Saturday, November 15, 2008

Gaza events: Israeli-Palestinian conflict in miniature


By Ami Isseroff


Those who want to learn from history can get a whole education from recent events in Gaza. The Hamas government or their allies or a splinter faction or someone, dug a tunnel into Israel in order to kidnap Israeli soldiers. By luck, Israel found out about the tunnel and destroyed it, triggering rocket and mortar fire into Sderot and Ashkelon. These were not just little Qassam rockets, but professional Grad - upgraded Katyushas, falling in Ashkelon. Israel responded by firing at the "militants" launching the rockets. Next, IDF killed four "militants" about to plant a bomb near the Kissufim crossing.

While all this show was going on, and not by coincidence, the Quartet held a meeting upholding the Annapolis "process." At the same time, a group of European MPs landed in Gaza to show their support for the genocidal Hamas. Mr Ismail Hanniyeh, the "good cop" told them the Hamas would make a truce with Israel if Israel withdrew to the 1967 lines. Presumably the truce would look like the current lull and would be kept in the same way. Hanniyeh forgot to tell the MPs that the deal would include Right of Return for Palestinian refugees, which would destroy the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland. Moreover, the "bad cop," Mahmoud Zahar, promptly announced that no such truce was currently on offer, a retraction that got less publicity.

Israeli PM Olmert told IDF troops that a clash in Gaza was "unavoidable". Since the clash is ongoing that hardly required the prophetic vision of Isaiah, but it is likely that Ehud Olmert meant a more major clash might ensue.

What can we learn from this confused babel? A number of points emerge which characterize most relations with the Palestinians since 1994, and in particular those with the late Mr. Yasser Arafat's government and the Hamas government in Gaza.

Treaties and agreements are written on sand - The lull in Gaza, like the Oslo Accords with Mr Arafat, is proving to be a fiction, but the Israeli government doesn't understand that yet, and neither does the world.

Slow Death - A frog can be boiled to death gradually, raising the temperature a small increment each time. He will never notice. Agreements with Palestinians never die, they just fade away, one rocket at a time, one Molotov cocktail at a time, one kidnapping at a time. Suppose the IDF had not uncovered the tunnel, and the Palestinians had kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Wouldn't that have been a reason to declare the truce null and void? The fact that the IDF discovered the tunnel has no bearing on the intent of the perpetrators. At each stage, Israel acquiesces in the new level of violence and plays by the rules of the other side, because it seems to have no choice.

Deniability - Like Mr Arafat, Mr. Haniyeh has set up a vast apparatus of indirection and deniability. Every Palestinian group, immediately on its formation, splits up into three or four other groups, which can be claimed as "independent factions" that are "out of control" - even though they are all one and the same. It was not Fatah that carried out all those "militant" attacks in the 70s, it was Black September. It was not Hamas that kidnapped Gilad Shalit, we were told, but Jayish al Islam, a splinter of the very Popular Resistance Committees. Later of course, it turns out that it was Fatah behind Black September all the time, and that the Izz al-din al Qassam Brigades of the Hamas were responsible for the kidnapping of Shalit, and that all these people can change their hats and say they are part of the Popular Resistance Committees or the Abu Rish brigade or the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades whenever necessary. A "militant" by any other name blows up just as loudly. And if in fact, Hamas claims responsibility for an attack, there is always the "good cop - bad cop" fiction - Haniyeh wants peace, Zahar doesn't want peace and Meshal is a "moderate" in between them.

Negotiation events always draw 'militant' attacks - Every critical event in the Israeli-Palestinian Palestinian peace process was marked by a spike in terror 'militant" activity. The Oslo accords brought the first suicide bombing in Mehola in 1993 even before they were signed. The Oslo Interim agreement and the 1996 Israeli elections brought a rash of bus bombings. The negotiations in 2000 brought the Second Intifada. There is never any way to decide if the terror 'resistance' attacks, are due to real opposition by factions opposed to the Palestinian government, or if the factions and the government are really the same folks with different hats, and the attacks are a way of pressuring Israel and the sponsors of the peace process.

American diplomats live in virtual reality - While the "tunnel riots" were occurring in Israel a decade ago, Dennis Ross was busy urging Israel to make concessions. Arabs were yelling "itbach al yahoud" (kill the Jews) and American officials were talking about a peace process. Republican or Democrat, that never changes. While the rockets were falling in Ashkelon, Secretary of State Rice was insisting that Annapolis is vital and vibrant. Darn right. In Ashkelon, the rockets caused a lot of vibrations.

Bad Press - In this case, it is absolutely clear. This time, Israel got it right. Evidently, no Palestinian Arab civilians were hurt. Thankfully, no IDF soldiers died either. About 10 Palestinian "militants" were killed in all. But even in this case, the headlines in much of the world's press state "Israel kills Palestinian fighters" or "Israel kills Palestinians" and the announcements and statistics put out by NGOs and others will all say something like "Israel killed Mr Jihad itbach al Yahud, 28, a Palestinian citizen." As there were no Israeli casualties, the "disproportionate response" is bound to draw flak. The allies could never have won World War II if the headlines had stated, "Russians kill hundreds of thousands of German citizens in Stalingrad." Fortunately for the world, the Belgian courts could not declare General Zhukov to be a war criminal in World War II. America could not fight crime, if the headlines had announced, "FBI Assassinates resistance leader John Dillinger." "Occupation Forces Assassinate resistance leaders Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow."

