The Levantine Conundrum – The Iran-Hezbollah-Syria Nexus


By kind invitation of Gisela Stuart MP, the Henry Jackson Society was pleased to be able to host a discussion with Dr. Shmuel Bar, Director of Studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy, Herzliya & Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Washington DC. He assessed the current state of politics in the Middle East, offered an insider’s analysis of the overlapping centres of power in the Levant, and answered audience questions.


Every question I’m asked seems to focus on Iran or Israel’s recent military exercises. As a result it is a pleasure to turn my attention to the topic of Syria, even though it’s very hard to avoid focusing on Iran when analysing politics in Damascus and Hezbollah. The conventional wisdom today is that Iran has a role in almost all of the key conflicts in the Middle East. I met with a senior Jordanian military commander who listed the problems of the Middle East and blamed Iran for the problems in Iraq, Gaza, the Palestinian community, Lebanon and Syria. He also framed the Palestinian issue as one that had to be solved in order to remove one of the justifications for Iranian meddling.

I was accompanying an American delegation to the Gulf States, and their briefing stressed the importance of promoting resolution to the Palestinian problem. Yet when they sat down with Arab officials, they were all asked when Washington would give the ‘green light’ to Israel to strike Iran’s nuclear program. If the Americans hadn’t raised the Palestinian issue, then it wouldn’t have come up. Iran is at the centre of all of contemporary Middle Eastern politics.

The Gulf States are worried about an American invasion of Iran. If military action against Iran is employed, they would prefer Israel to be the one that undertakes it. If Israel does it, the Iranian threat will be gone, and Israel can be condemned. If the United States used force, it would be far more dramatic. I was in a war gaming exercise with the United States Navy, and they were testing scenarios for a surgical strike. Yet they included all of Iran’s command and control facilities, in order to protect their planes which would have to fly back and forth. They also included the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s navy in the Gulf and Indian Ocean, in order to defend shipping. As a result, they also targeted the radar stations on the Gulf, which in turn demanded a targeting of long range, short range and sea missile sites. Of course, the IRGC headquarters was a target too.

This was a plan that would easily be seen as a series of measures to destroy the Iranian regime. Iran sees becoming the hegemonic force in the Islamic world as its future role, and as such would consider such attacks as a signal that it must unleash every aspect of its force. That would endanger the Arab states, hence their unwillingness to see the US use force rather than Israel. The Iranian’s ability is limited, and isn’t as apocalyptic as is sometimes made out. However they could strike in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and that would command an American response. How would the Saudi’s get permission to invite the Americans to defend them? During the run up to the Gulf War, the Royal Family needed a Fatwa from the Ulama declaring Saddam a heretic. I would imagine if they tried to do the same thing to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian establishment, the Ulama would want to expand the proclamation to all of the Shia. So there is a sense that an American strike would usher in a regional war between the Shia and the Sunni, which wouldn’t necessarily be the case if the Israelis were the ones to use force. This might be pre-empted by a credible threat, but that wouldn’t be just words. Full sanctions, such as a boycott, would be the most effective option, but it won’t reach agreement.

I think Israel would seek to act. Iran with a bomb would carry so many strategic consequences, even if Iran had no intention of using it, that it would demand action. A nuclear Iran would mean a  poly-nuclear Middle east, as the US couldn’t extend an umbrella to Arab countries that would convince them not to pursue their own weapons. The Saudi’s wouldn’t allow Americans to station nuclear arms on their territory. The Arab countries would desire a Sunni bomb to counter a Shia bomb. The Syrian project, helped by North Korea, has also shown just how far the Iranians have gone in their quest to get a bomb. The question that follows from that is this: Can Cold War nuclear deterrence exist in a poly-nuclear Middle East. I don’t think that it can. Cold War deterrence was bilateral, it was subject to clear command and control, and it was absent the religiosity of the region. It was also subject to Mutually Assured Destruction, which wouldn’t be the case in this instance. So the potential for escalation into nuclear crisis is much higher than in the Cold War, and the effect would be even higher oil prices at least, let alone direct nuclear conflict.

