The nuclear accord reached recently between the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, and Iran heralds a new chapter in U.S.-Iranian relations. Decades of hostility may give way to a detente that will reflect on regional dynamics. Whereas Hezbollah continues to glorify armed resistance as it escalates its military involvement in Syria, Iran seems to have opted for what the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called “heroic flexibility” with the West. The catalyst for this seemingly miraculous transformation has been the rapidly evolving situation in Syria. While many have attributed the country’s heroic flexibility to a pending economic collapse, the real reason lies in Damascus.
Iran is engaged in an epic battle to maintain its grip on Syria and Lebanon. For a while, Iran basked in an idyllic situation in which Lebanon succumbed to the military and political might of Hezbollah. The Syrian regime had become strongly dependent on Iranian support, something that the late President Hafez Assad would never have allowed. Iraq under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had become an Iranian protectorate and the so-called Shiite crescent was complete. Iran’s hegemonic ambitions were well camouflaged through the employment of anti-Western and anti-Semitic rhetoric.
The Arab Spring was to change all that. The initially peaceful Syrian uprising endured the unspeakable before its transformation into an armed Sunni revival. Hezbollah and Iranian officials were initially oblivious to this, expecting the Syrian regime’s campaign against the rebels to be nasty, brutish and short. But their logistical, financial and intelligence support gave way to boots on the ground to bolster a flailing regime.
The political fallout of this direct and flagrant escalation was disastrous for Hezbollah, and more so for Iran. Tehran’s support for President Bashar Assad’s regime has reportedly cost the cash-strapped Iranian economy several billion dollars, and it has changed Hezbollah’s image from a resistance movement to one that is complicit in mass murder.
Nevertheless, for Iran, Hezbollah is now an indispensable tool in a pan-Islamic Sunni-Shiite confrontation. The loss of Syria would very likely be followed by the loss of Lebanon. Hezbollah in Syria is now fighting for the ayatollahs, not for Assad. It’s in that light that we should view the massive intervention in Qusair last May, to preserve the Damascus-Latakia corridor and ensure a bridge between the Syrian capital and the Alawite hinterland.
Syrian opposition forces, though they are fragmented, are far from beaten. Early gains by Hezbollah have given way to an open-ended war of attrition. The constant trickle of martyrs from Syria has been compounded by a series of terrorist attacks against Shiite targets, culminating in a double suicide attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut last October. Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, instead of keeping the jihadists at bay as its secretary-general, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, promised, has produced the opposite effect. The radical jihadists, who now constitute a substantial portion of the forces engaged in Syria, have vowed to take the battle against Hezbollah to Lebanon.
A depleted Syrian Army backed by the small Alawite population in northwestern Syria cannot alone withstand a prolonged war of attrition against an insurgency supported and funded by major Sunni powers. According to the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, one Alawite town, Jableh, may have lost up to 4,500 people, almost as many as the U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. It seems naive to expect Iran and Hezbollah to prevail against radical jihadist elements when the Western powers, with far greater assets, failed in Afghanistan. Iran cannot fight two wars at the same time, one against the West economically, the other against the jihadists militarily.
The fight for the dignity and rights of the Syrian people resonates within the Sunni world and within Western Sunni communities. The fear of Islamist terrorism and Al-Qaeda may have generated some newfound tolerance for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime in the West. But it has found few followers in the Sunni world. In fact, the fight for Sunni dignity and the rights of the Syrian people resonates strongly in Islamic countries worldwide. Much of the radicalization in Western Islamic communities lies not in a clash between Christian and Muslim civilizations, but in the ongoing Islamic sectarian civil war.
Iran needs the West to prevail in this conflict. Confronted with either hanging on to its nuclear capability or losing Syria, Lebanon and perhaps Iraq, Iran has opted for regional hegemony. Time is of the essence for the ayatollah as the revival of the Taliban looms in the east. In a reversal of fortune for Iran, it now needs improved relations with the West to confront the same Sunni radicalism that it nurtured and unleashed against the West in Iraq and in the Middle East at large.
One example of this complicity involves Omar Bakri, an Al-Qaeda affiliate who helped found Hizb ut-Tahrir in the United Kingdom before moving to Lebanon. Bakri was sentenced to life in jail on charges of terrorism, but was released in November 2010 on a LL5 million bail. His lawyer, a Hizbullah member of Parliament, said he was acting on Bakri’s behalf upon the direct orders of Nasrallah.
As for the West, rapprochement with Iran must be carefully measured. True, it may enhance stability in the Gulf region. However, tacit endorsement of Iran’s imperial war in Syria and its hegemony in Lebanon will not only further damage the West’s relations with the Sunni world but also further radicalize Western Muslim communities.
The inability of the Western powers to do anything about the conflict in Syria – especially the disengagement of the United States from the Middle East’s concerns in general – has thus far been disastrous and has only increased Muslim fundamentalism and state dissolution in Syria and neighboring countries. A word of warning: Iran may do the West’s bidding in fighting jihadists, but only at the expense of Sunni moderates.
Basem Shabb is a member of the Lebanese Parliament. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.