International support for Israel eroded - Over many years, Yasser Arafat had built the image of the PLO as a "liberation organization." It was at least within comprehension that "progressive" groups and Europeans and third world people and even some Israelis would be sympathetic to their cause. The Hamas, however, are such egregiously reactionary villains, that one could not imagine that they would garner support from anyone but a madman. Never mind that they want to wipe out Israel, a "cause" that draws the sympathy of many "progressive" Europeans. They are murdering Christians and the very same Fatah and PLO who were the idols of the third world and the "progressives." Nonetheless, EU parliament members and other witless folks have rallied 'round the cause of the poor, supposedly besieged Hamas, fueling the fraudulent press campaign. The longer the issue is unresolved, as with the so called Second Intifada, the further support for Israel will be eroded.

Palestinian Intransigence - Mahmoud Abbas has been adamant about not budging an inch on any issue, and anyhow he doesn't control the Palestinian government. Abbas told Palestinians

"We rejected Israeli proposals that stipulated making concessions including on Jerusalem and the refugees," he said.

"We either get all six points - Jerusalem, settlements, borders, refugees, water and security - or nothing at all," Abbas said.

The Palestinian leader added that he had made his position clear during a meeting Sunday with the Quartet of Middle East peace mediators - the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia - in Egypt.

Abbas has learned nothing and forgotten nothing: Our way or the highway. Yet after he voiced these sentiments to the Quartet, the meeting concluded with festive announcements: "A good time was had by all." Remember please, that this is not the voice of the Hamas, but of the "moderate" Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas hardly controls his own West Bank territory. The Palestinian Authority is dependent for survival on Western aid. Everyone knows that the conditions he poses are unacceptable to Israel, because they would mean at least political suicide for any government, and very possibly national suicide for Israel. Yet no Western leader will criticize Abbas for being "inflexible."

So we can see, in a few days action, a repetition in miniature of almost all the feature of the entire Israeli-Palestinian "peace process:" agreements are not honored, gradual escalation - salami tactics, bad press, international support for "militants," Palestinian mixed signals but actual intransigence, and unrealistic and one-sided diplomatic activity by the West. Israeli incompetence no doubt has a role in all this too. It is probably the same with almost any little slice of time that we take.

At the worst possible time, the Israeli government, a transition government, faces a critical choice. If a clash with Hamas is inevitable, then frankly there is no time like the present. A few months from now, Hamas will be that much stronger. A new US government, probably less sympathetic to Israeli military operations than the present one, will be installed. Hamas may well take over the West Bank as well. By incremental escalation, Israel would be subjected to constant rocket barrages on all its borders, against which we have no defense except eviction of the Hamas by force, a move that would be blocked by the Obama administration as it was evidently blocked by the now lame duck Bush administration, which continues to laud the "vibrant" peace process. At any time in the escalation, our friends can ask "Why now?" "What is different from yesterday? Yesterday there were 10 rockets, and today there are 20. Yesterday 5 died, and today 6 died. What is the real difference?" The threshold keeps moving.

There will never be a "good" time for fighting Hamas. The worst time would be after they surprise Israel with a mass kidnapping or a huge rocket attack that can't be ignored by anyone. We would be unprepared and disorganized, and the government and army would be likely to botch the reaction as they did in the Second Lebanon War and the Yom Kippur War. Any Israeli military operation is going to provoke massive rocket fire from Gaza. The next strike in Ashkelon may draw blood, but in principle, the Palestinian response may be no different from this last one. Evidently "nonviolent Palestinian resistance" simply means that they have bad aim. As the months go by, the rockets get bigger and better. The aim is improving too. It will be years before we have any defense against Qassam rockets and mortars. Very likely it will prove to be ineffective, or else it will be irrelevant because the "militants" will have moved on to artillery or other weapons. If we can eliminate Hamas, now is the time to do it. Six months ago was much better.

Politics is no panacea. No matter who is in office, they will be faced with the same trade-offs and the same constraints. Benjamin Netanyahu will make brave pronouncements. If words had the value of ordnance, he would have finished off Mr Arafat and the Palestinian Authority in 1997. But Arafat didn't go away. Netanyahu responded to the cries of "Itbach al Yahud" with the Hebron withdrawal agreement and the Wye agreement. Ariel Sharon also took office with grandiose rhetoric about fighting terror militancy. He carried out the disengagement. "From here," he said, "it doesn't look the same as it did from there."

If on the other hand, it is concluded that wiping out Hamas is too risky or too bloody an option, then an urgent bipartisan policy review is required, to chart a new Israeli policy before it is too late. Whatever we are doing now is not working. We can't wait until elections in February to fix it. They won't fix it.

Ami Isseroff

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



Britain's occupied territories.


By Michael Freund


Even as its armed forces are valiantly prosecuting the war on terror overseas, Britain's diplomats at home are doing their utmost to ensure that this will not be remembered as their country's finest hour.

