Will Lebanon be a Casualty of Breaking the Syria-Iran Alliance?
As Israel and Syria continue the motions towards a supposed peace deal, many analysts argue that the most significant outcome from this process is the wedge being driven between Syria and Iran. The U.S. has long sought to create strife between these two allies, but with little success. In July 2006, Bush administration officials hoped that the promise of renewed relations (the U.S. recalled its ambassador in February 2005) and the pleadings of Saudi Arabia and Egypt would be able to convince Syria to reverse its support for Hizballah - a key element in its relationship with Iran. According to one administration official, "We think that the Syrians will listen to their Arab neighbors on this rather than us... so it’s all a question of how well that can be orchestrated." In November 2007, Syria's presence at the Middle East Summit in Annapolis - thanks to significant pressure from the U.S. - was reportedly not received well in Tehran. Hossein Shariatmadari, an adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, was quoted in the Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat as saying, "We were surprised by the Syrian position [to attend], and we said that we do not support the conference."
The current round of talks with Israel has reignited concerns within Iran that Syria, despite stern warnings, might not be as reliable a partner as it once was. While there are numerous reasons to believe that the Syrian-Israel peace process is heading nowhere, it seems that Iran is taking what one might call precautionary steps to ensure that its interests are secured - specifically with regards to Lebanon. In a recent article in the Middle East Times, Claude Salhani argues that recent efforts to pull Syria away from Iran, including Syria's invitation to attend Bastile Day celebrations in Paris, have led the Islamic Republic to "reinforce its position in Lebanon."
The move was intended to bring Syria out of the cold, and in the process further isolate Iran. And it may very well have initiated a crack in Syrian-Iranian relations. But that too did not entirely produce the desired results. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Tehran began to take steps to reinforce its position in Lebanon.
But in the deadly game of chess that is Middle East politics, a game in which the strategic stakes are immensely high and losing is not an option, the Iranians seem yet again to have taken the upper hand and are moving in to capture the queen -- at least momentarily.
All this is being done, of course, through Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite, political/paramilitary/social organization that is trained and financed by Iran.Hezbollah is rapidly positioning itself in all aspects of Lebanese society, turning into a force that no longer can be ignored in the political and military arenas. And that is becoming true not only of Lebanon but more and more regionally.
The Jerusalem Post, quoting an unnamed Israeli Defense Force official, is claiming that Iran has taken a more active role in Hizballah's leadership and operations, even at the expense of secretary general Hassan Nasrallah:
Iran is consolidating its grip on Hizbullah and has instituted a number of structural changes to the Lebanese group, under which Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah no longer enjoys exclusive command over its military wing, top Israeli defense officials have revealed.
According to the officials, following the Second Lebanon War, Iran decided to step up its involvement in the Hizbullah decision-making process and has instituted a number of changes to the terror group's hierarchy, under which Nasrallah has to receive Iranian permission prior to certain operations.
"There is real Iranian command now over Hizbullah," a top IDF officer said. "This doesn't mean that Nasrallah is a puppet, but it does mean that whenever he pops his head out of his bunker he sees an Iranian official standing over him."
Reports of Iranian discontent with Nasrallah had begun to surface following the 2006 war, which Teheran reportedly was not interested in at the time. Several reports in the Arab press claimed that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had ousted Nasrallah from his post as Hizbullah secretary-general and replaced him with Naim Qassem, Hizbullah's second in command. Iran has denied the reports.
"Iranian supervision grew tremendously following the war," the top officer explained. "Nasrallah is still in a decision-making position but Iran's influence has dramatically increased."
A report in a Syrian opposition paper claimed Sunday that a high-level delegation of Iranian Revolutionary Guards visited Beirut last week to coordinate the integration of some Hizbullah branches into the Guards' Al-Quds Force, which is in charge of Iran's terror activities in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere.
According to the Reform Party of Syria, parts of the Hizbullah operation structure will now be under the command of Brig.-Gen. Faramaz Ghasem Suleimani, commander of the Al-Quds Force. Suleimani is listed by the US as a terrorist and the Guards was declared a terror group in 2007.The paper claimed that Iran's ultimate plan was to dilute Syrian influence over Hizbullah in case Damascus strikes a peace deal with Israel.
The rumors of Nasrallah's demise may well be premature, and there have been no other mainstream reports to substantiate the claims made in the Jerusalem Post. Nevertheless, it seems that Iran is not taking any chances with Syria - much to Lebanon's detriment.