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Syria: Between Tehran and Hezbollah | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- When Mohamed Hassan Akhtari was appointed as the Iranian ambassador to Syria in 1985, relations between Iran and Syria had already entered a stage of strategic coordination thanks to two men; Saddam Hussein and Musa al Sadr.

Through Musa al Sadr, and his Iranian comrades in the Amal movement, including prominent Iranians such as Mustafa Chamran who was the first Minister of Defense of post-revolutionary Iran, the late Syrian president Hafez al Assad’s regime became acquainted with Khomeini’s revolution and his ideas. A number of Iranian activists in Amal had Syrian diplomatic passports, which they used to deter and conceal their identities before the revolution in February 1979.

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was destined to play a role in strengthening relations between Tehran and Damascus without realizing the effects this would have on Iraq and the region at the time. Saddam engaged in war with Iran shortly after the Islamic revolution. Tehran was not the only one to sense the danger as this feeling extended from Tehran to Damascus where the Baathist regime was not close to its counterpart in Iraq.

The regime of the late Syrian president Hafez Assad stood by Iran in hope of weakening its Iraqi Baathist opponent that Damascus considered a threat, especially if it was to achieve victory in its war against Iran. The Syrian fear of Saddam Hussein’s intentions increased with accusations leveled against Hafez Assad that claimed that he sent Syrian troops to Iran to fight against the Iraqi army.

Abdul Halim Khaddam, the former vice-president of Syria under the regime of Hafez Assad and a key decision maker in Syria during this period, explained to Asharq Al-Awsat the reasons that the Syrian president sided with Iran over Iraq; “Relations between Syria and Iran developed significantly following the Islamic revolution in Iran. There were links between Syria and Ayatollah Khomeini through Musa al Sadr’s group.”

“After the revolution, relations shifted onto a state level. In September 1980, the Iraq-Iran war broke out. Iraq launched a campaign against Syria and accused Syria of sending soldiers to Iran to fight against the Iraqi army. As a result, we considered it a prelude to war between Iraq and Syria and saw that Saddam Hussein believed that war with Iran would be over within a matter of weeks and then he would fight Syria. A conference was held in Moscow where the then Iraqi parliament speaker Naeem Haddad met the president of the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the late Khaled al Fahoum and said: ‘When we’re done with Iran we will turn to Damascus.’ Undoubtedly, this gave us a negative perception of the Iraqi regime.”

“There was communication between Syria and Iran. We condemned the war and refused to rush to support Saddam Hussein as some Arab countries did. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, some states regretted getting involved. During this period, Iranian-Syrian relations developed considerably. These relations were not only based on confronting Saddam Hussein but also on dealing with the regional and international situation. There was a lot of coordination and continuous meetings taking place between the Syrians and Iranians. A joint committee was formed and its members included the vice-presidents and foreign ministers of both countries. This committee would meet every three months and would keep an eye on relations and regional and international situations and offer suggestions for the decision-making process in both countries.”

According to a former Iranian official who agreed to speak to Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity, one could say that “The common danger is the key” to understanding the nature of Iranian-Syrian relations. Saddam Hussein posed a threat to both Khomeini and Hafez Assad; however a new danger emerged and pushed relations to another level of strategic coordination, namely the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

The Israeli invasion that threatened Syrian influence in Lebanon and the newly-born Iranian republic showed that there was a need to strengthen the defence in both countries and to put together a political organization with military capabilities, which would be able to confront Israel and any other power that might threaten Syria or Iran.

At that time, despite the fact that most leadership figures of the Amal movement were politicians and clerics who were not in favour of the idea of establishing a political party on a religious basis, there was a group within the movement that did not reject this idea. Consequently, when numerous circles within Iran, Syria and Lebanon began to think about the necessity of creating a new partisan, religious, political and armed organization, they withdrew from Amal and advocated a new orientation.

