Iran pulls Syria's strings over LebanonPARIS - One day after the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri in Beirut on February 16, Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari flew to Tehran and proposed the formation of an alliance between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Arab Republic of Syria, aimed at thwarting threats from the United States against the two states.
"We are ready to help Syria on all grounds to confront threats," Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref told his Syrian guest. "Our Syrian brothers are facing specific threats and we hope they can benefit from our experience. We are ready to give them any help necessary," Aref said. He stopped short of specifying what kind of assistance Tehran could bring Syria as the two countries are badly isolated in the international scene, are extremely unpopular at home and have weak armies, equipped with aging weapons.
Most Iranian and Arab analysts have described the proposal as "a hoax", comparing it to a blind person offering his services to another blind person, as there was nothing Iran could do for Syria and vice versa as the proposed alliance is in total contradiction with the sentiments of the majority of the Lebanese people, who are calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from their country, and there are no common interests between Tehran and Damascus, contrary to what the officials of the two countries pretend.
Qasem Sho'leh Sa'di, a lawyer, university professor and outspoken Iranian political dissident, commented, "The Arab-Israeli conflict has nothing to do with our interests. The day Israel gets out of the Golan Heights, Syria would immediately recognize the Jewish state. As for the Palestinians, they are already talking to the Israelis, not speaking of the Jordanians and the Egyptians, who have already established formal diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. The question is, why should Iran take the side of the terrorists? Why should Iran deny the existence of Israel? Why should Iran continue hostilities with the United States and sacrifice our own interests?"
But as the assassination of Hariri unexpectedly united most of Lebanon's antagonist factions, mostly the Christians, Sunnis, Druze and Shi'ites, in an anti-Syrian national uprising, and international pressures increased, spearhead by Washington and Paris, urging President Bashar al-Assad to take out his 14,000-15,000 soldiers from the neighboring nation, Iran rushed to help Syria by activating the Lebanese Hezbollah, or the Party of God.
The Shi'ite-based organization was created by the Islamic Republic in 1982, in essence to fight anti-Iranian operations mounted by Iraq in the region, but also as a tool responding to one of the principles of the Islamic Republic: the annihilation of the Jewish state and ending the presence in the region of its Western supporters, mainly the US - objectives that also responded to Syrian goals.
Armed, financed and trained by both Iran and Syria, the Hezbollah enjoys enviable popularity both in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world because of its unabated fight against the Israelis, to the point that it is credited as the "single Arab movement that forced the mighty Tsahal [Israeli army] to withdraw in June 2000 from the areas it had occupied in parts of southern Lebanon since 1982".
It was also Hezbollah that put an end to the presence of US Marine Corps and French forces in the country by killing more than 240 Americans in their barracks in Beirut in 1983 and 120 French soldiers in deadly suicidal attacks against their garrison.
The movement also adopted the tactic of taking Western hostages, through a number of freelance hostage-taking cells, such as the Revolutionary Justice Organization and the Organization of the Oppressed Earth, which seized US church envoy Terry Waite in 1987 and held him for 1,760 days.
Earlier, Iran had a contingent of some 2,000 Revolutionary Guards, based in the Bekaa Valley, which had been sent to Lebanon in 1982 to aid the resistance against Israel.
Hezbollah's popularity with the poor Lebanese Shi'ite community, which makes up almost 40% of Lebanon's 3 million people, but also other communities, was confirmed in the 1992 parliamentary elections when Hezbollah won eight seats in parliament, and where it now has 12 seats.
Another factor adding to the prestige of Hezbollah is that it has never fought other Lebanese forces, concentrating its military activities against the Jewish state, hence its popularity with radical Palestinian and other Arab movements.
Iran and Syria established a "strategic alliance" in 1980 after Damascus, alone among all other Arab countries, took the side of non-Arab Tehran when it was attacked by the now-toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, then Syria's staunchest enemy, due primarily to the bitter hostility between the two opposing factions of the Ba'ath Party in power in Damascus and Baghdad.
Against this "solidarity", Syria received hefty financial, material, political and moral support from the ruling Iranian ayatollahs, including millions of dollars in discounted oil and aid. But the Syrians never "returned the gift", as Damascus sided with the Arabs every time Tehran was at loggerheads with an Arab state, as seen in the dispute opposing Iran rather than the United Arab Emirates over the three Iranian islands of Abou Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, situated strategically at the entrance of the Persian Gulf.
