Syria Will Never Break Away from Iran

The opening American policy toward Syria is encouraging Syria to rebuff American requests to dissolve its regional alliances without worry of consequences from the United States. Warming relations with Syria is based on the idea that Damascus would break away from the Iranians and Hezbollah in return for American ties and a Golan-conceding peace agreement. The idea is naive and could force Israel to take unpopular action against Hezbollah or Syria sooner rather than later.

Deep Syrian-Iranian Ties

Syria is too well-entrenched with Iran to disengage. For years, Syria has depended heavily on Iranian security cooperation and diplomatic strength. Syria has long fallen out with other Arab powers, always on the outs with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (that Syrian-Iraqi hostility has not ceased with the new government).

During the Iran-Iraq War, Syria supported the Iranian position in the Arab world, and even supported Tehran logistically. Occasionally, Syrian airspace was used to conduct bombing runs on bases in Western Iraq, a total affront to the massive Arab financial and logistical support given to Iraq during the war. Unfortunately, too many Middle Eastern experts view the alliance as a “marriage of convenience” to put it in the words of Scott Lasensky of the United States Institute of Peace. That view reflects an immediate reality of 1979, when an isolated Syria was itching to find new allies in the region and rushed to support Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. But most importantly, this alliance is not simply diplomatic or strategic.

The Syrian regime is dominated by one ethnoreligious group in particular, Alawites. This offshoot of Islam has classically been considered beyond the pale by most Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and outright heresy among today’s many fundamentalist groups. Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970 clashed openly with the Syrian constitution that required the president to be a Muslim. But a 1974 declaration by the late Shiite authority living in Lebanon, Musa al-Sadr, recognized the group as members of his sect. The regime in Iran, including Ayatollah Khomeini, have continued to support that understanding. Despite the clash between Sunnis and Shiites in today’s antagonistic Muslim world, this status is enough to keep political opponents at bay.

But a political break with the regime in Tehran would also expose the Syrian regime’s social clout. The Muslim Brotherhood, emboldened by a break in the Iranian relationship and sudden reciprocal hostility from Hezbollah and Tehran, would be able to pressure the regime in Damascus.

A break would also deprive Syria of its arm inside Lebanon – Hezbollah. By abandoning Iran, Damascus would have abandoned the Islamic Revolution, a staple movement in the official ideology of Hezbollah. Hezbollah would begin to counter Syrian influence in Lebanon.

Syrian Control of Lebanon

In addition to this facet of Lebanon, Syria has managed to consolidate its hold on the country’s leadership since the implementation of the Obama Administration’s warming policies. Saad Hariri, who publicly accused Bashar al-Assad of orchestrating his father’s infamous assassination in 2005, has felt compelled to actually visit the Syrian president in Damascus. The same awkward, patronizing trip will soon be made by long-time Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. That visit is being propagated by Hezbollah.


Current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri Meeting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in Syria

After several high profile assassinations, including that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s mentioned above, Hezbollah occupied large swathes of Beirut and forced the government to invite militia to have ministers in the cabinet. Jumblatt’s visit is likely to include a stark warning from Assad about his political position and physical safety. As Jumblatt alleged that Assad had threatened to “break Lebanon” in his and the elder Hariri’s presence in August 2004, the Syrian dictator is not averse at all to threats.

These developments from furiously anti-Syrian politicians deviates from Hilary Clinton’s pledge last year the US “will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon and the Lebanese people.” US policies are implicitly making that declaration heartless.

What the Obama Administration is doing is compelling an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan while simultaneously strengthening Syria’s stranglehold on Lebanon, in return for a hardly timid alliance with Tehran.

The best course of action is to continue tightening the screws on Damascus. The Syrian regime is hardly a buoy of importance to the “Arab street” or “Muslim world” for whom he is so desperately seeking to enhance his credibility. The administration’s policies have emboldened Syria to strengthen its ties with Iran and Hezbollah, in spite of the announcement of a new ambassador and continued public urging by Hilary Clinton to cut off arms shipments to Hezbollah and roll back ties with Iran.

Hindsight and Foresight

After Syrian withdrew from Lebanon, the country was euphoric and Hezbollah’s political position substantially weakened. In the wake of the emboldened new government’s pressure on the militia to give up its weapons, Hezbollah capitalized on Operation Summer Rains to coax Israel into a war on its northern front. It gave Hezbollah fodder to use politically and a pretext to assert itself against the government in Beirut. With the US alleviating pressure on Syria, the country has slipped from the Western orbit.

