The Role of Iran and Syria in the Israel-Lebanon Crisis

Posted in Broader Middle East | 20-Jul-06 | Author: Dario Cristiani

During the past few weeks, tensions in the Middle East have increased dramatically. In late June, Israel initiated a military operation on its southern borders against Hamas after the Palestinian organization kidnapped an Israeli soldier. As part of this operation, the Israeli army returned to the Gaza Strip, which Israel had evacuated in August 2005. Shortly after, on July 12, the Shi'a militant organization Hezbollah opened a second front against Israel on its northern border, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. After Israel responded by launching air strikes on Lebanon, Hezbollah launched missiles into Israeli cities.

Hezbollah is one of Iran's and Syria's main regional allies, and both Tehran and Damascus play an important role in Hezbollah's current operations. Since the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, Syria and Iran have shared a strategic alliance and have had overlapping interests in the Middle East. This alliance now faces new challenges.

The Iranian-Syrian Alliance

After the September 11 attacks on the United States, the strategic environment in the Middle East changed radically. The launch of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, based on the doctrine of preemption, represented a general shift from the old doctrine of containment and deterrence. This shift, which led to the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the removal of the Saddam Hussein government in Iraq, strongly changed the political balance in the Middle East. These changes had a deep impact on Syria and Iran.

The fall of Saddam and the presence of U.S. troops near the Syrian border posed an extraordinary challenge to the stability of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. U.S. President George W. Bush accused Damascus of being a state sponsor of terrorism because it turned a blind eye to terrorist and jihadist infiltration of the Syrian-Iraqi border. American pressure became stronger after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005; after Hariri's death, the United States and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- such as the United Kingdom, Russia and France -- asked Syria to leave Lebanon. Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon increased Damascus' weakness and reduced its strategic options in the area. Indeed, Syria had benefited economically and politically from its presence in Lebanon.

The rising international pressure on Syria in the wake of the Hariri assassination also strengthened the country's internal divisions. Recently, the growth of religious, tribal and generational divisions within Syria has been very strong and Bashar now faces new difficult challenges to his regime's stability. The new alliance formed by former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is a clear example of this.

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