In a baffling turn of events, the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown has quietly begun turning up the political heat on Israel in recent weeks, seeking to impose an economic choke hold on the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria.

On November 3, the UK Independent newspaper reported that London is pressing the European Union to clamp down on imports produced by Jews living beyond Israel's 1967 borders.

In a circular distributed to all 27 EU member states, the British Foreign Office grumbled that "there has been an acceleration in settlement construction," and it urged Europe "to look at how UK and Community policies can avoid inadvertently supporting or encouraging settlement activity."

Israeli officials are said to be concerned that this may be the first step in a British campaign to bring about a total boycott of Jewish goods from Judea and Samaria.

And so, while Palestinian terrorists in Gaza are busy firing rockets into the Negev, the British government is more concerned about Israeli tomatoes being grown in the West Bank.

This latest British intrusion into Israel's internal affairs will likely get an additional boost next week, when Foreign Secretary David Miliband visits here and reportedly plans to raise the issue of settlement construction in Judea and Samaria with his hosts.

Well, if the Brits want to have an open and frank discussion about "occupied territories," I say bring it on. A good place to start would be with Britain's own "occupied territories," which are far more extensive and widespread than anything it accuses Israel of possessing.

Indeed, from Europe to South America to the Middle East to the South Pole, there is hardly a corner of the world in which Britain isn't involved in some territorial dispute or another as it obstinately clings to control over disparate chunks of terrain.

The most famous of these, of course, are the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, which are claimed by Argentina. Although the islands are of little economic value and are home to more penguins than people, Britain fought a brief war with Argentina over them in 1982 which left 900 dead. And just last week, the British sparked a diplomatic row with Buenos Aires by issuing a new constitution for the Falklands, which it said is intended "to protect UK interests."

This prompted Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taina to call a press conference at which he denounced the British for attempting to perpetuate "an anachronistic colonial situation."

And they call us stubborn occupiers?

Half way around the world lies another fine example of British hypocrisy - the Chagos Archipelago, which London refers to as the British Indian Ocean Territory. Both Mauritius and the Seychelles have strong claims to it as their own, but that didn't stop Britain from forcibly expelling all the inhabitants between 1965 and 1971 to make way for a military base it wanted to lease to the US.

And though the Chagossians, as they are known, have repeatedly won court cases against the British government demanding their "right of return," the Brits will have none of it, and have largely left the islands' former residents to fend for themselves in exile.

As prominent British columnist Matthew Parris put it in the Times of London last week: "The saga is a stinking disgrace, a slur on Britain's good name." Nonetheless, her majesty's government simply refuses to let go.

Thousands of miles to the south, even the polar icecaps of Antarctica have not escaped London's lust for land. Britain has staked a claim to a whopping 1.7 million square kilometers of the South Pole's frozen terrain, part of which overlaps with territories claimed by Chile and Argentina.

But the fact that it is stepping on other nations' toes, and ignoring their rightful claims, does not seem to trouble Britain's Foreign Office one bit.

Back here in the Middle East, our neighbors in Cyprus continue to suffer from some good old-fashioned British colonial covetousness. While efforts are under way to reunite the Greek and Turkish controlled parts of the isle, Britain doggedly continues to cling to 254 sq. km. of Cypriot territory in the form of the Akrotiri and Dhekelia sovereign military bases. This has sparked the ire of Cyprus' new president, who vowed earlier this year to remove the British "colonial bloodstain" from his country.

While we are on the subject of British colonialism, need we mention the territory of Gibraltar, which Spain wants back? And what about Northern Ireland?

So before Britain decides to preach to Israel about the issue of "occupied territories," it would do well to put its own house in order.

Put in perspective, it is clear that all of London's harrumphing about Israel's "occupied territories" is just a lot of duplicitous hot air.

By contrast, Judea and Samaria are the ancient heartland of the Jewish people, the cradle of our civilization, and Israel has every right - morally, historically, theologically and militarily - to be there.

The same can hardly be said for Britain's dubious claims to various specks of land at other nations' expense.

As Winston Churchill once famously pointed out: "The English never draw a line without blurring it."

And nowhere is that line presently more blurred than when it comes to London's barefaced hypocrisy on the subject of "occupation."


Michael Freund


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


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Syria Can't Be Flipped.


by Michael Rubin

"Not talking doesn't make us look tough -- it makes us look arrogant," President-elect Barack Obama declares. Throughout his campaign, he has promised renewed engagement after eight years of moribund diplomacy. Chief among his diplomatic targets is Syria, low-hanging fruit unencumbered by the political minefield that would result from engaging the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government. Obama has already dispatched once and future adviser Robert Malley to discuss his regional agenda with Syrian leaders.

Aaron Miller, another veteran Clinton-era peace processor, wrote on Nov. 4 about the Syrian temptation. A Syrian deal, Miller argued, would weaken "Syria's connection to Hamas and Hezbollah, and…the Syrian-Iranian relationship." Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for his part, appears a ready partner.

In a congratulatory telegram to Obama, the Syrian leader expressed "hope that dialogue would prevail to overcome the difficulties that have hindered real progress toward peace, stability and prosperity in the Middle East."