Continued threats against Lebanese politicians, arrest of Kurdish and human rights activists, and shipping of weapons to Hezbollah do not warrant a new ambassador for Damascus and will not persuade Syria in anyway to end its military alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. The administration would be better off isolating Iran’s economy and pressure Syria in the way the Bush Administration did in the early 2000s, lest an emboldened Syria wreak havoc on Lebanon’s political echelon an instigate a new war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Joshua Reback has a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Rutgers University

On Iran, Israel has the Ability to Sanction China

Recently, the Chinese government expressed interest in investing in a new Israeli consortium developing the offshore oil fields near Haifa. This would add to the growing presence of China in Israel’s economy, which included the Carmel Tunnel and the Tel Aviv Light-Rail Project. China’s Yifang recently acquired Israel’s Pegasus Technologies. China is definitely interested in increasing its economic namely energy ties with Israel.

And that is precisely why they should be withheld.

More and more, the Chinese government has publicly come out against renewed sanctions against Iran. Further, Beijing has attacked the US for publicly attacking internet censorship in Iran. Compound these facts with Chinese support for North Korea and we are presented with an intolerable link with the Syria’s destroyed nuclear installation, attacked with a swift air strike in September 2007. All of these positions run counter to Jerusalem’s interests and should be grounds for Israeli sanctions against Beijing.

The military trade has been under pressure to be cut off for years, and this would provide Israel with the optimal excuse to make that gesture. Among numerous examples, the Bush Administration pressured and torpedoed a $1 billion deal that would have seen Israel upgrade Chinese jets and radars. There was diplomatic damage done from the abrupt deal breaker, but it is a move worth emulating, even at a time where Israel’s government is resolved to challenge US pressure on Israeli policy. China has benefited from the military trade with Israel, roughly totaling $1.5 billion during the 1990s, and currently covers work on surface-to-air missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

As part of a greater effort to either persuade or pressure the Chinese into supporting a stronger sanctions regime against Tehran, Israel should show signs it will strengthen its relationship with Japan at China’s expense. It is also would not outside Israel’s periphery to cooperate with American-Taiwanese arms deals, like the clandestine Israeli transfer of American missiles to Taiwan in the 1980s.

Aside from the military imports, Chinese exports to Israel represent about $3.17 billion according to the Israeli Embassy to China. China itself recognizes the need to wean itself off oil and gas investments in places like Iran, even if only for the sake of diversifying its economy and improving its R&D sector, something it ought to be willing to make diplomatic concessions on in order to do. Even the mere threat that exports to Israel could be cut off would be a sure sign that China cannot reap benefits from both Israel and Iran simultaneously.

According to Tel Aviv University’s Aron Shai (link, p.27): ), expert on Israeli-Chinese relations, there is much that Israel still has to offer China in terms of agriculture and energy, something in which China has a commanding interest. Those facts point directly to Israel’s revolutionary desalinization technology and solar power markets. Limited access to advanced agro-techology and energy alternatives would certainly threaten China’s pace of growth.

It would certainly be preferable to open more economic missions in China, given the size of the market and tremendous demand for Israeli R&D. But given China’s obstinance on Israel’s priority security issue, such long-term investments should be off the table.

Between Gulf War IV and Revolutions

In 1980, Saddam Hussein started the first Gulf War by invading Iran, starting an eight-year melee that left 2 million dead between the two countries. In 1990, Hussein invaded Kuwait, underestimating the resolve of dozens of countries that launched Operation Desert Storm to expel the Iraqis. In 2003, the Bush Administration toppled the Hussein regime, igniting a massive civil war between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shiites, exposing Iraq to Iranian sabotage, and bringing Turkey to the brink of war with Iraqi Kurdistan.

In 2010, the real possibility that Iran could be attacked in a pre-emptive strike by Israel, or Iraq and other Arab states may defend themselves from an Iranian offensive, arguably has the Middle East on the brink of the fourth major war in the Persian Gulf in 30 years.

But after years of nuclear anxiety and headlines ad nauseum about negotiations, has the novelty of such a threat worn off? Much of the talk of war seems passé. But I am going to make the effort to say that the threat of a massive regional war is very real, and will reel in the major UN Security Council powers, plus Germany.