The Sunni-Shia split

There is a real sense in the Middle East that Sunni Arabs and Iranian Shiites are embroiled in conflict, especially due to the perception that Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon is being directed by Iran. President Mubarak was recently quoted as saying that no Shiite could be a loyal Arab. The ‘protocols of the elders of the Shia’, published in Mecca since the 1980s, is now a best seller. It alleges that the Shia are agents of the Iranians that have been responsible for all of the conflicts which have afflicted the Sunni World, aided by the Jews. This debate is going on within al-Qaeda as well. Before his death, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi challenged Ayman al-Zawahiri’s views, by suggesting that fighting the Shia was more crucial than fighting the Americans.

If you consider the current situation in Arab politics, it’s easy to see why. The US and UK have overthrown an Arab government, and the Shiites have benefitted. It’s seen as part of a conspiracy. Hezbollah is taking over Hezbollah – part of the conspiracy. Syria is coming under Iranian control – part of the conspiracy. Israel’s failure to do anything to stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology is part of the conspiracy. The number of Sunni becoming Shia is minimal. For example, only 1’000 Egyptians have become Shiites. However, it is subjected to histrionics, with Sunni scholars warning Iran not to try and transform Egypt into a Shia state. This is the context of the current debate.

There was a big debate a few years ago about Hezbollah, and the extent to which it had become part of Lebanon. There was a sense that it had ceased to be an Iranian proxy, and had become a Lebanese organisation. It was regarded as a body that could be prevailed upon according to Lebanese interests. What has happened in the last few years has changed this belief. As long as Syria in Lebanon, it could be said that Hezbollah was a double proxy of Syria and Iran. Since Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, and more significantly since Basher Asad came to power, there is more understanding that Syria is actually a proxy of Hezbollah. The relationship between Hasan Nasrallah and Basher Assad is greatly analysed. Assad is regarded as someone who latches on to authoritarian father figures. He was close to Saddam Hussein, and has cultivated a friendship with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah. Yet the fact is, Hassan Nasrallah was never close to Assad’s father. He was never invited to the palace, and was someone dealt with by security and intelligence officials. Now he is a regular guest at the Presidential palace. When you go to Damascus, there are massive posters of Nasrallah and pictures of him in marketplaces. Syria is a country with a reliable intelligence service. If they don’t want foreign officials to see Nasrallah’s prominence, they have ways of doing so. The fact that hero-worship of Nasrallah is acceptable is indicative of recent developments.

Alawite Syria

Another development, which is divorced from Israel –Lebanon, is a process many refer to as the ‘Shiatisation’ of Alawite Syria. In 1982 following the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood, Hafez al-Assad began building mosques in the Alawite community, even though Alawites don’t use mosques. When you consider this today, its clear that these have become Shiite mosques. The trend of Alawites adopting Shia Islam is reflective of the fact that Bashar al-Assad may be the last of the Alawite leaders. Therefore, Alawites are looking to identify with the stronger side. Iranian involvement has helped this process. Syria has started to become a Shiite orientated country, as a result of political and international developments.

None of this is overlooked by radical Sunni elements. Because of what I mentioned earlier, the weight of anti-Shiite feeling has become predominant in Jihadi strategic thinking. Syria and Lebanon, like Iraq, is becoming a frontline between Sunni Islam and the Shia-Western ‘plot’. The Shiites are growing in strength in all of those countries, and Iran is acquiring a nuclear weapon. This last point is not seen as feebleness in the west, but rather part of a broader design to allow Iran to impose hegemony on the Arabs. If you put yourself into this conspiratorial context, you can see how what happens in Lebanon has implications that go much further than the limited region itself.

Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon

Hezbollah is an Iranian surrogate. 90% of the documents I’ve participated in the study of, which are official Hezbollah documents, are all Shia works translated from Farsi into Arabic. Many of them are documents originally prepared for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The conventional wisdom until recently was that Hezbollah only wanted effective control over the government of Lebanon and freedom of action within the country. There was not a belief that it wanted to become the government of Lebanon, and accept all the responsibilities that would entail. This is rather similar to Hamas, which didn’t want or expect to win the elections in Gaza, and tried to broker a deal with Fatah when it did. It was a combination of many dynamics that thrust it into a position of governance. No organisation which wants to be an effective terrorist group wants to become the government. Working within a country, under the governance of a host state, gives them freedom of action. In the case of Hezbollah, its ability to take action against Israel would be curtailed by becoming the government of Lebanon. However, just like Hamas, Hezbollah seemed to be drawn into actions that left it on the brink of taking over Lebanon. Yet it went to the abyss, and drew back. To declare Nasrallah President and change the constitution, would give Israel greater freedom of action. If Hezbollah used violence against it, Israel could rightly claim that the state of Lebanon had attacked it.

