Syria and Lebanon: Confusion and mixed signals

Several developments took place in the Arab World last week, reflecting the danger behind misreading both regional and international changes. That has been especially the case in Syria and Lebanon, where local players have been confused in reading the situations and positioning themselves… from Sochi to Beirut!

To begin, the Syrian opposition was shocked by the UN’s official endorsement of the ‘Sochi Conference’ against the background of clear Russian ‘messages’. Regardless of the justifications for the endorsement through the attendance of the UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, it simply appears to undermine the ‘Geneva Peace Process’.

We need to remember that Moscow started its attempts to wreck the Syrian uprising as well as all the international community’s initiatives through a series of ‘vetoes’. Those were soon followed by re-arming the Damascus regime, and later backing it by a de facto occupation and active combat engagement.

Meanwhile, on the political front, after cowing and blackmailing Turkey, Moscow launched with Iranian and Turkish participation ‘The Astana Talks’ with an intention to marginalize the independent political opposition while giving more say to armed groups dependent on the talks’ three sponsors, i.e. Iran, Turkey and Russia.

Indeed, the talks became the first practical alternative to the ‘Geneva Peace Process’; and Moscow called for them after exploiting Tehran’s and Ankara’s common worries about Washington’s strong support of secessionist Kurds under the pretext of fighting ISIS.

Later, noticing Washington’s turning against the Syrian uprising and the ‘Free Syrian Army’, while keener than ever to divide and destroy the Syrian opposition, Moscow decided to finish off the uprising in Sochi. This is the reality of what took place in Sochi where the UN, actually, conspired against its own Security Council resolutions.

So it has become absurd to continue talking of “Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”, not only in the light of uprooting, displacement and ‘demographic engineering’, but also as one looks as dividing the cake on Syrian soil.

Syrian-Lebanese border has technically ceased to exist

The coastal mountainous area is now under Russian control, and the border sector west of the Euphrates River extending from the borders of Turkey’s Hatay province to the town of Jarablus on the Euphrates is an area Turkey wants under its own wings; and while Washington continues to oversee with its Kurdish ‘allies’ the affairs east of the Euphrates, the Damascus regime – supported by Iran’s militias – controls the major cities, leaving ISIS and other small and dubious militias spread out in scattered places.

However, the fate of one part of Syria, which is the southern tip of the country, remains undecided. It is engulfed by an uneasy silence only broken by Israeli military operations or weirdly conceived and timed factional skirmishes, as well as hints by Israel that it will not allow Iran and Hezbollah to threaten its security.

We need to remember that Moscow started its attempts to wreck the Syrian uprising as well as all the international community’s initiatives through a series of ‘vetoes’. Those were soon followed by re-arming the Damascus regime, and later backing it by a de facto occupation and active combat engagement.

Eyad Abu Shakra

As for Lebanon, it is well-known that the Syrian-Lebanese border has technically ceased to exist during the last couple of decades, which has allowed Hezbollah to fight in Syria.

Two important factors have made the task of Hezbollah, which is Iran’s political and military wing in Lebanon, easy:

1- The fact that the Syrian regime is a vital link in Iran’s expansionist strategy, cutting through the Arab world towards the Mediterranean Sea.

2- That Hezbollah has been enjoying an effective Christian ‘cover’, represented by its alliance with President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, the most extreme of Lebanon’s Christian parties; as well as the expressed position of the Syrian and Lebanese Christian clergy that any alternative to Assad’s regime would be worse.

These two factors not only helped the cause of Hezbollah, but also Iran’s, especially after the ‘emergence’ of extremist terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Nusra Front in many parts of Syria; and rush of some Sunni regional ‘players’ to back them before changing their mind. However, this change only took place after weakening the genuine moderate armed opposition groups.

Meanwhile, the picture in southern Syria was becoming increasingly complicated, following Israel’s threats of military action to prevent Iran from establishing itself in Syria, and thwarting Hezbollah’s attempts of turning south Lebanon into a ‘missile factory’. Still, this situation did not prevent Lebanon’s foreign minister Jebran Bassil from launching his own ‘war’ against Speaker Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal Movement which is Hezbollah’s main Shi’ite ally.

The timing of this ‘war’ is understandable. Bassil, President Aoun’s son-in-law and the head of the FPM, is preparing for the coming parliamentary elections; noting that the ‘Aounists’ have always used the election season to outbid their Christian rivals and claim that they alone defend Christian rights and privileges. The ‘Aounists’ agitated and claimed ‘martyrdom’ in 2005, then incited against and ‘demonized’ the Future Movement in particular and Sunni Muslims in general in 2009.

Then, since 2011, went even further by accusing them of being ISIS sympathizers, only as a means to justify their support for Hezbollah and Iran’s fighting in Syria.

What is new, however, this time around is the probable change in how the ‘Aounists’ are reading the local and regional situation. Washington now seems to be more serious about confronting Hezbollah than it was during the ‘Iran appeasement days’ of Barack Obama. Israel too, in its attempts to bury any peace deals with the Palestinians, looks as if it is willing to go to war against Iran; at least, with the objective of securing its own ‘sector of influence’ in the future map of Syria and the Fertile Crescent, keeping in mind that southern Syria remains the only part not yet reserved for any major power in the de facto partition of the war-torn country.

This area borders Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the west, and further, across Mount Herman, South Lebanon that includes the ‘Shi’ite Corridor’ which connects Lebanon’s two major Shi’ite strongholds in the Bekaa and the South.

Both Hezbollah and Amal know why the ‘Aounists’ – including Bassil – allied themselves with them; and in return, Hezbollah rewarded the ‘Aounists’ by imposing Aoun as president. The difference between the two major Shi’ite parties, in this regard is quite simple: Amal is basically a ‘Lebanese’ organization whose leader (Speaker Berri) is an ‘Arabist’ who has never trusted or liked Aoun; while Hezbollah which is merely an Iranian tool, has forged its alliance with the extreme Christian party in order to be Tehran’s cover and ‘Trojan Horse’ within the Christian communities in the Middle East.

Last week, Mr. Bassil decided to incite the Christians again, and exploit an agitated Christian street against Speaker Berri, partly as a test for Hezbollah’s preferences and priorities; although, even before accusing Berri of being a thug and threatening to ‘break his head’ Bassil made some tacit media criticism against Hezbollah itself.

Bassil, thus, may be trying to cut loose, and distance himself and the FPM from the two Shi’ite parties; but if this was his intention, he may be making a very risky and dangerous gamble, recalling that over-reliance on Washington and Tel Aviv is perhaps even more risky and dangerous.

This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.

Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:52 - GMT 06:52
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