Roles have ironically reversed in Syria with the conflict and the power of Damascus now coming under the watch of Lebanese militias.
Seen in this perspective, we will consider that Hezbollah militias are Lebanese forces, and in fact, are practically Lebanese as they consider themselves equivalent to the Lebanese army. This situation takes us back to a time when there were popular demands in Lebanon as well as international calls to withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon.
The withdrawal of Hezbollah and other forces and militias from Syria is the main trigger of the debate between the US and Russian governments, as part of the discussions held to find a peaceful solution. The Americans want to end the presence of foreign armed forces supporting the Syrian regime, mainly Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iraqi, Pakistani, Afghan and other foreign militias.
The Syrian regime occupied Lebanon under the pretext of confronting Israel. The Lebanese did not believe these pretexts because they endured the domination of the regime and its interference in the details of their lives. As for Arabs, the majority got dragged by the “Syrian propaganda” until the civil war broke out in Syria.
In the context of a peaceful resolution, Washington had basically approved the Russian project aiming to end the conflict politically in Syria regardless of the survival of Bashar al-Assad in power. The regime then committed a major mistake of bombing Khan Shaykhun with chemical weapons.
Lebanon faces a difficult set of circumstances because the conflict has led to flow of 1.5 million Syrian refugees to Lebanon. Hezbollah has become weaker militarily due to its war in Syria for three years and this will influence its power in LebanonAbdulrahman al-Rashed
Agenda beyond Syria
The regime was not forced to do so as it is already killing its people on a daily basis with bombs and explosive barrels. It was a challenge to the US administration and to prove the truthful opinion of Damascus regime’s opponents, that the regime and its allies would not abide by any political commitments, and that the “agenda” goes beyond Syria.
In the most recent statements, the Americans have raised the ceiling of their demands to the maximum. They do not want Assad in power and have also called for the withdrawal of Iranian, Lebanese and other forces and militias from Syria. Their number in Syria is estimated to be 50,000.
Thus, the main focus will actually be on the second point; the withdrawal of the non-Syrian forces, excluding Russia most probably. However, the US will later discover that removing Assad from power will be easier than the withdrawal of the Iranian Quds Force and the Lebanese Hezbollah who are well-settled on Syrian territories now.
I do not think Hezbollah is happy with the assigned Iranian job that is to fight in Syria, for many reasons; the main of which is that its men are drained and it lost more than it already did in its wars with Israel in 30 years.
Lebanon faces a difficult set of circumstances because the conflict has led to flow of 1.5 million Syrian refugees to Lebanon. Hezbollah has become weaker militarily due to its war in Syria for three years and this will influence its power in Lebanon.
An Iranian decision
However, the decision to send Hezbollah’s militias to war is an Iranian decision, like the decisions regarding other allied militias in Iraq. Tehran decides and negotiates and Hezbollah will not be part of the withdrawal negotiations.
The main challenge will be how Assad will remove 50,000 fighters under the supervision of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from Syria. In my opinion it is mission impossible.
The Russians are aware that they do not have the last word in Damascus despite their military intervention that helped Assad. Sources agree that Iran is the decision maker in Damascus and has worked during the war to coordinate with the Syrian state on the security and military levels.
The real challenge for the international community is to get the various Iranian forces out of Syria. Instead of the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, we are now looking forward to the Lebanese Forces withdrawal from Syria and we do not know how or when.
The Iranian project in the region includes Iraq and Lebanon. The country’s leadership considers Syria as the main platform to control these two countries and not just control Syria.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat on April 14, 2017.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.