Additionally, it is worth remembering that a terrorist organisation can only do what it can. Since 9/11, it has become harder to undertake operations of a terrorist nature. This is why Iran’s threat to deploy suicide bombers if attacked is so ludicrous. There has never been an Iranian suicide bomber. So it is worth noting that Hezbollah already has inherent limitations and probably kept them in mind when considering statehood. Hezbollah is part of Iran’s bluffing and deterrence strategy. The Alawite regime would struggle to survive conflict, so it is not in a position to inspire Syria to do more.

However, Hezbollah now has de facto control of Lebanon. The Airports and seaports are open to transport of weapons. It no longer needs to rely on Syria, which it did in 2006 for rockets and weapons. Syria is now being dispensed with. The whole calculus has therefore changed. The conventional wisdom in Israel was that an agreement with Syria would cover Lebanon. However, if Israel wants to reach a deal now, it ill will have to agree that Lebanon must be Syria’s Czechoslovakia. There is no way in which Hezbollah can be curtailed without empowering Syria to enter Lebanon to curtail it. There is no chance for a comprehensive Syria-Lebanon-Israel agreement. The Syrians would be very happy to have a mandate for sovereignty over Lebanon, but that doesn’t make the conditions on the ground any less valid. All Israeli policy makers know that the Syrians are not in a position to restrict Hezbollah, and that affects their thinking. Some ignore it, especially those who still seek a comprehensive Syria-Lebanon agreement. However, no one is ignorant of the fact.

The difficulty of negotiating with Syria

Peace is supposed to last longer than a war. Yet that would be hard in the present situation. I spoke to a Syrian businessman recently, who complained that it was becoming harder to do business, as he didn’t know who to give baksheesh to anymore. He told me that that there used to be a military governor, who was an Alawite, who could be given baksheesh, in exchange for allowing him to import whatever he wanted. Now it’s far more complicated. People from all across the community demand baksheesh. Centralised corruption has given way to de-centralised corruption. Maybe that is a stage one has to pass through on the way to democracy. Recently, a riot in northern Syria was mediated by a Syrian UN official. That would never have happened before. The state would have taken care of it under Hafez al-Assad. There has been an erosion of state authority.

A Syrian told me that his country is like the fable of King Solomon. He was so wise that Allah allowed him to die standing up, holding onto two staffs. But the staffs were wooden, and when they rotted, and his body fell, his people realised that they were no longer under his control, having still followed him before that. There is a sense of lawlessness in Syria now that parallels that. This raises questions about the way people regard the regime.

With that in mind, the Sunni – Shiite division becomes increasingly complicated. The more the Alawites are seen as becoming Shiite, the more the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood becomes the only anti-Hezbollah organisation. There is a crescent of Sunni resistance from northern Lebanon and Syria through to Iran, which sees itself as being on the frontline in the struggle against growing Shia dominance.

The future of the status quo

Syria may be the subject of tremendous uncertainty in the next twenty years. There remain a number of questions we don’t yet know the answer to. For example, will Bashar al-Assad still be President? Will the Alawites still head the governing elite? Will Syria maintain its integrity, or will it and Lebanon split along Sunni-Shiite lines? Things could change greatly in the Middle East. Nowhere else in the world are colonial borders so maligned and yet respected. There could be major change.

Hezbollah is now the virtual master of Lebanon, so what can we expect when considering the future of relations between Hezbollah and Israel? If Israel were to engage in a strike against Iran, we must assume that Hezbollah will take orders from Tehran. I don’t agree with those who think it has a truly independent streak. Under such circumstances, Hezbollah and Hamas will respond. However, Hezbollah is aware that a future war won’t look like the last one. In 2006 Israel broke with its strategic plans, and relied solely upon air power. They won’t do that in another conflict. So the situation in the Leant is delicately poised, and it might only become clear if and when events start to unfold.


Lost your password?

Not a member? Please click here