fear of conflict with Israel would be a cheap way to begin to reassert control of Beirut, especially if Hizbullah made the mistake of attacking Israel and precipitated another Israeli attack on the Iranian proxy. Note the timetable: Syria’s secret talks with Israel began right after Mughniyeh’s demise. Admittedly, the Mughniyeh file still has many, many unanswered questions, but it should be clear that Syrian interests under Bashar al-Assad primarily center on regaining control over Lebanon, with any method of achieving the goal being acceptable to Damascus.

Following its power-play earlier this month, and its political victory at the Doha conference, Hizbullah has emerged as a rival to Damascus because it is controlled by, and swears allegiance to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Damascus and Tehran still play on the same team, but the internal rivalry is beginning to strain the cooperation between them. To those that say that Syria turned around and signed a mutual-defense pact with Iran only days after revealing the peace talks with Israel,[8] I would point out that Assad, while dismissing Israeli demands that Syria break its ties with Iran, also advised Lebanon to begin negotiations with Israel should the Syrian-Israeli peace discussions move forward.[9] Assad is proving to be a chip off of the old block—he is learning to be a wily negotiator, courting more than one suitor at a time—now Israel and the West (i.e., the U.S.), and now Iran and the jihadists. But most of all, Bashar al-Assad wants to regain Lebanon as a Syrian protectorate. That fact should never be forgotten when assessing Syrian motives and moves on the Middle East chessboard.

[1] Caroline Glick, “Column one: Assad's week of triumph”The Jerusalem Post, May 22, 2008.
[2] Nizar Abdel-Kader, At stake, the state of Lebanon”Bitter Lemons International 20:6, May 22, 2008.
[3] See Nimrod Raphaeli, “Syria’s Fragile Economy”Middle East Review of International Affairs(MERIA) 11:2, June 2007, and  Amir Taheri, “Behind theNew York Post, May 23, 2008.
[4] Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, “ANALYSIS / Can Syria break its Iranian bear hug?”Haaretz, May 25, 2008.
[5] Barry Rubin, “The Region: The Syrian talks aren’t serious”The Jerusalem Post, May 25, 2008.
[6] See the commentary of Yazdan Badran, “Syria: Imad Mughniyeh Assassinated”, Global Voices,February 13, 2008, and of Scott MacLeod, “Who Killed ImadTime, February 13, 2008. 
[7] Nicholas Blanford, “Terrorist mastermind with $25m price on his head, Imad Mughnieh,The Times,February 14, 2008.
[8] See Iran’s announcement of Syrian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Hassan Ali Turkmani signing a Memorandum of Understanding with his Iranian counterpart, Minister of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Brigadier General Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, on expansion of mutual cooperation between the two countries. Syrian policy seems bifurcated; Assad wants to demonstrate some independence from Iran for his intended Western audience, but at the same time, his military is permitting Iran to control its missiles. See the following report from UPI, “Iran and Syria sign missile pact”, June 2, 2008.

Professor Rabbi Daniel M. Zucker is founder and Chairman of the Board of Americans for Democracy in the Middle-East. The organization’s web site is

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