As a first step in the latest crisis in Lebanon, Iran launched a regionwide campaign in support of Syria, using its state-controlled public media, including the 24-hour Arabic service al-Alam (The World) run by Iranian Radio and Television that enjoys a large audience in the Arab world, by pretending that the anti-Syrian demonstrations were a joint plot hatched by the Americans and the Zionists.
But as the momentum against the Syrian occupation gathered speed, bringing down the government of pro-Syrian premier Omar Karameh and destabilizing Emile Lahoud, the Christian president appointed by Damascus, while other nations including Russia, Germany, Egypt and, more significant, Saudi Arabia also joined the international pressure on Damascus, Assad, in an unprecedented move, addressed the Syrian parliament and announced his decision "gradually" to withdraw his forces from Lebanon by concentrating them in the Bekaa Valley on the Lebanese-Syria border, "according to the Taif Accord of 1989".
Signed by 62 lawmakers, half of them Christians and the other Muslim, that US-Saudi agreement - in which the slain Hariri played an important role - ended 15 years of fratricide and devastating civil war in Lebanon, calling for the formation of a government of national unity and disarming all the warring factions except Hezbollah.
The accord also invited Syria to send in some token forces for a period of two years to help Lebanon reconstruct its national army and police, re-establish the rule of law and form a viable state apparatus.
Fifteen years later, Syria, profiting from an international consensus, had turned Lebanon into a vassal state, naming all key officials, including the presidents and prime ministers, and running the army and the security services, much like some of the former Soviet Union's so-called "independent" nations that, though they were integral parts of the Soviet empire, enjoyed a presence at the United Nations.
Assad's promise, aimed at satisfying Washington, Paris and Riyadh, also contained threats, assuring that the withdrawal did not mean Syria would be absent from Lebanon, analysts have pointed out. In his address, he said the protesters in Beirut did not represent Lebanon, and tried to stain them with links to Israel.
At a press conference on Sunday, Hasan Nasrullah, the Iranian-backed general secretary of Hezbollah, warmly thanked Syria for its "generous and courageous" assistance to Lebanon and the Lebanese people, saying the Lebanese "must not forget the valuable sacrifices Syria provided Lebanon".
He condemned "all attempts at humiliating and belittling" Syria, a country that ended the civil war, "brought back stability and helped restoration of the state machinery, great achievements and sacrifices that it should be thanked for". He also called for massive rallies in Beirut to show loyalty to Damascus.
However, he described Assad's decision to withdraw Syrian forces as "responding to the interests" of both countries, adding that he would reject the US-French-sponsored United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 urging Syria to take out all its forces from Lebanon, saying that the resolution was "an inadmissible interference in Lebanon's internal affairs".
"We shall not forget that the goal of the United States and Israel is creating chaos in Lebanon," he said, and vowed that regardless of international pressures, Hezbollah would not lay down its weapons. "The resistance will not give up its arms, because Lebanon needs the Hezbollah as a tool for its defense against Israel," Nasrullah said.
Hasan Hashemian, an Iranian journalist and university professor specializing in Arab affairs, commented, "Assad's declaration has broken the so-far-united front of the Lebanese opposition to the Syrian presence in the country, with, on the one hand, those who insist on the total withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and on the other, those who understand the present conditions and are ready for gradual cooperation with Damascus.
"On the front of the Arab world, the statement was welcomed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the country where Hariri made most of his fortune and had a close relationship with the Saudi ruling family, which had bestowed Saudi nationality on the assassinated prime minister. As from now, Cairo and Riyadh will try to help Assad by softening the effects of the 1559 resolution," he said.
"Finally," Hashemian added, "it is possible that Paris, Berlin and Moscow will give Assad the benefit of the doubt, refusing politely to go along with Washington in insisting on Syria's immediate and total withdrawal from all Lebanese territory."
By helping to defuse the situation in Lebanon without appearing on the scene, thanks to the role, weight and popularity of its Hezbollah protege on the one hand, and by helping its Syrian ally to come out of the Lebanese quagmire more or less unharmed on the other, Iran has scored a great diplomatic victory.
Not only has Iran displayed the scope of its political resources in the region, it has also proved that it holds most of the regional strings and that all roads lead to Tehran.
Strategists in the United States and Israel in charge of the "Iranian problem" should review carefully the events of the past three weeks. This would help them greatly in their appreciation and calculus concerning ongoing issues with Tehran, and above all Iran's controversial nuclear activities.
Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.