Friday, December 18, 2009

The Enduring Iran-Syria-Hezbollah Axis Part I

by Michael Rubin

1st part of 2

The Obama administration would like to move Syria into the camp of more moderate Arab states, but there is scant evidence that Syria is willing to give up its support for terrorist organizations. Like Iran, it remains a destabilizing and dangerous force in the region.

Key points in this Outlook:

* The Lebanese and Israeli border is calmer today than during the 2006 war, but the potential for regional conflict is great.

* Both the Syrian and Iranian governments have used Hezbollah to conduct proxy warfare against Israel.

* The Obama administration has tried to move Syria from a rejectionist state into the more moderate Arab camp, but there is no evidence that the engagement policy has worked.

The 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel took not only outside observers by surprise, but also Israel and the government of Lebanon. A day after an operation in which Hezbollah killed five Israeli soldiers and captured two others, the Israel Defense Forces struck Lebanese targets as far north as Beirut. Over subsequent days, the Israeli Air Force bombed Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods in Beirut and struck targets in the country's

north. U.S., European, and Arab diplomats scrambled to prevent the spread of hostilities.

While Arab governments remained conspicuously silent, unwilling to support Hezbollah publicly, if at all, Iranian authorities egged on the militia. Speaking six days after the war began, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, the speaker of Iran's parliament, declared, "To Hassan Nasrallah [Hezbollah's secretary general] we say, well done. This religious scholar roars like a lion, and the blood of Imam [Ruhollah] Khomeini rages in his veins."[1] Iran's supreme leader encouraged Hezbollah to keep fighting. According to Nasrallah, Ali Khamenei sent him a letter two days after the war began, which stated, "You have a hard war ahead, but if you resist, you will triumph."[2]

United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1701 restored calm, but only a tenuous one. While the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) returned to Lebanon, it failed to prevent the resupply of Hezbollah with an arsenal even more advanced than before the 2006 conflict. The Lebanese and Israeli border may be calm today, but the potential for regional conflict has only grown. If a new conflict erupts, it likely will be deadlier and harder to contain to Israel and Lebanon. Hezbollah now possesses missiles capable of striking not only Haifa, but also Tel Aviv.[3]

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has reached out diplomatically to both Syria and Iran in the belief that a less confrontational approach to conflict resolution might lead the two states to reconsider their rejectionist behavior. It has not worked. While Tehran and Damascus may welcome the incentives inherent in U.S. engagement, both states continue to use proxies to pursue radical aims and undercut stability. Iran may be Hezbollah's chief patron, but Syria is the lynchpin that makes Iranian support for foreign fighters possible. While Israel may be the immediate target of the Iran-Syria nexus, the partnership threatens broader U.S. interests.

A Proxy Is Born

Hezbollah formed against the backdrop of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon as an Iranian proxy. Ali Mohtashimi, Iran's ambassador to Syria from 1982 to 1985, discussed the group's beginnings in an interview with the Iranian newspaper Shargh on August 3, 2008:

After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Ayatollah Khomeini changed his mind about sending large forces to Syria and Lebanon. . . . I was really worried about Syria and Lebanon. I went to Tehran and met with Ayatollah Khomeini. As I was worried about Lebanon and enthusiastic about the idea of sending forces to Syria and Lebanon, I started talking about our responsibilities and what was going on in Lebanon. The imam cooled me down and said the forces we send to Syria and Lebanon would need huge logistical support. . . . The only remaining way is to train the Shi'a men there, and so Hezbollah was born.[4]

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) supported the new group as it fought or co-opted other Shia militias in southern Lebanon. The Iranian government is not shy about credit. On May 14, 2009, the London-based pan-Arab daily Ash-Sharq al-Awsat published an interview with Mohammad Hassan Akhtari, the Islamic Republic's ambassador to Syria from 1986 to 1997, and again from 2005 through 2007.

Correspondent Manal Lufti described Akhtari as "the operational father" of Hezbollah, "engineer of the special relationship" between Syria and Iran, and "coordinator of Iran's relations with Palestinian organizations in Damascus," groups listed annually as terrorist organizations in the State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism.[5] Indeed, according to Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, "the Iranian embassy in Damascus became the most important Ira-nian embassy in the world. It represented something akin to a 'regional center' for Iran's diplomatic activities that extended from Damascus to Beirut and the Palestinian territories and became privy to files on several matters, chief of which was Iran's relations with Syria, Hezbollah, [and] the Palestinian organizations."[6]

Iran and Syria worked jointly to unify the Shia who, through the early 1980s, were divided between Amal and Hezbollah. Akhtari described how he and Ghazi Kanaan, the Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon, met over months to manage reconciliation, which ultimately led to the victory of Hezbollah, the more religious of the two groups.[7] While Syria cultivated a reputation for secularism among many Western academics, Akhtari describes a different regime.[8] "The late President Hafiz al-Asad trusted Ayatollah Khomeini and respected him. He was one of those who believed that any opposition to the Islamic Republic in any shape or form and under whatever pretext amounted to treason to the Arab, Islamic, and Palestinian causes."[9] By 1988, Hezbollah was the dominant force not only in southern Lebanon, where it painted itself as the vanguard of resistance against Israel's occupation, but also in Beirut, which would remain under Syrian occupation for the next seventeen years.

Hezbollah thrived under Syrian occupation. Both the Syrian and Iranian governments used Hezbollah to conduct proxy warfare against Israel. Symbolism is important in the Middle East. In April 2001, when Nasrallah met Khamenei, Nasrallah kissed Khamenei's hand, symbolizing fealty.[10] In the decade before Israel's 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah conducted more than three dozen suicide attacks against Israeli forces in Lebanon.[11] Between Israel's withdrawal and the eruption of war between Israel and Lebanon, Hezbollah conducted twenty-one additional operations against Israel itself.[12]

The Syrian government not only turned a blind eye toward the group's activities in Lebanon as Hezbollah systematically worked to undercut that state's sovereignty, but also facilitated a supply of Iranian missiles to Hezbollah. As Patrick Devenny, Henry M. Jackson National Security Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C., noted in a prescient article six months before the 2006 war, "The Hezbollah missile threat to Israel has expanded not only in quantity but also in quality. In recent years, the group's operational artillery reach has grown. Experts and analysts generally put the Hezbollah rocket force somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 missiles. The heart of this arsenal remains rooted in Hezbollah's massive stocks--perhaps 7,000 to 8,000--of 107mm and 122mm Katyusha rockets, virtually all of which were supplied directly from existing Iranian army stocks."[13]

The Israel Defense Forces' failure to eradicate Hezbollah in the 2006 war led many analysts to declare Hezbollah the victor.[14] Hezbollah had survived Israel's onslaught and become the first Arab entity to hit Haifa since Israel's founding in 1948.[15] Robert G. Rabil, director of graduate studies at Florida Atlantic University and a well-regarded Syria and Lebanon analyst, went further, suggesting that Hezbollah's rise may have come at Syria's expense.[16]

Michael Rubin

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


No comments:

Post a Comment