It is tempting to believe that U.S. diplomacy can flip Syria. The last rejectionist Arab state, Syria is a lynchpin not only in the Arab-Israeli peace process, but also in efforts to resolve Iraqi insurgency and Lebanese instability. Alas, as audacious as Obama's hope might be, Syria cannot be flipped. It may be fashionable to blame Bush for the failure to seize a Damascus olive branch, but the real problem has less to do with any U.S. administration and much more to do with Arab history and political culture.

For more than a millennium, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo have competed for the leadership of the Arab world. Soon after the Prophet Muhammad's death, the Umayyad dynasty established Damascus as the seat of the Islamic empire. Less than a century later, the successor Abbasids transferred the caliphate to Baghdad.

In the 10th century, the Fatimid dynasty built Cairo as the seat of a counter-caliphate to challenge Abbasid--and Baghdad's--dominance. The Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 and put an end to Arab dominance in the Islamic world. The Ottoman (Turkish), Safavid (Iranian) and Mughal (Indian) empires filled the vacuum and created a new paradigm that would last for centuries.

World War I shattered the Middle East as much as the Mongol invasion had seven centuries earlier. From the Ottoman Empire's ashes arose a new cast of Arab states, the most important of which coalesced around new leaders in Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo. Each struggled to exert leadership across the entire Arab world. Israel became a useful template around which they could posture and against whom they could act as each sought to outdo its rivals in a claim to Arab leadership.

At times, two rivals would join forces but never has there been solidarity among all three. In 1958, for example, Egypt and Syria joined together to form the United Arab Republic. Rather than join with Cairo and Damascus, Baghdad created its own counter-union with Amman. Neither union lasted. Each Arab leader chafed at political and diplomatic subservience to the other.

The next decade saw Baathism's rise in Syria and Iraq. The more alike the two capitals grew, the fiercer their rivalry became. Unity is not an Arab virtue. As each struggled to lead the rejectionist camp, Cairo struck its own claim to leadership. Uncomfortable under the same Cold War umbrella as its rivals, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat switched back to the U.S. camp and, some 30 years ago, recognized Israel.

Impeded by pride, culture and history, Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus will never coexist as partners. Sadat flipped Egypt because he understood leadership meant either dominating or standing apart from his fellow Arabs. Washington eased Egypt's transition with more than $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid; more than $50 billion in sum so far. Iraq flipped, but by force, at a cost far higher.

Diplomats seeking to flip Assad are asking him to commit political suicide. Syria has less than 20 million citizens to Egypt's 80 million; for Damascus to work in the same coalition as Cairo is to subordinate itself to it. Absent the crisis of resistance, Assad has little reason to justify rule by his Alawite clan, a minority Shiite sect, among a disenfranchised Sunni Arab majority.

Aid will not facilitate. For Assad to settle for less than Egypt's aid package would be to confirm his subordination to Hosni Mubarak. A higher package is outside reality: Even the most profligate congressmen cannot stomach another commitment of $50 billion, an amount that could be driven even higher once Tehran begins a bidding war for Syrian loyalty.

So why does Assad flirt with the West? He derives his power from rejection of the West and Israel, but he knows history. He understands that he can both embrace process and ignore peace. So long as the West conflates diplomacy and inducement, Assad can pocket irreversible incentives: A reprieve from the Rafik Hariri murder investigation, concessions on territorial disputes, an end to sanctions and heightened trade.

When the time comes to reciprocate, Assad can walk away, as his father so often did, leaving Washington with far less leverage than before. Today, Obama's supporters see policy as the difference between good and Bush. They sing change, but to privilege rhetoric above reality is dangerous hubris.

Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Both sides want to continue ceasefire.


Amir Mizroch

It's telling that neither Hamas nor Israel has announced the end of the tahadiyeh. Hamas said the cease-fire was "teetering" and vowed to respond to the latest attack, but it has no interest in sparking a war with Israel that would threaten its hold on the Gaza Strip.

In Hamas's mind, digging a tunnel under the border through which its fighters can crawl to an IDF position, kill and/or kidnap Israeli soldiers and take them back to Gaza is not a violation of the cease-fire, whereas an Israeli preemptive reaction to that is.

But despite the recent flare-up, both sides have an interest in maintaining the cease-fire and averting an escalation.

For Israel it is important to let communities in the area enjoy their first taste of normal life in more than seven years. A return to war with Hamas would immediately bring down sustained rocket fire on these communities and public pressure would again mount, either for another cease-fire or for a swift and decisive military victory in Gaza. Another cease-fire would look pretty much like this last one, and a swift military victory in the Gaza Strip is a fantasy.

The IDF is capable of taking down the Hamas leadership, but will never truly succeed in eradicating the movement from the Gaza Strip entirely. Invading Gaza to kill the Hamas leadership and uproot its military infrastructure can be done. It will be costly, and soldiers will die and the home front will bleed, but the Hamas regime can be taken down. The real problem will come afterward: Does Israel want to rule and care for Gaza's 1.2 million hungry, angry people? Does the IDF want to be bogged down trading death with guerrilla fighters in the narrow streets of Gaza indefinitely? How long will the Israeli public maintain support for such a mission? And, haven't we been here before? Didn't we just leave Gaza?

