Little attention seems to be given to understanding the regional circumstances that prevailed in the lead-up to the massive and multifaceted war launched against Syria by a wide (albeit now much-fragmented) coalition of states seeking regime change there. One effect of the Syrian War has been to generate broader discussions on geopolitics, regional dynamics and historical contexts spread across the tumultuous region.
Despite references and comparisons being correctly made between the Iraq War and the Syrian War – and the beneficiaries and promoters – there seems to be little emphasis on the inextricable link between the conflict in Syria today and Lebanon in the relatively recent past.
The February 2005 assassination of prominent Sunni Lebanese politician Rafik Harriri was followed by a justice process crippled by politicization, U-turns and fraudulent investigations headed by individuals with known political connections to groups with vested interests in fracturing the growing Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis. With Hezbollah immediately warding off accusations and highlighting an Israeli hand in it, the immediate outcome was accusations against Syria under a great deal of pressure from the US, Saudi Arabia and pro-Western political factions within Lebanon. The Syrians, with close ties to Hezbollah and its Christian allies, had acted as a deterrent to Israeli military ambitions in Lebanon. The ensuing diplomatic pressure against the Syrians under President Bashar al Assad would result in Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon a few months later.
Aside from the many holes pointed out in the UN’s investigative process on the assassination, ranging from inconsistencies in the explanations of the explosion that took Harriri’s life and the lack of motive for either Syria or Hezbollah to have him killed, the usefulness of the event to Israel’s ambitions was obvious. Syria’s importance as the link between Iran and Hezbollah – who was singularly responsible for Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 after 18 years of occupation – was and is paramount.
As elaborated in the famous ‘Clean Break’ 1996 strategy paper by the neoconservative-Israeli Likud Party coalition that devised the ‘new’ Israeli approach to its security and foreign policy, the Syrians had to be removed from Lebanon to facilitate an Israeli conquest of the country so as to purge Iranian influence. The Syrian withdrawal allowed the Israeli-US-Saudi nexus to enhance its war against Hezbollah with an Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in 2006.
The ensuing defeat of Israel in the war signaled a need for the nexus to recognize the incremental rise in Hezbollah’s military prowess as well as socio-political clout in Lebanon where it now has a cooperative Christian President, a large cabinet presence and a powerful multi-religious political alliance compared to the worn-out Harriri dynasty and its allies. Continuing to attempt to take over Lebanon was proving to be a waste of effort at a time when new theatres of conflict could be explored. Since the strategy toward Lebanon adopted by the hardliners in Israel, the US and their allies had been carefully crafted over the years, adjustments had to be made to the general approach adopted toward the region in general.
Failed insurrections against Hezbollah by the Harriri faction in 2008 (led by Rafik’s son Saad) also seemed to dovetail with the increasing diplomatic and political depth of Iran in Iraq. More than just ‘rolling back’, Syria had to be the target itself for regime change now that taking out the Lebanese resistance seemed impossible. The developments in the Middle East, especially the Levant region, had been favoring the Iranians far too much for the same strategic approach to work. Dissecting the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis would require a new approach.
As explored by Seymour Hersh in 2007, the ‘redirection’ of the US foreign policy in the post-2006 Lebanon War period involved greater strategic engagement with countries deemed ‘the Sunni bloc’, such as Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf States for containing Iran. Iran and the Shia Hezbollah were largely the reason for this. In reality, this approach entailed a lot more than the simplistic ‘New Middle East’ proposals voiced by high ranking US officials such as Condoleezza Rice out in the open. It involved utilizing extremist terrorist groups that had acted as useful proxies for foreign powers in the past as well (in the Balkans, Central Asia etc). To put it simply, the environment for targeting Syria utilizing so-called ‘Sunni allies’ – which bordered Al Qaeda-plagued Iraq, US-aligned Jordan and NATO member Turkey – was ideal.
Notwithstanding the opportunities this volatile situation, embraced in such open terms by the West, provided to provoke chaos in Syria, efforts to convince Syria – a majority Sunni country – of the need to join the ‘Sunni bloc’ had been entertained for some time by the coalition of states that would soon seek regime change in Syria post-2011. Israeli demands for Syria cutting its ties with Iran would, however, meet rejection by President Assad in negotiations, notably mediated by Turkey, and attempting to pull Syria away from the Iranian dominated alliance seemed to be futile. The stage was set for a push to remove the Syrian government.
Whether playing the Sunni card was a genuine attempt to lure Syria into the bloc of useful countries firmly within the Western sphere such as Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar or a ruse is a question that one can plausibly answer by remembering that 2006 was also the year, as leaked cables publicized by Wikileaks revealed, that the US intention to invest in Syrian Kurdish secessionism to destabilize the country. The centrality of Israeli interests to the new Western approach toward Syria, including the short-lived attempts to lure the Syrians into the ‘Sunni bloc’, has been documented well and is of little surprise considering the fact that the authors of the original Israeli doctrine vis-à-vis Syria, Lebanon and Iran have all found important policy positions in the last two decades or so.
The road to understanding the conflict in one part of the Middle East has always run through other various other parts of the region. The destinies of Syria and Lebanon have been inseparably linked for many decades, and understanding the push for regime change in Syria requires due attention to be paid to factors in Lebanon as well.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.
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Agha Hussain is currently attached with Institute of Strategic Studies Research and Analysis at National Defense University. His areas of interest are Middle East Affairs, Geopolitics, and History.