According to the prominent Lebanese intellect Hani Fahs these included both Sheikh Sobhi al Tufeili and Sheikh Abbas al Musawi. The creation of Hezbollah was Iran’s most important and difficult mission abroad in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution. It was the first practical experiment to export the ideas of the revolution to other parts of the region. Consequently, when the idea came about to create Hezbollah by Ali Akbar Mohtashami, who served as the Iranian ambassador to Damascus and later became Minister of Interior under former President Mohammad Khatami, many people carried these ideas so that they may be implemented on the ground. However, the “burden” was shouldered by Mohammad Hassan Akhtari, the Iranian ambassador who succeeded Mohtashami in Damascus, because of the location of Damascus and its influence on Lebanon, making it an indispensable passageway to send fighters, trainers, arms, money or instructions.

Abdul Halim Khaddam, who dealt with Lebanon for many years during the reign of late President Hafez Assad and who was one of Akhtari’s contemporaries when he was serving as Iran’s ambassador to Damascus, clarified the responsibilities assumed by Akhtari: “Akhtari’s basic mission during the first stage was to complete the making of Hezbollah.”

“Akhtari supervised the creation of Hezbollah and its finance, and [was responsible for] getting arms to it in Lebanon with the approval of the Syrian government. He oversaw the political and financial developments of Hezbollah. A group of Iranians took charge of drawing up action and training plans for Hezbollah. There were also Lebanese instructors who were trained in both Iran and Lebanon. The Iranians have contributed to Hezbollah’s training and preparation.”

“In addition, Hezbollah’s leadership adopted theoretical and practical fundamentals from Iran for the establishment and development of the party. However, Hezbollah’s leadership through its own efforts was able to spread their ideas within the Lebanese Shia circles. Moreover, Hezbollah’s resistance gave it considerable moral support in the Lebanese arena.”

“Akhtari used to receive instructions from Iran. Let us suppose, for example, that Tehran wanted to meet a figure from Hezbollah or any other Lebanese figure, or wanted to communicate with a Lebanese party, whether it was Hezbollah or another group linked to Iran; this would be done via the Iranian ambassador in Damascus not the Iranian embassy in Beirut.”

With the establishment of Hezbollah, the Amal movement had no remarkable position as part of the resistance in its new sense, that is, the armed resistance rather than the political civil resistance that was adopted by some leadership figures of Amal, most prominently Sheikh Mohammed Mahdi Shams al Din.

Hani Fahs, who used to liaise between Fatah and the leadership of the Iranian revolution during those decisive years, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “It was natural for this work to be completed in an objective manner at the expense of the Amal movement from which leaderships emerged insisting upon resistance and cooperation with Hezbollah before and after it was created, civil Palestinian leaderships and leaderships that called for deliberation and agreed to comprehensive civil resistance until the May 17 Israeli-Lebanese agreement was completed.”

“There were internal political changes that the Amal movement dealt with in a way that made resistance its only option; without which it would be weak and toothless. At a later stage resistance had to be restricted and so it was exclusive to Hezbollah. This is what explains many Lebanese events and the absence of national movement from the field of resistance after it had once participated in its launch. It may also explain the war between camps and between Amal and Hezbollah.”

There was conflict between Hezbollah and Amal during the Lebanese civil war in the early 1980’s shortly after Hezbollah was created. It was a decisive and fierce confrontation that changed the balances in Lebanon to the advantage of Iran and at the expense of Syria. However, Hafez Assad and his followers, according to Khaddam, were not fully aware of the dimensions and the consequences of strengthening Hezbollah at Amal’s expense.

Khaddam indicated, “The Amal movement existed in the Lebanese arena during this period. Hezbollah was still under construction and it grew at the expense of Amal, Syria’s ally. It was not given importance in Damascus because Tehran is allied with Damascus…the decision to support and develop Hezbollah was an Iranian decision.”

“The Iranians have benefited from the nature of relations with the regime in Syria, particularly with President Hafez Assad. They would frequently ask him to create openings to assist Hezbollah. For instance, if the Iranians wanted to dispatch arms, there would be a lot of communication on various levels; accordingly President Hafez Assad would be responding. When the Iranians began to establish Hezbollah, they sent elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Lebanon and this did not take on strategic dimensions with regards to the Syrian regime.”