But the longer Hamas is allowed to stay entrenched in Gaza and build its army, the harder it becomes to dislodge.

In the meantime, Gaza is drifting slowly away from a two-state solution. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas clumsily lost control of the strip last July, and has been trying to get it back ever since. There are social, economic and political processes happening in Gaza that he can't stop. There is now a third generation of Gazans who have known nothing but struggle. Poverty, hunger and radicalization are rampant in Gaza, and Hamas uses this to consolidate its rule there.

Gaza has turned into the world's largest terrorist base. It has not, as some wished, become the Middle East's Singapore. Like Singapore, Gaza has an outlet to the sea and nice beaches. That's where the comparison starts and ends. It's even starting to act like other terror bases in the world. Like al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the world is always on alert for new attacks when Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri tapes are broadcast on Arab channels and Web sites. In the Gaza Strip, it has become Muhammad Deif who is the harbinger of things to come.

Deif, long at the top of Israel's hit list, resurfaced Tuesday to warn of new attacks. He probably knew what he was talking about.

There is no doubt that Hamas is growing stronger. It is hard to put a finger on exactly how many tons of explosives, anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets are being smuggled into the strip in tunnels under the Egyptian border. But while Hamas is rolling in impressive amounts of munitions, the threat posed by Hamas is a fraction of that of Hizbullah in Lebanon. Four tons of explosives here and there, or even 14 tons, are not going to change the balance of forces much between the IDF and Hamas.

Hamas is fortifying and training, but so is the IDF. So with one eye on the Hamas buildup in Gaza, Israel has another eye firmly on Hizbullah, which is now four times stronger than it was at the end of the Second Lebanon War. Its rockets, assumed to number at least 40,000, can now reach Dimona and Yeruham.

Another reason neither side wants to break the cease-fire is the prisoner exchange issue. There is still no formula for the release of Gilad Schalit, and breaking the cease-fire will not help return the Israeli soldier home.

As of this writing there was no real progress on the prisoner release talks and they have been effectively suspended. What has gone before has been something like this: The Egyptians come to the Israelis with a list of prisoners Hamas wants freed. It's a tough list, making it very hard for any Israeli government to release these people. Israel swallows the bitter pill and says OK, just release Schalit. The Egyptians go back to Hamas, who at the last minute adds more names to the list.

Lately, however, there seems to be some confusion on the Hamas side as to whether Israel has officially rejected Hamas's demands to release 450 heavy duty terrorists. They think Israel has said no, but they haven't heard an official "no" from the Egyptians. This could be an Israeli tactic to keep Hamas confused, wear them down and lower their price.

The names on the Hamas list, according to senior Israeli officials, are "horrendous," and include men who have been sentenced to over 30 consecutive life sentences; in other words, men responsible for the deaths of many Israelis.

Whatever the truth is, Israeli tactics do not seem to be lowering Hamas's asking price, and there are some within the defense establishment questioning its effectiveness. Prisoner release negotiations are being run out of the Prime Minister's Office. Hamas, for its part, has turned Schalit into an insurance policy against Israeli military strikes and isn't going to let him go without a massive prisoner release and security guarantees.

But the longer it holds out, the more pressure it will come under from the families of Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails. Meanwhile, the assessment is that Schalit is alive, but that his health is deteriorating.

The cease-fire is in its fifth month and its official end date is December 18. If and when it ends, it will likely be Hamas which decides to do it. Hamas sets the rules of the cease-fire game. It decides when and where to fire rockets; it decides where to dig tunnels to kidnap soldiers or infiltrate Israeli border communities. Israel keeps a close eye and reacts where and when it needs to. Israel will want to keep the calm along the southern border for as long as it can, to allow the towns and kibbutzim to enjoy normal lives, and to focus on the much larger threats from the north (Hizbullah), northeast (Syria) and farther east (Iran).


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



Monday, November 10, 2008

Has Hezbollah's Rise Come at Syria's Expense? Part I


by Robert G. Rabil


1st part of 3


The Iranian and Syrian relationship with Hezbollah developed from a combination of ideological, domestic, and regional factors. Both Tehran and Damascus found Hezbollah to be a useful proxy to further regional objectives. Today, however, Hezbollah's position has changed. Tehran's growing strength is matched by Damascus's regional weakness. As overt Syrian suzerainty over Lebanon fades and Hezbollah increases its regional role without regard to the Lebanese government, the nature of Hezbollah's relations to Syria has changed. The group has outgrown its subservient relationship to Damascus. Hezbollah is no longer the junior partner in the axis.


Hezbollah's roots lie in both the Lebanese Shi'i revival of the 1960s and 1970s and, more directly, to the return of Lebanese clerics who had studied in Najaf under the supervision of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Jerusalem sought to set up a Lebanese government friendly to itself. Tehran and Damascus sought proxies to undermine this new government and, in Tehran's case, advance its new revolutionary agenda. In 1982, Shi‘i political activist Hussein al-Musawi broke away from Amal, then the Shi‘i community's main political movement, and allied himself with radical Shi‘i clerics to form Hezbollah (Party of God).

