Tehran wants to drag Lebanon deeper into the Syrian mire

The international and regional contexts have changed in ways that make it difficult for Tehran, Damascus and Hezbollah to weather oncoming storms.
Sunday 02/09/2018
Syrian refugees, who had left Lebanon arrive in Qalamoun, on June 28. (Reuters)
Changed dynamics. Syrian refugees, who had left Lebanon arrive in Qalamoun, on June 28. (Reuters)

The determination of party sizes and shares hampering the creation of a new Lebanese government is a reflection of another hidden war about reshaping the political map of the region.

Check the August 26 speech of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. As usual, it was replete with threats against “playing with fire” and recalled the tense conditions in Lebanon following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The confrontations then warranted the involvement of major powers, as indicated by UN Security Council Resolution 1559 and creation of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to investigate Hariri’s assassination.

The September 2004 resolution demanded the withdrawal from Lebanon of all foreign forces and the dissolution of all internal militias. Syria had to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and Hezbollah had to disarm its militia. The Syrian regime had accused Hariri of plotting to have that resolution issued. He, therefore, was summoned to Damascus where he was scolded and threatened. In February 2005, he was assassinated.

Lebanon finds itself once again at a crucial turning point. The United States is leading a campaign that will decide Tehran’s weight and role in the Middle East. The pressure is essentially from Washington but other major powers are unable to shield Iran from the American storm.

There does seem to be a sort of international collusion to remove the Iranian exception in the region just as there was collusion to remove Syria and Hezbollah from Lebanon 14 years ago.

Drawing parallels between current conditions and those 14 years ago leads to one result. The international and regional contexts have changed in ways that make it difficult for Tehran, Damascus and Hezbollah to weather oncoming storms by creating a new May 7 coalition or by overthrowing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri as they had done in 2011 or by finding an alternate candidate to head the Lebanese cabinet.

In Beirut, whenever voices rise alluding to sidestepping the services of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, of the Future Movement Party, almost immediately they are echoed by calls for restraint. International powers have indicated they are looking forward to a balanced and inclusive government headed by Saad Hariri.

He is aware of that. He has enough internal and external assurances to allow him to resist the various pressures. He knows that he is crucial to the Russian era in Syria even though Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil seems to think otherwise.

Hariri recently informed a Russian delegation, headed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal envoy Alexander Lavrentiev, of his refusal to trade off the return of Syrian refugees in Lebanon with Lebanon’s normalising relations with the Syrian regime. Lavrentiev seemed to understand Hariri’s position. After all, Moscow cannot expect Lebanon to accept what Moscow failed to sell to Paris, Berlin and Washington.

Putin was informed of the unacceptability of Moscow’s project by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and perhaps even by US President Donald Trump. French President Emmanuel Macron insists that Paris will not release funds for Syria’s reconstruction before there is an internationally accepted political solution in Syria.

It seems the only backing for Moscow’s initiative came from Bassil. Clearly, it was going nowhere.

It seems that Hezbollah and its allies cannot control the dynamics surrounding forming a new government in Lebanon. A Hezbollah minister visited Syria and its parliamentary bloc issued a statement inviting Beirut to normalise ties with Damascus. It was rumoured that Aoun had a phone conversation with Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Aoun’s son-in-law, Bassil, insisted that normalisation with Syria was inevitable, a view that seems to be shared by Amal Movement head Nabih Berri.

The difficult birth of a new government in Lebanon is far from being hampered by questions of quotas and which party should get what portfolio. Rather, go back to the issues that erupted after Rafik Hariri’s assassination. They were issues linked to fundamental questions about Lebanon’s character and its role.

One camp is adamant that Lebanon remain sovereign, independent, in harmony with its Arab context and respectful of its international commitments. Another camp wants it subservient to the Iranian and Syrian agendas, antagonistic with its Arab environment and in conflict with the world’s major powers.

Curiously, Lebanon’s normalising ties with the Syrian regime is not a priority for Moscow. The sense of urgency in Lebanon comes from Tehran’s tactics and its need to strengthen its influence in Syria by dragging Lebanon deeper into the Syrian mire. Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani’s claim that Hezbollah controls 74 seats in the Lebanese parliament exaggerates Tehran’s influence in Lebanon and ties it with its influence in Syria and Iraq.

Hariri is aware of the complexities of the current context. He carefully read Moscow’s messages, heard what international envoys said regarding Syria and Lebanon and felt the pressure mounting against Iran. That is why he remains steadfast, patient and collected in his approach to forming Lebanon’s new cabinet.

It was said in Beirut that Hariri would have to give in to normalising ties with the Syrian regime when faced with Arab and international pressure. Just like Hezbollah, however, Hariri knows that no such pressure is coming his way but he is under no illusion that the international position regarding this issue is immutable, which makes his unflinching attitude risky. His own father paid dearly for his defiance.