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Defense and Foreign Affairs Special Analysis


May 11, 2008

Lebanon’s “Demonstration Coup” Highlighted the Reality That Tehran and Damascus Have Changed the Strategic Balance on the Levantine Coast

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS, with input from other sources.
A series of watershed trends over the past year in Lebanon and in the Mashreq generally — coupled with a decisive and well-executed thrust from the Iranian and Syrian leaderships in May 2008 — have effectively transformed the strategic balance in the Middle East, guaranteeing Tehran its long-sought dominant position on the Mediterranean.

This will be exploited further as Tehran begins to take advantage of the ongoing transformation of Iraq.

US Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1947 said that if the Mediterranean should be closed to the United States, then the US would be closer to war. The lightly-masked Iranian presence, through HizbAllah, on the Lebanese shores of the Mediterranean is now so strongly entrenched that, absent a change of leadership in Tehran, the Mediterranean is, indeed, becoming less hospitable to the US.

The end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990 had seen the start of the reconstruction along national lines of the Armed Forces of Lebanon, but over the past year or so that reorganization gave way to a sectarian restructuring of the forces, with brigades re-formed to represent the areas — and therefore the religious and social leadership affiliations — in which they were raised.

As a result, the collapse of Lebanese Government control of the country which was evidenced in the May 7-10, 2008, period was directly linked to the reality that the Armed Forces essentially lost the ability to confront the growing power of Iranian-backed (through Syria) HizbAllah forces. Shi’a brigades of the Army switched allegiance from the Government to HizbAllah.

Thus, the slow, patient work of moving the Army away from its national character over the past year or so — a trend which went largely unnoticed by US policymakers and, indeed, other regional players — which had been sponsored by Tehran, Damascus, and the HizbAllah/Shia leadership in Lebanon was an essential element in allowing HizbAllah to declare a checkmate of the Government when it staged a quiet coup d’etat on May 7-8, 2008.

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, whose legitimacy had been disputed by the opposition (and particularly by HizbAllah), tasked the Army on May 10, 2008, with containing HizbAllah, but, in essence, it was a mere gesture. HizbAllah military units began withdrawing on May 10, 2008, from Beirut, in the knowledge that they had demonstrated the weakness of the Siniora Government and the power of the Sunni-dominated governing coalition under Saad al-Hariri. Significantly, the HizbAllah fighters were handing their positions to a mixture of Amal Shiite militiamen and the Army’s Shi’ite brigades loyal to them. Hence, HizbAllah has not lost all of its control over the segments of Beirut it occupied.

Significantly, not only was the Army clearly shown to now have difficulty in even considering a confrontation of HizbAllah, the Tehran-Damascus-HizbAllah thrust also had the backing of the Maronite Christian former Lebanese Army commander and former Prime Minister, Michel Aoun. Significantly, Aoun, who had wished to be perceived as the “savior of the Christian community” and had been seen as strenuously opposed to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, had been rejected by Maronite Patriarch Mar Nasrallah Boutros Cardinal Sfeir, 88, in this rle. Cardinal Sfeir and Aoun have been at daggers-drawn for decades, and the Patriarch’s remaining power has been to deny Aoun good standing in the Christian community.

As a result, Aoun, now enormously wealthy from unspecified deals, still has a following, but nowhere to go, politically, and has thus given his support to HizbAllah.

This has compounded HizbAllah’s strength and continued to fragment the Christian community, as well as, indeed, the Sunni elements of the Government which also oppose Syrian occupation of Lebanon (now represented by Syrian/Iranian control of HizbAllah).

Tehran has been maneuvering carefully in the broader strategic sense (apart from uncontrolled comments lately by Iranian Pres. Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad) so as to avoid giving the US an excuse to move once again toward a direct military confrontation with Iran before the US Presidential elections in November 2008. As a result, it was content to keep putting the appropriate pieces of its forward strategy in place as discreetly as possible, even showing enormous restraint in the war for personal power between its two key assets in Iraq, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

A trigger, however, for an overt move in Lebanon by Tehran — via HizbAllah — came on the morning of May 6, 2008, when the Siniora Government announced that Brig.-Gen. Wafic Shoucair (who is closely tied to HizbAllah), would be removed from his post as head of Beirut International Airport security – a position he was using to clear into Lebanon the flow of Iranian and Iran-trained personnel as well as weapons arriving on flights from Iran. At the same time, the Siniora Government said that HizbAllah’s private and encrypted communication network was illegal and unconstitutional and said that it would refer the issue to the Arab League and the international community.

Tehran and Damascus, and HizbAllah, had to move quickly to avoid the Government achieving any success in breaking HizbAllah’s power. And even then, the move was as careful and non-confrontational as possible, demonstrating Tehran’s control without launching HizbAllah back into open warfare with the Government of Lebanon’s forces. HizbAllah was aided by the commander of the Lebanese Army and presidential candidate General Michel Suleiman who, after receiving a telephone call from Damascus, notified Seniora that the Lebanese Army would not fire on Lebanese citizens – that is the HizbAllah, Amal and SSNP fighters -- even if they carried arms. Meanwhile, the small militia of Hariri (which was guarding his media empire) and Walid Jumblatt (securing his assets in Beirut) collapsed with little or no battle. They stood aside as the HizbAllah destroyed Hariri’s media building. As well, three senior Druze commanders and their forces switched to HizbAllah on advice of Syria.