Tehran adopted the new group. It bankrolled it and sent its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to train it. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad also supported Hezbollah. He and the Iranian leadership agreed to a strategic framework to govern their relationship with the group: Tehran would organize Hezbollah, subsidize it, and provide it with weaponry. Damascus would oversee Hezbollah operations against Israeli troops to ensure that Hezbollah operations did not expose the Syrian army to military confrontation with Israel and would allocate the Bekaa Valley as a location for the IRGC to establish training camps. In addition, Syrian authorities would secure a supply route and assist with logistics.[1]

In a number of terrorist attacks through the 1980s, Hezbollah proved its capability and lethality. But Assad's support for Hezbollah's terrorism was not unconditional. He expected to maintain a tight grip over the group. When, on July 19, 1982, Hezbollah, acting under Iranian direction but without Syrian knowledge kidnapped David Dodge, the acting president of American University in Beirut, Assad was furious and threatened to expel the IRGC from Lebanon.[2] Damascus and Tehran also sparred over Hezbollah's June 14, 1985 threat to execute hijacked TWA flight 847 passengers on the tarmac of Beirut International Airport. On June 17, 1987, Syrian troops beat Hezbollah members for kidnapping ABC correspondent Charles Glass near a Syrian checkpoint[3] and, later that year, Syrian troops shot twenty-seven Hezbollah fighters after they refused to obey a Syrian officer's order to remove a West Beirut checkpoint.[4] Clashes the following year between Amal and Hezbollah reflected continuing tension between Damascus and Tehran. Still, such tension was the exception, not the norm, and improving processes to resolve conflicts improved their working relationship. Assad began to see Hezbollah not only as a "resistance movement" but also as a strong Lebanese political force.[5]

Transforming Hezbollah

On October 22, 1989, Lebanese deputies meeting in Saudi Arabia signed the Ta'if accord, a compromise brokered by the Syrian government and mediated by Saudi and Algerian diplomats, ending the 15-year Lebanese civil war.

The agreement recognized Syria's "special relationship" with Lebanon, a trusteeship augmented by the May 20, 1991 Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination and the September 1, 1991 Lebanon-Syria Defense and Security agreement.

As the Syrian government exerted more formal suzerainty over Lebanon, Hezbollah clerics such as Secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah and Political Council president Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed understood the need to compromise the party's ideology to adjust to Lebanon's changing circumstances. Although the mission of "Islamizing Lebanon" remained a central tenet of their party, it became a long-term objective. In the more immediate term, Hezbollah sought to become a mainstream political party. At the same time, Damascus sought to use Hezbollah both to pressure Israel for a return of the Golan Heights and to undermine the development of any opposition movement in Lebanon.

Such objectives were difficult to reconcile. How could Syria build Lebanon's state institutions and support Hezbollah's military role? Assad established rules to govern the relationship among the state, Lebanese political forces, and Hezbollah, which the Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon would oversee:[6]

  1. Pro-Syrian officials would staff Lebanese state institutions and the army.
  2. The cabinet of ministers would exclude any anti-Syrian official, and Damascus would retain effective veto power over sensitive government portfolios such as the ministries of the interior, defense, and foreign affairs.
  3. The Syrian chief of intelligence in Lebanon would oversee elections and gerrymander districts to control them.
  4. Hezbollah would take the lead on military operations against Israel but enjoy the implicit political support of the Lebanese government.
  5. Unless otherwise approved by Damascus, Hezbollah would limit its operations to the Israeli-occupied "security zone" in southern Lebanon.
  6. Neither Hezbollah nor the state could use force against the other with Damascus the arbiter in disputes.
  7. Lebanese political parties could pursue their objectives so long as they did not conflict with Syrian policies.
  8. Absent Damascus's approval, no political party could use external forces to advance a political agenda.
  9. While Damascus would supervise Hezbollah's operations against Israel, Hezbollah could decide the timing within windows specified by Damascus.
  10. Hezbollah could capitalize on its resistance role and financial assistance from Iran to advance its political agenda but could not do so at the expense of pro-Syrian parties such as Amal.

Assad, through his intelligence apparatus in Lebanon, enforced those rules. For example, Ghazi Kana‘an, Syria's intelligence chief in Lebanon, closely oversaw the 1992 and 1996 parliamentary elections. The Lebanese government toed the Syrian line and exiled, jailed, or liquidated major opposition figures.

The year 2000 marked a new phase in the Hezbollah-Syrian relationship. Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon undercut the legitimacy of the Syrian presence. With Syrian encouragement, Hezbollah exerted a claim to Lebanese sovereignty over the mountainous Shebaa Farms.[7]

On June 10, 2000, Hafez al-Assad died; his son Bashar took the reins of power. Though Bashar sought to observe the rules governing Syria's relationship with Lebanon and Hezbollah, he enhanced Hezbollah's political status and power not only by receiving Nasrallah warmly in Damascus but also by supplying Hezbollah with increasingly sophisticated weaponry.

His rapprochement accelerated after the United States launched military operations against Iraq in March 2003. Assad said he "wished that its [U.S.] military plan would fail in Iraq"[8] and his foreign minister, Farouq al-Shara, told the Syrian parliament that "Syria has a national interest in the expulsion of the invaders from Iraq."[9] Syrian officials turned a blind eye toward jihadist infiltration from and through Syria into Iraq.