“The idea that Iran would seek to control the Shia in Lebanon did not exist because historically there were no problems between the Sunni and the Shia in Lebanon. For example, four Lebanese prime ministers adopted the Shia doctrine due to issues related to inheritance. No Lebanese prime minister could register himself as Shia since there was no distinction between Muslims in Lebanon.”

“The split began to emerge when Iran intervened. The political assessment in Syria was that the Iranians wanted to form resistance in Lebanon against Israel, which was a good thing. The idea of Iranian control over the Shia in Lebanon was not even considered; however, Hezbollah began to grow due to the financial aid it would receive from Iran.”

Khaddam continued: “Fighting broke out between Amal and Hezbollah. There was tension; however, the surprise was that Hezbollah launched the campaign to dominate areas where the Amal movement was present such as Bekaa Valley and the southern suburbs. Numerous conflicts broke out claiming lives and inflicting wounds. The last battle took place in the south and we practically helped and supported the Amal movement since it was becoming weak. Some of those in charge of the Lebanese issue in Syria had some ideas about Iranian objectives in Lebanon but President Hafez Assad’s position was firm. Consequently, when the fighting erupted, Iran and Syria mediated and the fighting stopped and each party’s influence was restricted but in practice this was not applied since Hezbollah began to expand through the services that it provided to the people, especially the poor in Lebanon.”

“Hezbollah established institutions for construction and reconstruction, and economic and social organizations, which played a role in strengthening the Shia base of Hezbollah. At the same time, there was a revival of Shia fanaticism in Lebanon because more fanaticism would mean a stronger allegiance to Iran to the extent that Iran has become a political and ideological reference for the majority of Shia in Lebanon. Nabih Berri realized the gravity of the situation however matters were out of his hands.”

There is no doubt that Hezbollah activists and affiliates played a major role in consolidating the party’s presence and dominance over the Shia regions of Lebanon. Most activists were clerics or young religious men who spoke about religion in simple terms. Many of them attended Hawzas in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran and worked in the field of politics from the angle of religious resistance.

Sheikh Ali al Amin, the Mufti of Tyre and Mount Amel, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Iran began to work on forming a party through young, strong believers and clerics who later named the party Hezbollah.”

“Iran has paved the way for it through religious mobilization amongst clerics and in religious Hawzas and institutes under its control and by stating that the Amal movement is not religious nor legitimate because it is not linked to Waliyat-e-Faqih [Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists]. It then began to label its followers and affiliates as believers, or secularists or as immoral and it monopolized their religious standing. The fact that the Amal movement neglected the religious culture was also of assistance since the Supreme Shia Islamic Council failed to organize religious action and to bring together the clerics so Iran did this and formed the nucleus of Hezbollah and the clerics created propaganda that influenced the Shia public. The conflict began between a new culture supported by Iran and pro-Iran clerics and the Amal movement and the Supreme Shia Islamic Council, which could make official religious and political decisions.”

“At a later stage, this difference in opinion, vision, orientation and method led to an armed conflict, which saw a lot of blood spilt in the name of religion. This happened when Syria was in Lebanon and had good ties with Iran. In the end, Hezbollah became Iran’s representative and was present in the political and religious decision-making process. Through that, it gradually extended its influence to become the strongest partner within the Shia sect and Lebanese authority. Both the Amal movement and the Supreme Shia Islamic Council backed down on the cultural and political levels until Hezbollah dominated religious culture and became the top political representative of the Shia sect.”

The creation of Hezbollah had a direct effect upon the Iranian existence in Lebanon. Although the Amal movement is also Shia, it does not originate from Iran. In this respect, Khaddam said: “Khomeini’s group had no presence in the Lebanese arena unless Musa al Sadr’s presence is considered part of Khomeini’s group. It can be argued that he was close to Khomeini; however, he used to avoid giving off the impression that he had links to Iran. He had strong ties with Arabs. At that time, neither Iranian action nor support for Khomeini in Lebanon was organized.”

