KHALED ABOU ZAHR
As Lebanon is going through a complete failure of its economy and institutions, the Lebanese people do not know where to look for help or guidance. Unfortunately, not much help can be expected for various reasons. First, Western powers will not give support beyond humanitarian aid to what is essentially a Hezbollah government. Secondly, and maybe most importantly, there is little to gain or worth investing in Lebanon if Syria is still in turmoil and the new “post-Arab Spring” Damascus is still in the delivery room.
It is undeniable that Syria is in the midst of a competition between regional and global players like Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel to determine what this new Syria will look like. This situation has everyone wondering if it will be a winner-takes-all scenario, if a consensus will emerge, or even if a return to military confrontation is possible. There is clearly an objective, mainly from Russia, to clean up Syria, which means full and exclusive control of the state on the ground and removing Iranian bases and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) facilities, while also making the country a respectable counterpart and polishing its international image. This is the main reason why Russia’s security forces targeted the trafficking of drugs and contraband, which was closely linked to the Assad regime. This meant that the first real fuses to blow in old Syria were those of the businessmen close to the regime. Next might come key security and military officials. Whether it will reach Bashar Assad is a key question.
This process is problematic as Syria has to deal with many forces on its territory, but it is deemed a necessary step in order to start the much-needed reconstruction process. In these tough economic conditions and with the coronavirus disease pandemic, there is an ever-increasing need for international and, of course, European support. An alignment between Germany and Turkey is already noticeable, surpassing France’s historical role. But, more generally, it seems like it would make sense for international support to be directed through a mini-Marshall Plan for both Syria and Lebanon, as both countries are in a shambles.
Analysts are speculating on the appearance of a new strongman who is capable of bringing this change to Syria — rather like new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, whose nomination was welcomed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Al-Kadhimi seems willing to take measured steps to balance relations with Iran without seeking confrontation and while keeping communication channels open. Ultimately, his success will be determined by his ability to dismantle the Iranian-backed militias and return full sovereignty to Iraq. His chances of success seem slim, but Tehran is playing along for now. When it comes to Syria, although Iran and Hezbollah are entrenched, armed militias are not at the same strength. So can Assad convince all international powers — the US included — that he can manage this new Syria and balance each party’s interests, or will a new leader emerge?
This is what will eventually determine the fates of both Syria and Lebanon. Would Iran sacrifice Assad in a negotiation with Russia and, if so, at what price? Will the US, which has been able to put the burden of this file on Moscow, accept a potential consensus and what would it look like? There are many questions still unanswered and the ability of any dissatisfied party to disrupt any agreement is still high, even if the US and Russia do reach a compromise. Vladimir Putin is in the driving seat on this file and is not in a hurry to either find or give all the answers. And so, until the birth of this new Syria, Lebanon will have to patiently wait.
These tensions in Syria and the continuous Israeli strikes on Iranian targets have also revived the scenario of a potential confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah, like in 2006. When recalling what triggered the 2006 war, most analysts focus on the cross-border raid by Hezbollah that resulted in deaths on both sides and the capture of two Israeli soldiers. They forget that, two weeks prior to this attack, Hamas’ military wing and other Iran-backed armed groups organized a cross-border attack that resulted in the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. They also forget that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, in a televised speech, made it clear to the Israelis that indirect negotiations for the release of all kidnapped soldiers from Gaza and South Lebanon should be through Lebanon, and therefore Iran.
This declaration arguably pushed the Israelis to launch a full-scale war against Lebanon. It was their chosen answer to Hezbollah and Iran that they would not be held hostage and that there was a red line and a heavy price to pay for Hezbollah’s involvement in the Palestinian file. Unfortunately, it was Lebanon and the Lebanese that paid the heavy price of destruction before returning to the status quo — only with an emboldened Hezbollah.
Close to 15 years later, Nasrallah’s speeches no longer draw the same level of attention. In short, few people care about him or Lebanon and the Iranian proxy has lost its popularity on the street, mostly after it fought to protect Assad in Syria. Since 2013, Hezbollah has been helping Assad to stay in power and repress the population on the orders of his masters in Tehran. He has also led other sectarian brigades composed of fighters from Afghanistan and Central Asia under the IRGC’s command.
However, a speech Nasrallah delivered last week resembled what we heard from him in 2006. It was not a message for Lebanon or Israel, but a message from Iran to all regional and international powers involved in Syria. The message was clear: That the Iranian link between Syria and Lebanon is here to stay, which means that anybody who wants to bring change to Syria without the approval of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will have to deal with Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies. So, unless a major change takes place in Tehran, it seems that the Lebanese are still hostages and need to look closely into who will emerge as a winner in Syria, as this will determine their fate. Unfortunately, while this plays out, they might face even worse than the current situation.