Relations between Damascus and the United States deteriorated. On May 3, 2003, the Bush administration sent Secretary of State Colin Powell to Damascus to demand Syria close terrorist organizations' offices, decommission Hezbollah's armed groups in Lebanon, and support the extension of Lebanese army authority throughout southern Lebanon. On December 12, 2003, over State Department objections, the Congress passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act calling upon Syria "to halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, and stop its development of weapons of mass destruction."[10] With the cosponsorship of the French government and its successful passage, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 placed Lebanon on the international stage with the call for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and for Hezbollah to be disarmed.[11]

Encouraged by these events, many Lebanese sought to reclaim their country from Syrian occupation. While Damascus sought to extend the mandate of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud and accelerated the delivery of enhanced Iranian weaponry to Hezbollah, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt began to rally anti-Syrian politicians.[12]

The Syrian regime fought back. It responded, according to the suspicion of many governments and U.N. investigators, by ordering the February 14, 2005 assassination of Hariri, which sparked mass protests—the so-called Cedar Revolution.[13] Several bombings, assassinations, and violent clashes followed in subsequent months. But, under significant international pressure, on April 26, 2005, Syrian forces officially withdrew from Lebanon.

Damascus still used Lebanon's state institutions to support and give political cover to Hezbollah, which opposed the Cedar Revolution, and directed Lebanon's state security apparatus to support logistically the arming of Hezbollah. [14] The directors of institutions who provided safe routes for shipping arms by land and air and those who interceded to handle emergency cases included such pro-Syrian officials as Brig. Gen. Jamil Sayyed, the chief of the General Security Department (known as Sûreté General); Gen. Edward Mansour, director-general of the State Security Apparatus; Gen. Ali Hajj, chief of the Internal Security Forces; Brig. Gen. Raymond Azar, chief of Military Intelligence; Brig. Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, commander of the army's presidential brigade; and Col. Ghassan Tufeili, chief of the "Eavesdrop Apparatus" in Military Intelligence.[15] Syrian rearmament not only of Hezbollah but also of Palestinian groups in Lebanon such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and the Abu Musa Organization coincided with the Lebanese debate about their disarmament.

Perhaps Syrian officials hoped that their campaign of violence and intimidation would demonstrate that only Damascus could prevent Lebanon from descending into chaos. Syrian actions both undercut Lebanon's national dialogue and undermined the argument that Hezbollah needed to disarm. The Israel Defense Forces launched air raids against Palestinian terrorist bases in Lebanon on May 28, 2006, to retaliate against rocket attacks on its northern border. Lahoud responded by commending Hezbollah's "resistance" and criticized political forces calling for the party's disarmament.[16]

Robert G. Rabil


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


Has Hezbollah's Rise Come at Syria's Expense? Part II


by Robert G. Rabil


2nd part of 3


A New Relationship for a New Reality

As international pressure increased on both the Syrian regime and Hezbollah,[17] both parties retrenched their relationship. Their intimacy metamorphosed into a quasi-strategic relationship in which Hezbollah no longer remained the junior partner. Though Damascus could count on pro-Syrian officers in Lebanon's state institutions and pro-Syrian forces and parties, the Syrian army's withdrawal from Lebanon and the consolidation of a Lebanese nationalist opposition in parliament to the Syrian presence undercut Syria's position. Damascus needed Hezbollah should Syria wish to reclaim its "historical" role in Lebanon. And, while Syrian intelligence could activate its Palestinian allies inside Lebanon, these were not organic to Lebanon's society. Only Hezbollah could serve as the Trojan horse which could bring Syria back into Lebanon.

Recommitment to Iran accompanied Assad's increasing ties to Hezbollah. On February 26, 2004, the Syrian and Iranian governments signed a "memorandum of understanding" to outline expansion of bilateral defense cooperation—and to codify an Iranian commitment to protect Syria in case of attack by either Israel or the United States.[18] Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's January 2006 trip to Damascus further underlined the relationship.[19] In June 2006, the two countries signed a defense treaty. Cooperation between Tehran and Damascus continues to increase with both countries signing an additional defense protocol underlining their joint approach toward the United States and Israel.[20] In this approach, Hezbollah is a shared tool.

But whereas the Syrian regime sees its struggle as a fight for survival, the Iranian leadership is angling for regional hegemony. Damascus is the linchpin in the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. Its location allows Syria to extend Iran's reach into the Levant, as well as to provide Arab nationalist cover for Iranian regional ambitions. But Syria is also the junior partner in the alliance. In the words of former Syrian vice-president Abdel Halim Khaddam: "Bashar Assad is not a strategic ally of Iran but only a strategic tool."[21] As Syrian troops left Lebanon, Damascus lost leverage over Hezbollah and some Palestinian groups operating there.

Still, the Syrian-Hezbollah relationship is important.[22] Hezbollah provides a means by which the Syrian government can exert pressure on the government of Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora. The group has impeded his ability to appoint anti-Syrian officials to sensitive posts. The Syrian government has also used Hezbollah to break the unity of Cedar Revolution forces. Hezbollah has significant room to maneuver as many Lebanese remain reluctant to confront it over its demands, fearing the renewal of civil and sectarian strife which cost 150,000 lives during the 1975-90 civil war.

