Why Syria Lost Big in Lebanon
By: Daniel M. Zucker
FrontPageMagazine.com | 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”
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
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.
is economically in the doldrums as more than one analyst has noted,
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.
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,
as well as that of Barry Rubin in the May 26, 2008 edition of The Jerusalem
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.
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,
and no less a figure than Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is reputed to have made a similar accusation.
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, 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. 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
 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.
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