Israel has attacked hostile states’ nuclear programs before – Iraq’s and Syria’s. Any attack by Israel would have to have some level of approval from both the United States and neighboring Arab countries. The entire region would have to be in sync and ready for the attack. That is approval that Saudi Arabia, as reported by a local report by the Heritage Foundation, is willing to give to Israel when the time is right.

The US would not be able to avoid the retaliation, and would be dragged into a war with Iran. An Iranian response would involve proxies not just in Lebanon and Israel, but in Iraq and throughout the Persian Gulf. Britain, Germany and France would operationally support Israel and the United States, if not actually deploy troops into the Middle Eastern theater.

With the window closing on the opportunity for a concerted hit, it is vital that Iranian access to nuclear weapons be categorically denied immediately. But that does not imply the only option, or the best option, would be to attack Iran. On the contrary, the best case scenario there would be a delay in nuclear development. The elimination of the regime is the only guarantee that the Tehran we know and despise would acquire nuclear capabilities. If a different government ran the country, especially a democracy, the West and Israel would accept an Iranian nuclear program as non-hostile and uninterested in creating a nuclear warhead.

AS BEST IT CAN, the world needs to support the opposition movement in Iran. Estimations that a revolution usually belittle the historical memory of young Iranians, whose parents are reminding them day in and day out that a revolution is possible. They know how to do it. This is the grand fear in Tehran, a primary reason the regime there has lashed out publicly against “soft” and “velvet” revolutions, patronizing them in an effort to stigmatize any such campaign. Both Iran and China have accused the US of waging “cyber warfare,” signaling that not only is it a significant tactic – it’s something they fear.

Any revolution on the ground there will be their own. Nothing the US, Europe, Israel or anyone else could do would launch a massive revolt. But these countries can provide the tools – or at least keep them online.

In June, bloggers and hackers the world over attacked government firewalls in order to keep cell phones, the internet and Twitter afloat. Reports varied on how effective the effort was, but the fact it made any impact was significant.

Certain features, like Facebook, have been inoperable in Iran since the elections. The organizational power the website offers represents enough of a threat it is worth Tehran’s time to shut it down. Keeping these lines of communication open, not just during massive demonstrations but in the days before they are organized, is essential to protesters.

IN THE MEANTIME, this is not an option the world can count on. There are subtleties to American and European diplomacy that would help pressure Iran, plus make Syria and Hezbollah think twice about being lockstep in line with Tehran’s policies.

A prevalent idea in recent years has been an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement that would sever the Iranian-Syrian military alliance. All this assumes Syria would actually break its military alliance with Iran and the region’s prominent terrorist organizations. Syria will not do such a thing, even if Israel were willing to trade the Golan Heights for a peace deal. This entire line of thinking assumes Syria is the weak link in the chain and can be diplomatically parleyed off, when in fact it is Iran facing domestic instability.

Damascus has used the diplomatic breathing room by the Obama Administration’s warmer policies to increase pressure on Lebanon. Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been reduced to humiliating gestures like meeting with his father’s murderer and acquiescing to Hezbollah’s arsenal in coalition talks. Hariri’s March 14th alliance has relinquished these things despite having a larger margin of the vote in 2009 than 2005, when Syria was weak and isolated by the Bush Administration.

It is a combination of inability and unwillingness that make Syria just as weak under threat or American economic and diplomatic sanctions. Iran does not need Syria to send weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, as it has proven with shipments that were caught in the Red Sea in 2002 and Sudan during Operation Cast Lead. Shipments like the one captured in Cyprus in 2009 did not need to pass through a Syrian port to reach Lebanon.

POLICY needs to be made more consistent to fully pressure the Syrians and Iranians, otherwise the countries will continue using diplomatic patience as a window for nuclear development and weapons smuggling. No amount of US and French support for Lebanon will mean anything as long as either Syria or Iran exploits weakness in Western foreign policy. The only guarantee that this alliance will crack is via a combination of domestic and foreign pressure.

Lebanese Politicians Piggybacking off Israeli Political Tactics

The current Lebanese governing coalition, in lew of a potential loss in the coming June 7th election to the “March 8th Coalition” that includes Hizbullah, says it will not join a Hizbullah-led government


Saad Hariri

The potential loss by the left-leaning coalition of Saad Hariri, favored by Western countries, is prompting early politicking by Lebanese leaders who may be assuming the outcome of the election in two weeks. The western-leaning Lebanese governing coalition is taking a queue from Kadima, announcing early that it would rather go into opposition than join a unity government.