“However, there were individuals in Lebanon that were close to Khomeini. When Khomeini was exiled in Iraq, there was a large number of Lebanese studying at the Hawza Ilmiyya in Najaf. Consequently, these Lebanese became acquainted with Khomeini but at that time there was no movement in Lebanon that linked itself to Khomeini. This came only after Hezbollah was established.”

But why did Iran support Hezbollah over the Amal movement, some members of which were also Iranian activists such as Mustafa Chamran? Khaddam answered, “It is true that the Amal movement is also exclusively Shia but the difference between Amal and Hezbollah is that Amal is more open to other sects. Culturally, it is more open in that there is no religious culture that dominates its leadership. The entire leadership of Amal is made up of politicians, while the entire leadership of Hezbollah consists of sheikhs.”

Relations between Amal and Hezbollah after the armed conflicts had ended saw the division of roles between a stronger party and a weaker party or between an armed party and unarmed party.

However, there are those within Amal that do not believe that the movement was gradually marginalized within Lebanon’s political arena as a result of Hezbollah and its monopoly of arms. In this regard foreign relations official Mohamed Bazzi from the Amal movement told Asharq Al-Awsat: “There is no such thing as a Shia arena, a Christian arena, a Sunni arena or a Druze arena in Lebanon; there is one nation and it is called Lebanon. This is our opinion in the Amal movement. Perhaps some of the most important factors regarding disintegration and the collapse of Lebanese society are doctrinal and sectarian loyalties.”

“Amal movement is not weak at all; we had arms in the past and we were the first to resist against the Israeli occupation from 1978 to date. However, with respect to arms, we cannot be compared to Hezbollah.”

Despite that the late Syrian President Hafez Assad was not concerned about strengthening Hezbollah at the expense of the Amal movement, there were circles in Syria that were not comfortable to the extent that relations between Damascus and Hezbollah during its early stages were troubled and this pushed Hezbollah further towards Iran as it is a safe haven with respect to training or finance. The relation between Hezbollah and Iran has been explicit from day one with no need for mediation from Damascus.

Khaddam stated, “Relations [between Syria and Hezbollah] were not good in the early years [of Hezbollah’s establishment]. There was a problem with elements of the Syrian forces in one of Beirut’s districts. The Syrian forces that were present took decisive measures against Hezbollah so there was tension at the beginning but this soon disappeared. Because of this tension early on there was no Syrian weight to support Hezbollah; but Syria represented a pathway that benefited Hezbollah through which Iranian support could pass.”

At a later stage, due to the circumstances of Hezbollah’s early years, there was a lot of sensitive communication between Syria and Hezbollah via Iran, while the daily matters would be coordinated between Damascus and Hezbollah.

Khaddam spoke about two kinds of coordination between Hezbollah and Syria; “Daily coordination was carried out by security apparatus in Lebanon and sometimes with the political reference responsible for Lebanon in Syria. Not every matter was dealt with via Iran; there was direct contact with Hezbollah’s leadership at different stages and we disagreed with them at times. For instance, when TWA Flight 847 was hijacked, we tried hard in Syria to end the hijack and have the hostages released. We disagreed strongly with Hezbollah and then we spoke to Iran. The then Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani at the time was visiting Damascus and we asked him to put pressure on Hezbollah and he promised to do so. He had already called in Hezbollah leaders and asked them to facilitate matters. After many talks, the hostage issue was solved. Therefore, in general, communication between Hezbollah and Syria did not necessarily take place through Iran. However, there were matters that involved coordination between us and Iran and there were matters that Hezbollah could get Syrian approval for so it turned to Iran and Tehran would talk to us.”

“However if Syria wants something directly from Hezbollah it would make contact with it. There would be a response and discussions would take place about the benefits and dangers but in the end Hezbollah would respond to what is required of it.”