As a result, Seniora knew he had no alternative but to capitulate.

Even so, HizbAllah and other Shia elements – as well as the Damascus-controlled, predominantly Christian/Greek Orthodox SSNP -- on the streets of Beirut and other Lebanese cities could not resist showing where their backing was coming from: they carried large portraits of Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Asad.

On May 10, 2008, Fouad Siniora offered HizbAllah and its patrons an olive branch in a speech to the nation. He reversed the two key decisions which started the crisis – restoring Shoucair and nominating an Army team to work with the HizbAllah on ensuring that their communications grid does not interfere with the national grid. Siniora also promised to look into the host of social issues habitually raised by HizbAllah in the name of Lebanon’s oppressed, thus reiterating the growing importance of HizbAllah in the Lebanese political scene.

Meanwhile, fresh out of Beirut, HizbAllah’s elite units moved quickly to consolidate their control over all the key axes of transportation between south Lebanon and the Beirut area, the strategic coastal facilities between Sidon, Tyre and Beirut, as well as the roads between the Beqaa and Beirut. HizbAllah forces also expanded their hold over the entire Beqaa, expelling the small Lebanese military garrisons. Soon afterwards, in the early hours of May 10, 2008, advance units of the Syrian 10th Division crossed into Lebanon and established positions overlooking key transportation arteries and UNIFIL bases. The 10th Division, along the 14th Commando Division is deployed along the Syrian-Lebanese border from the Damascus-Beirut Highway to the border with Israel. The two divisions and a special military intelligence/special forces contingent constitute a Task Force under the command of Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s brother.

Significantly, throughout this strategic upheaval, the 15,000 troops of the United Nations Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the vast majority of them from major NATO countries, did nothing but stay inside their camps. They reduced patrolling to a symbolic minimum. They did not even report and protest the large force movements by HizbAllah in and out of south Lebanon which constitutes a flagrant violation of UNSC Resolution 1701 (not to speak of harming the vital interests of the international community in Lebanon). The behavior of the UN and UNIFIL begs the question as to why the United Nations deploys forces at all in Lebanon, and, by so doing and then failing to act, whether it is, in fact, legitimizing the Syrian and Iranian subversion of the Lebanese state.

There are signs, however, that the impotence of the US-supported Siniora Government in Lebanon, and of other regional players such as Saudi Arabia with regard to Lebanon, have aroused concern in Washington. The de facto coup in Lebanon of May 2008 has given impetus to the faction within the White House and US Defense Department which believes that the Iranian leadership had effectively ended the “truce” agreed between Tehran and Washington in November 2007, freeing the US to once again consider military action to contain Iran.

See Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, December 14, 2007: Washington’s Deal With Iran Ensures Early US Withdrawal From Iraq, But Imperils Long-Term Western Interests and Stability in the Middle East.

At the same time, Washington is now beginning to see – as the Saudi Arabian Government began to see over the past year – that the quick solution to short-circuiting Iran’s strategic indirect-power expansion into the Mediterranean and Europe is to see Bashar al-Asad removed as President of Syria. That is a delicate matter, and would require the insertion of an acceptable ‘Alawite leader who could balance the Syrian polity. And the only candidate available is the one Saudi Arabia supports, even at the expense of their original first choice, a Sunni leader: Rifat al-Asad, the uncle of Bashar al-Asad.

The difference between Bashar and his Uncle, Rifat, is that Rifat would quickly move to end Syrian dependence on Iran, stop the process of supporting HizbAllah (because Syria is the vital conduit for Iranian operations with HizbAllah), and withdrew Syrian sponsorship of terrorism in Lebanon and, for that matter, Iraq.

Rifat is cognizant of, and great believer in, the crucial rle played by the minorities dwelling along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean in the development of the entire Mashreq. Therefore, once in power, he has indicated that he would consolidate an alliance of these minorities — most notably, the Alawites, Maronites, and Druze — in order to revive their regional significance. In so doing, Rifat would be restoring the unique traditional character of Lebanon as a bridge between East and West.

Ultimately, Rifat has indicated that his priority would be to transform Syria into a market economy so that it could benefit from the dramatic changes in the Levant, and end the decades of socialist and pro-clerical authoritarian social control imposed by his late brother, Hafez al-Asad, and Hafez’ son, Bashar. Given the intricate nature of the Mashreq, such dramatic changes in Syria would quickly spread across borders into Iraq and Jordan as well.

Seeing Rifat into office – given that he is also publicly one of the most acceptable candidates – would essentially undercut Iran’s expansion strategy, and would do more to isolate the Iranian clerics than any other single move. And seeing Rifat in the Syrian Presidency would, in fact, also markedly impact on the Iraqi security situation, withdrawing one major area of support for the insurgent movements operating there.

 



 

 

 

 


 

 






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