It is in this context that the summer 2006 war erupted. Given the history of the Hezbollah-Syrian relationship and the recent subversive activities allegedly orchestrated by Syria in Lebanon, it is likely that senior Syrian officials knew beforehand about Hezbollah's cross-border operation into Israel that sparked the crisis. At the same time, it is also plausible that Hezbollah carried out the operation in order to deflect growing Lebanese domestic criticism over its arms and to highlight the need to preserve the party as a militia to defend Lebanon.[23] The two explanations are not mutually exclusive.

In the wake of the summer 2006 war, Hezbollah consolidated its position. Its ability to launch a war unilaterally undermined the position of Siniora's government as did the resulting political crisis although the war did create grumbling about Iran's sacrifice of Lebanon for greater Shi‘i interests.[24] The war augmented Hezbollah's stature—and therefore Syrian and Iranian influence—within Lebanon. In an article in An-Nahar, Mona Fayed, a Lebanese University professor, asked "Who is a Shiite in Lebanon today?" and suggested it is someone "who terrorizes coreligionists into silence and leads the nation into catastrophe without consulting anyone."[25] However, some officials, such as Christian leader Michel Aoun, sought closer alliance with Hezbollah and adopted many of their demands.[26]

The Syrian government has not hesitated to ride the wave of victory which Hezbollah claimed. While Nasrallah's declaration of victory may have been spurious given the destruction wrought upon both Lebanese infrastructure and Hezbollah members—he himself declared "had I known about the scope of Israel's response, we would not have kidnapped the two soldiers"[27]—the group could argue that not only had the Israeli government failed to achieve their objectives,[28] but Hezbollah had also become the first Arab "army" since 1948 to attack Haifa.

Assad embraced the new Hezbollah strategy. In an August 15, 2006 speech to the Syrian Journalists Union in Damascus, he supported Arab resistance as the new paradigm of Arab nationalist struggle against a weakened Israel. He criticized Arab leaders as "half men" who brought humiliation to the Arab world and lauded Hezbollah's achievements by reaffirming Syria's support of the "legitimacy of the central role of resistance as a viable alternative to conflict resolution when peace negotiations fail."[29] The Syrian leadership, which sought until summer 2006 to maintain a balance between its relationship with Iran and Arab states, has now cast its lot with Tehran.

Whatever semblance of national unity Lebanon had exhibited during the summer crisis dissipated upon the end of the crisis. Recriminations and counter-recriminations became a staple of Lebanese politics. At the heart of this charged political climate has been both a clash over the attempt by the government in Beirut and its Cedar Revolution allies to implement U.N. Security Council resolutions and establish an international tribunal[30] and also to prepare for the 2007 presidential elections which could create a showdown over whether or not the titular head of state remains a Syrian proxy. At a minimum, Hezbollah seeks veto power over government decisions under the pretext of national unity;[31] at a maximum, Hezbollah desires the collapse of the Siniora government. It was in this context that on November 30, 2006, Nasrallah called for a mass protest and sit-in in Beirut to topple the prime minister's government,[32] an action which many Lebanese nationalist activists labeled a "Syrian coup attempt."[33] Sporadic clashes continue.[34]

While the outcome of the struggle between pro- and anti-Syrian forces in Lebanon is unclear, the struggle reflects Syria's diminished status in the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. On February 8, 2007, Lebanese authorities detained a truck transporting weapons to Hezbollah in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. Hezbollah confirmed that the weapons belonged to it but reiterated its right to fight to liberate "the remainder of occupied territories,"[35] a position the Lebanese cabinet endorsed before it supported U.N. Resolution 1701.[36] While the Lebanese government is emboldened to confront Syrian interests, Hezbollah's position remains secure. Given increased polarization of Lebanon's society, the group has become impervious to compromise.

Lebanese authorities have moved instead to confront other Syrian proxies. On February 13, 2007, terrorists bombed two commuter buses in Ain Alaq, a Christian town north of Beirut, killing three people and wounding twenty. Lebanese authorities arrested three Syrians, who confessed to being members of a new jihadist organization called Fatah al-Islam, and charged them with carrying out the bombing.[37] In May and June 2007, the same group became the focal point of an uprising in the Palestinian Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.[38] The Lebanese government, despite threats from Hezbollah,[39] continues to pursue formation of an international tribunal to hold Syrian officials accountable for Hariri's assassination. Hezbollah might have once been, in part, a Syrian proxy, but it is no longer the most vulnerable member of the axis. Syria is. While by no means sovereign, Hezbollah's embrace of Lebanese nationalism has augmented its stature at Syria's expense. Addressing members of parliament sympathetic to Siniora and to his demands for Syrian accountability, Hezbollah parliamentarian Ali Ammar remarked that the "sovereignty of Lebanon precedes the sovereignty of international institutions."[40] While Assad likewise ruled out cooperation with the international tribunal,[41] Hezbollah's obstructionism has become a more serious impediment to the tribunal's formation than Syrian complaints.

Robert G. Rabil


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