Hizbullah though knows just as well that a non-unity government might bring financial and political trouble for Lebanon, just as it has for Hamas’ Palestinian Authority which has disintegrated into two de facto states after Hamas failed to secure Fatah as a coalition partner.

Linking the Iranian and Palestinian Issues could Severely Backfire

Linking the Nuclear and Peace Issues

The US has been pushing a policy to link progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with the help Israel needs to combat Iran. But this necessitates that the US, Europe and Arab states are correct to think that successful developments in either the -Palestinian or -Syrian peace negotiations would stifle Iranian power and imperialism.

The Iranians have proven just how divided they are regarding overtures from the United States. The Roxana Saberi case put pressure on President Obama. If the Iranians had continued to hold her for the duration of her sentence (8 years), it would have been unpopular among Americans to continue those overtures. They would have proven futile, and thus the leverage on the Israelis would evaporate. Given that the Obama administration is trying to push a narrative that links the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to other issues in the region, the Israelis would be able to argue that they must continue an assertive stance vis-a-vis the Iranians, and hence vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

The Obama Administration is not clear of this possibility yet. Iranian elections next month, which will probably see a run-off between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his liberal opponent Mir Hussein Moussavi go to the incumbent, would raise this question to the foreground. Considering how divided the most powerful figures in Iran’s regime are regarding any dialogue, much less any deals with the United States and Europe, promising the Israelis fruit on the Iranian front in exchange for extreme leniency on the -Palestinian front would all become shallow.

From Obama’s Eyes

The Obama Administration’s priority though is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is the Iranians. But the administration does see the Iranian issue as optimal leverage on the Israelis to push them into a two-state solution. This is helped by seeing the issue in the reverse, as most people see it, that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a subsequent deal are supposed to be the lightning rod that will strike the political agenda of Iran’s current regime. If the Obama Administration’s promised results do not come after some agreement with either the Palestinians or the Syrians, the neglected peace negotiations will be totally undermined.

The best chance the Obama Administration has to push the Iranians and both Israeli peace scenarios, proven by the sense of urgency in the last couple weeks by governments around the world, would be to see Ahmadinejad lose the upcoming election to a more pragmatic figure. If a reformer were to win, such as Moussavi, that would provide Obama every reason in the world to open full dialogue and relations with the Iranians, promise the Israelis relations with the Iranians as part of either these two peace tracks or the regional peace plan, and of course stabilize the Middle East.

US Pressure on Israel in Connection with Progress on the Iran Front

But the administration seems to be banking that some sort of breakthrough before the Iranian elections would guarantee this scenario more than any direct negotiations between the US and Iranians would.

Insightful people have seen the overt pressure by Vice President Biden and Rahm Emanuel urging a two-state solution as a way of forcing the Netanyahu government to opt for the two-state solution as part of its foreign policy once the Prime Minister finishes his “policy review” in the next couple weeks. But that policy review and its conclusions will also precede the Iranian elections on June 12th, and the Lebanese elections on June 7th.

But again, Iran could now be holding the cards into Israel’s next move. If Iran pushes the US away, Israel will lose incentives (as the Obama Administration sees it) to work toward what the US and rest of the world accept as irrevocable policy on the Middle East conflict.

Lebanon’s politics are much more complicated, and might not be effected by anything the Israelis do regarding the Palestinians or Syrians. Lebanese have reasons to fear if Israel is at war with Hizbullah and Syria, and also have reasons to fear if the Syrians gain a disproportionate advantage in a peace agreement with the Israelis (that would involve the US trading security on the Iraqi border in exchange for Syrian influence over Lebanon).

If the Iranian Track Fails

The Arab states would more readily work with the Israelis than the Iranians, and so the Netanyahu government would probably keep pushing its positions on the West Bank and Syrians. Hence, it risks a flare up in the West Bank if there is nothing substantial politically between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (Jerusalem and Ramallah).

This would be the backfire. If Obama continues, or strengthens this rhetorical link between two or among three or more issues, a failure on one side of the equation would provide political reason for parties to back out on the other fronts.

Hizbullah will undoubtedly gain some more clout as tensions would probably worsen between Israel and Lebanon (though that was inevitable no matter if Livni had formed the current Israeli government, but under Netanyahu things might be even more tense). It is tough to see what the Syrians would do, but it certainly wouldn’t be changing its policies toward Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas (though it’s debatable to what extent it would under a peace deal anyway).

