Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Illusionary Gains of the Syrian Strategy | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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There are three important events that await Lebanon that may shake region: the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and on the same day the submission of Secretary General Kofi Annan’s report on the implementation of international Resolution 1701 and lastly, the report by international investigator Serge Brammertz into the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

The two states that are directly involved in the armament of Hezbollah had “promised” the UN Secretary-General that they would cooperate in the implementation of Resolution 1701. On the other hand, Annan had agreed with the Syrian president Bashar al Assad that the time has come for the revival of peace efforts in the region in order to establish comprehensive peace according to international resolutions. Annan stressed to the Syrian president that the revival of the peace process through Syria is on the UN’s agenda and that several world leaders have realized that the only way to achieve peace is by the initiation of the peace process.

The two states that Kofi Annan then visited were Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are also considered competitive key players in the Lebanese arena following the Hezbollah-Israel war. However, this war, as one western politician described it, would not be confined to the Middle East and will extend to west Asia because of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the crisis in Afghanistan and the Israel-Lebanon war, which are all linked together and promote for one another. Professor Fred Halliday, an expert on the Middle East further asserted that “The Gulf connection with the Arab-Israeli conflict, the events that are unfolding in Afghanistan and the policies of Iran, the Arab countries as well as Pakistan and the Middle East as a whole, have become a reality in recent years. The western politician said that linking Pakistan with the Middle East as a whole, or what the former Pakistani president Zia al Haq had talked about in the seventies, had become a reality and one of the most important of consequences may be the recent war in Lebanon. He added, “The importance of Iran has been highlighted in the geopolitical scene of the region from the Arab Middle East to the Gulf, thanks to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon.”

It is well known that Iran fully funds Hezbollah. The large sum that was given by Tehran to Hezbollah of “$600-700 million” after the cease-fire to compensate those who had lost their homes, was a clear sign of Iran and Syria’s readiness to have the greatest influence in south Lebanon. This step was taken to counter the Saudi hope to lead the reconstruction efforts in Lebanon. The Lebanese government has announced that it is ready to donate $33,000 to each family that lost its home as a result of Israeli aggression, however the government stated that it would demand proof before handing over this sum of money and this portrayed Hezbollah in a better light as it relied upon on its own committees to check the afflicted areas and swiftly provide the necessary funds to homeless families.

Following the government’s announcement that it would compensate citizens for their losses, Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, stated that in case the government faltered in any way regarding payments, Hezbollah, or rather Iran would be prepared to cover the costs. It would not be in the interest of Saudi Arabia or any of the other donating countries to spread rumors about the inefficiency of the relief efforts and this defect should be eliminated.

Another challenge that Saudi Arabia faces in Lebanon is presented by Qatar. This small emirate, which is working hard to counter Saudi influence, hoped to expand its political and economic influence beyond the GCC countries and looked for a way outside of the Gulf region to weaken Saudi influence. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, exerted much effort to improve Syria’s image in the eyes of the United States and strengthen its role in the Lebanese political system once again. It is known that Qatar has taken on the role of mediator between Syria on one hand and the United States and Israel on the other hand. Through such contact, as one Lebanese official had stated, Qatar is trying to distance Syria from Iran and to clear the Syrian government of involvement in the assassination of the slain Lebanese former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri. He adds, “Qatar offered financial support to Syria’s allies in Lebanon to prepare themselves for victory in the next elections.”

Sheikh Hamad, the first head of state to visit Beirut after the cease-fire, visited the Lebanese capital on August 21, the same day that he met the Syrian President, Bashar al Assad in Damascus. Sheikh Hamad pledged to rebuild the damaged areas of Bint Jbeil and al Khiam. As for Saudi Arabia, it had promised to donate one and a half billion dollars to rebuild ten villages and to support the Lebanese Central Bank. This highlights the fact that the economic situation in Lebanon after the war had attracted a regional competition. Lebanon expressed its gratitude for Saudi support, however the competition that is clearly against Saudi Arabia, not only by Iran but also Qatar, can no longer be denied.

The flexibility shown by the Syrian president during his meeting with the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had differed greatly to his escalatory and menacing standpoint after the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah. Previously, Bashar al Assad had scoffed at the notion of the new Middle East and considered moderate Arab leaders incompetent. He also criticized politicians who opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon for their demands that Hezbollah hand over its weapons to the army, calling them agents of Israel.

Despite the regional and international isolation from which Syria is suffering, Assad has derived his strength from the recent victory of Syria’s ally, Hezbollah over Israel regardless of the destruction that it caused to Lebanon. What is more important than this verbal attack was Syria’s immediate resort to Iran. The western politician attributed this to Washington’s attempts to isolate Damascus and the deterioration of Saudi-Syrian relations after the assassination of Rafik Hariri.

It is for these reasons that Assad wages on his country’s alliance with Iran as he knows that Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which are two conventional pathways for Syrian contact with Washington, would not stand by Syria if the investigation into the Hariri assassination disclosed Syrian involvement. Based on this it seems Assad had agreed on Hezbollah’s operation that begun 12 July. A Lebanese official said, “The Syrian President may not know the full details of the operation, however, this does not rule out Hezbollah consulting Tehran and Damascus. The two states had agreed but the green light was given by Tehran. The Hezbollah operation worked in the interest of the Syrian president as it caused unrest in South Lebanon and could help him eliminate some risks that threaten his regime even if limited and temporary.

On the international level, as the Lebanese official said, “The confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah is the only way that the Syrian president can improve relations with Washington. Assad implicitly sought to convey that the Syrian presence in Lebanon had its advantages, the most prominent of which was controlling Hezbollah. Assad’s objective revolved and still revolves around Washington’s varying position towards Syria, as he feels that despite all efforts to control the Iraqi-Syrian borders and prevent the flow of Islamic militants, Washington’s real goal is to completely change the Syrian regime rather than just its behavior. Then came Hezbollah’s operation and Syria’s belief that Washington would ask Damascus to stop Hezbollah, and in that case, Syria would have asked for the Hariri investigation to be closed. What added to Syria’s hopes was the explicit American discourse that highlighted the importance of communication with Syria, as well as calls from Israeli officials to resume peace talks over the Golan Heights. However, as credible reports have shown, these requests have not materialized and the Syrian president has failed to achieve his strategic gains because American administration had rejected opening the channels of communication with Damascus.

What had angered Assad was that Washington and Paris had succeeded in achieving a cease-fire and issuing an international resolution without consulting Syria. Syria made its complaints about Arab states, with the exception of Qatar, for presenting initiatives without Syria knowing. Furthermore, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had rejected the recommencement of negotiations with Syria so that it would not feel as if this was a result of the recent war, even though such attempts and channels would have further preserved the Syrian regime.

The incremental goals that Syria has achieved because of the war in Lebanon are simply illusory gains, as after the war, American administration was more determined to topple the current Syrian administration. Moreover, Olmert effused to resume peace talks. What adds to this dilemma was Assad’s dauntless destruction of Syrian relations with other Arab countries that could have supported the Syrian president through his imminent ordeal.

Finally and despite the weakness and fragmentation of the Syrian opposition, the isolation of the Syrian regime on both regional and international levels will undoubtedly have an affect. Despite promises made to the UN Secretary General, it is likely that Syria will continue to send Iranian and Syrian weapons to Hezbollah. Its attempts to provoke regional instability is what we could call digging a hole for itself internally, regionally and internationally, especially that the Lebanese arena has become a playground for regional and international players. The repercussions of the recent war have begun to emerge through Iraqi Kurdistan or even through the upcoming meeting between the American president and Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf that will be held this month.