Syrian Meddlers

Iran and Saudi Arabia don’t want civil war in Lebanon. Does Syria?

Last Thursday, the Lebanese were offered a shuddering contrast on their television screens. For much of the day, they watched an international financial conference held in Paris on Lebanon’s behalf, which brought in more than $7 billion in funds. Yet by late afternoon, Lebanese were watching Sunni and Shiite youths battling in the streets of Beirut.

During the last two months, Lebanon has been dangerously destabilized by the political split between the opposition, led by Hezbollah and including some Christian and pro-Syrian groups, and the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, supported by a majority in parliament. Sunnis have rallied to Siniora, Shiites to Hezbollah. Given the concentric circles of interests impacting on Lebanese affairs, Iran and Syria are backing the opposition, while leading Arab states, the United States, and much of the international community are behind the government. Indeed, the Paris conference, called to help Lebanon overcome its ballooning debt, was hosted by French President Jacques Chirac largely to bolster Siniora against the challenge from Hezbollah and its foreign allies. 

Lebanon is one of several new front lines in a regional contest between the United States and the Sunni regimes of the Arab world on the one side, and Iran and its allies or proxies—most significantly Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas—on the other. However, what is interesting is that all sides are resisting sectarian conflict. Neither Iran nor the Arab states want a Sunni-Shiite conflagration. Sectarian polarization would severely impair Iranian interests in the Arab world; it would also threaten the stability of Arab countries with sizeable Shiite communities. This is particularly true of Saudi Arabia, where Shiites make up 15 percent of the population, concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province. That is why avoiding Sunni-Shiite violence in Lebanon and elsewhere is so vital, and why both the Saudis and Iranians have recently been trying to sponsor a negotiated solution to the Lebanese crisis. At the forefront of talks on the Saudi side is the one-time ambassador to the United States and head of the kingdom’s National Security Council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan; on the Iranian side, Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

A resolution is easier mentioned than done. The spoiler is Syria, which until 2005 was the power broker in Lebanon—from which it was forced to withdraw after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. As Iranians and Saudis have been talking, Syria has been fidgeting, fearing it will have no say in a final deal. Yet the Syrians are in an odd position: keen to wreck the Siniora government’s endorsement of a mixed Lebanese-international tribunal to try those involved in the Hariri murder; but also aware that a Sunni-Shiite war might undermine the minority Alawite regime of President Bashar Assad, which rules over a majority of Sunnis in Syria. The Assad regime is the prime suspect in Hariri’s killing. The inability of Lebanese parties to compromise on the tribunal is a major reason the country is so mired in mutual antagonism.

Syrian behavior puts Iran in a difficult position. The Iranian regime has strengthened its alliance with Syria in the past year, and knows that if the tribunal takes off, it might threaten Assad. In Iran’s ongoing standoff with the United States, Syria is a valued partner. On the other hand, if Lebanon dissolves into civil war, Hezbollah could be destroyed, there would be heightened sectarian animosity against Iran and Shiites in the Middle East, and 25 years of Iranian exertion to create a pro-Iranian constituency in Lebanon would come to naught. Lebanon’s Shiites are vulnerable. In Beirut proper, the community is caught between mainly Sunni and Christian neighborhoods. Hezbollah’s stronghold in the capital’s southern suburbs lies below mountains controlled by its adversaries. And Beirut can be easily cut off from Shiite strongholds in south Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. War would be a calamity for all, but if one applies a hard logic, Shiites are likely to lose a great deal.

Hezbollah has been considerably discredited outside the Shiite community—a downward spiral that began last July when the party, without consulting anyone, provoked a war against Israel that brought about ferocious Israeli reprisals. Since then, Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, have transgressed most of the “red lines” governing the delicate Lebanese sectarian compromise system. Nasrallah has even accused some of his opponents of collaborating with Israel against his party—a charge difficult to step down from.

Much in Lebanon will depend on whether the Saudis and Iranians can come to an arrangement that Syria accepts. Reports in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat on Monday suggested that Bandar had traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. officials and ensure, as the paper put it, that Lebanon would be kept out of the Middle East’s “politics of axes.” But Syria dreams of somehow reimposing its writ in Lebanon and will undermine any political settlement with which it is unhappy. For the moment, Iran will side with the Syrians. But it is now the Iranians, instead of the Syrians, negotiating Lebanon’s fate.  So if Hezbollah’s, and the Shiites’, future is put in doubt, it may become gradually more difficult for Syria and Iran to find common ground on Lebanese matters.