As the civil war in Syria winds down, the regime of Bashar al Assad appears to be preparing to regain its lost influence in Lebanon. But Syria’s battlefield allies, Iran and Hezbollah, have no intention of returning to a role of subservience to Damascus in Lebanon, writes Basem Shabb

 

In a briefing on November 14, 2018, Ambassador James Jeffrey, the United States envoy to Syria, spoke about allies and partners in the region referring to Israel, Turkey and Jordan. Lebanon was mentioned only twice, once in the context of refugees and once in reference to undesirable Iranian influence through Hezbollah.

The influence of the West and the US, in particular, is waning in Lebanon. But the political vacuum has already attracted some interest from east of Lebanon. The Syrian regime, secure within the new ceasefire lines, is showing renewed interest in Lebanese affairs. And Hezbollah, confident that pro-Western forces no longer pose a threat or a challenge, seems to be in a hurry to cement its grip on Lebanon to prevent a return of Syrian influence. The arrangement prior to the assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in which Iran and Hezbollah were subordinate to Syria in Lebanon is no longer tenable as far as Hezbollah and Iran are concerned.

“Nasrallah’s embrace of the pro-Syrian Sunni parliamentary representation is more akin to a boa constrictor rather than a passionate lover “

The belligerent tone of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in his latest appearance on November 10 can be interpreted as directed against local players as well as Saad Hariri, the prime minister-designate. However, a more nuanced interpretation suggests that Hezbollah intends to guard its domination of the Lebanese scene from external actors, namely a Syria that seeks to re-establish its influence over its tiny neighbor. Nasrallah’s embrace of the pro-Syrian Sunni parliamentary representation is more akin to a boa constrictor rather than a passionate lover. By adopting their case Nasrallah has effectively claimed them as his own. It also coincides with the closing remarks of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri which named Hezbollah operatives as the main and only suspects to the exclusion of Syria. Rafik Hariri’s assassination was a major rallying cry against the Syrian regime among Lebanese Sunnis. An absence of Damascene guilt at the tribunal can only help rehabilitate pro-Syrian Sunnis within their constituencies.

Other events point to a divergence of Syrian and Iranian interests in Lebanon. Prior to Russia’s intervention and subsequent ascendancy of influence in Syria, Nasrallah was intent on extending Hezbollah’s model of resistance to the Golan Heights. But under Russian pressure, and Syrian acquiescence, Iranian-controlled forces have withdrawn a considerable distance from the Israeli line in the Golan. Iran will show no such submission in Lebanon.

The divergence of Iranian and Syrian interests is also evident in Syria. The Idlib arrangement brokered by Iran as the Syrian Army was about to storm the pro-Turkish Salafi-dominated enclave showed that Iran valued Turkish cooperation over Assad’s interests, especially at a time of impending US sanctions.

Lebanon is the only country in the region where Iran has dominated the political scene with no credible opposition. Until now. The return of Syrian influence is the only remaining potential threat to this hegemony. One can argue that Hezbollah and Iran feel less secure now that the Syrian regime is no longer under serious threat and given the unusual interest shown in Lebanese affairs by a resurgent Russia, notably in the potential offshore oil and gas wealth and in Christian Orthodox affairs. As US sanctions begin to bite, Iranian dominance in Lebanon will assume an even greater importance.

Syrian soldiers guard a convoy of Syrian officers leaving lebanon at the Lebanese-Syrian border crossing of Masnaa, Lebanon on April 26, 2005 (Patrick Baz/AFP)

Long before the issue of pro-Syrian Sunni representation in government surfaced, parliamentary elections last May showed Hezbollah promoting its candidates at the expense of Syrian affiliates who were either sidelined or excluded. Hezbollah actively lobbied against a prominent pro-Syrian Druze candidate in favor of a pro-Hezbollah protégé. In Sidon, the pro-Syrian Sunni candidate, also a staunch supporter of Hezbollah, got only a handful of Shia votes. A candidate of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in Beirut, initially included on Hezbollah’s list, was removed in favor of a candidate of Hezbollah’s ally, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Hezbollah’s dismissive attitude toward Syria became more evident with the new government formation. No effort was made to include Syria’s Lebanese allies, namely the SSNP or Baath Party, in the cabinet for the first time in 30 years. In the previous government, the Shia alliance of Hezbollah and Amal gave up one ministerial position for the SSNP. But not this time around.

“The Syria-Hezbollah rivalry has also adversely affected relations between Hezbollah’s Christian ally, the FPM, and Damascus.”

The Syria-Hezbollah rivalry has also adversely affected relations between Hezbollah’s Christian ally, the FPM, and Damascus.

The Syrian delegation in New York for the United Nations General Assembly in September made no effort to meet with the Lebanese delegation headed by President Michel Aoun. When Aoun addressed the assembly, only a junior Syrian representative attended. Later, in a televised meeting with reporters on the anniversary of his two years in office, Aoun dodged the question of meeting with Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

Similarly, Russian relations with the FPM also seem tense. The Lebanese president still awaits an official invitation to Russia. Russia has a long list of grievances, including the cancellation of two visits to Russia by Yacoub Sarraf, the FPM-affiliated defense minister, and a perceived divisive role in the Lebanese Greek Orthodox community. Suleiman Franjieh, a close friend of Assad and a bitter presidential rival of Gibran Bassil, the foreign minister and Aoun’s son-in-law, is Syria’s preferred future candidate for the presidency. Recently, Franjieh received a warm reception in Moscow.

Two weeks ago, fighting erupted in a small Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon between pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian factions. Hezbollah negotiated an arrangement as the Lebanese army stood on the sidelines.

In the opening act of Wagner’s opera, Siegfried, the main question is who will forge the broken sword. For the US, the question is who will confront Iranian influence in Lebanon? When asked the same question Ambassador Jeffrey in the State Department briefing raised expectations that the Syrian government would curb Iran’s presence in Syria. With a weak Lebanese government and a resurgent regime in Syria, could the same apply to Lebanon? Either way, it seems unlikely that Lebanon can reverse its geopolitical drift toward the east.

Basem Shabb is a former member of the Lebanese parliament