Lebanese Elections and Israel

The results of the Lebanese and Iranian elections will change the state of relations between the two countries, and will be heavily influenced by Barack Obama’s overtures to the Iranians.

To virtually all Westerners’ dismay, the opposition in Iran has not agreed on a single candidate to oppose Ahmadinejad, while there is squarely support coming from the country’s far right wing for his incumbency.

As of right now, it seems Hizbullah (The March 8th Movement) will make small gains and Ahmadinejad will somehow maintain the presidency. There is no major victory expected for either, but Hizbullah’s hand will be slightly stronger and Ahmadinejad’s slightly weaker.

Lebanon

Hizbullah has demonstrated itself to be an efficient organization to its constituents and is undisputed leader of their political alliance. The gains they made from the 2006 war politically had been on a steep decline, especially after their 18-month general strike and near provocation of a second Lebanese civil war. But those events were balanced by Israel’s second major war in Gaza in less than three years. Though Ehud Olmert’s assertive policy is now a thing of the past, there is a general perception that anything Netanyahu would authorize would be much mroe dangerous.

If Hizbullah were to hold enough sway, it could set defense policy in a new government. This would be possible with or without the Defense Ministry in their hands. Much of the Lebanese Army does not wish to police Hizbullah activity in the south of the country, and integrating the agendas of the two fighting forces is an attractive idea to many Lebanese. For Hizbullah and its allies, it would elevate the Hizbullah paramilitary officially. For supporters of the current ruling coalition, it could moderate Hizbullah’s military policies.

In any case, Hizbullah would have elevated itself as a movement and would likely survive any peace agreement between the Israelis and the Syrians. Hizbullah would likely not provoke a war over the Shebaa Farms. There are plenty of domestic and foreign policy issues Hizbullah needs to consider a national party that go beyond hostile intentions toward Israel. If Assad inks something with Israel, Hizbullah would not collapse as a movement because its original reason of being has been overshadowed by new peace-related developments.

Similar Strategies by Israeli and Lebanese Governments?

Iran will not lose its connections to Syria, and will likely gain stronger relations with Lebanon. Lebanon will again have some sort of balanced government arrangement between the March 14th and March 8th Movements. They might also follow a policy similar to that of Avigdor Lieberman in Israel, which would be to diversify the influence of major powers in the small country.

Lieberman has made it a point to improve Israel’s relationship with Russia and China, an interest of Lieberman’s Russian Israeli constituency. This comes in addition to definite upgrades between Israel and India. If the Indian Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, win this month’s elections, it will elevate those ties further. All this could allow Israel to alleviate some of the pressure coming from the Obama Administration, gain more support from a conservative Indian government, and put a roadblock in front of more Russian weapons deals with Israel’s enemies.

For Lebanon, they will continue sitting between the United States and Iran. But they will also draw on support from Turkey, which recently inked a weapons deal with the Lebanese. Turkey is strengthening its diplomatic power with Syria, and could be the patron Lebanon needs to protect it from Syrian interference and any future confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah (though that might be more unlikely if Hizbullah continues to be slower to the trigger as a full-fledged member of the Lebanese government answerable to tens of thousands of constituents). This is not to mention the role of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Lebanon’s best chance at independence is to pacify the Syrians and improve its relationship with all the major powers. The March 14th coalition will need Hizbullah to focus more on national Lebanese concerns than on Syrian or Iranian patronage for that to happen though. The politics are still tense, as the last two years have shown.

An Israeli-Lebanese Agreement?

It’s virtually impossible, since there is no clear leadership in the country and will not be for a long time. Israel will probably withdraw fro the village of Ghajar soon, but no one ever expected any random deal to include that town sine it is unrelated to the Shebaa Farms region. The Shebaa Farms also remain Golani in the eyes of the world, making it dangerous precedent if Israel ever agreed to give it to Lebanon. It would legitimate a sort of post-mortem land transfer, which the Syrians did when they agreed to recognize the area as Lebanese, thereby giving Hizbullah a reason to justify a military resistance against Israel even after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000.

None of this takes into account the fact Lebanon might not be able to enforce any agreements and may fall into civil war before one were ever signed. Plus the harsh political position PM Fouad Siniora has taken for himself declaring Lebanon would be the ‘last Arab country’ to make peace with Israel.