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Syria

By Dominic C. MacIver

Barely addressed by Western media, over recent months Lebanon has seen an escalating political crisis that threatens regional stability. Confrontation continues between the two major political blocs. Put simply, one is the broadly pro-Saudi faction led by Saad Hariri whilst their opponent in the fragile power-sharing agreement is the broadly pro-Iranian faction led by Hassan Nasrallah. Nonetheless Lebanese politics are fluid, complex and unpredictable as regional and international powers ally with internal factions to gain advantage.

The argument between the two camps focuses on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) which is strongly opposed by Hizbullah. Their covert armed strength is growing, and is balanced only by assorted national and regional actors uniting to act as a counterweight to them and their Iranian patron. Notably included in these united powers balancing Hizbullah have been Syria and Saudi Arabia, who have not seen eye-to-eye for a long time. Their cooperation is central to the Arab Peace Initiative for Israel-Palestine and must not be jeopardized.

The STL is an impartial UN Tribunal with Lebanese and international prosecutors cooperating to bring the assassins of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to justice. Hizbullah protest that it is compromised, calling it an Israeli plot because it refused to investigate the possibility that Mossad organized the assassination. Meanwhile the son of the assassinated Hariri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, withdrew his former accusation of Syrian involvement. It is now expected that Hizbullah operatives will be indicted. Hizbullah have vetoed the funding that the STL receives from the Lebanese government, splitting the Cabinet and returning Lebanon to paralysis and crisis.

If this internal argument results in communal violence, with Hizbullah taking their arms to the streets (as they did in 2008) or provoking Israel into war (as they did in 2006), it would adversely affect many issues important to Western interests in the region. Although there are vastly too many variables to solidly predict outcomes, the list of endangered elements would feasibly include the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, the Israel-Palestine peace track, and US-led attempts at Iranian containment, not to mention the precarious existence of the pro-Western governments in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Read more...  

By Jamie Ingram

"The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics". Dr Boutros Ghali's famous 1985 prediction has since been proven wrong but many believe the point is still valid. Observers forecast that increasing populations in an already water-stressed region will inevitably lead to conflict. The Tigris-Euphrates river basin has been highlighted as particularly susceptible to violence, but would its three riparian states (Turkey, Syria and Iraq) really go to war over access to its water?

Over the last 25 years rising populations, coupled with upstream States like Turkey developing rivers through the building of hydro-electric power stations and dams, have greatly increased pressure on many international rivers. Downstream States are understandably concerned that the flow of water reaching them may be disrupted. Fears abound that this could erupt into violence; especially in times of drought. Despite these well founded concerns international rivers have actually been the cause of very little conflict; the opposite is in fact true. The 20th century saw the signing of over 145 water-related treaties, the amount of violent conflicts over water? Seven minor skirmishes.

Crucially no international law governs the use of international rivers. While the 1997 UN Convention on International Watercourses contains useful principles, such as "Equitable and Reasonable Utilisation and Participation" few countries have signed up to it and it is not internationally binding.

Read more...  

By Alex Shone, Research Associate, U Defence Forum

Syria has been described by some US analysts as a 'low hanging fruit' in the Middle East; a potential partner for resolving some entrenched obstacles to an eventual peace resolution. This fruit many argue is 'ripe' for strategic realignment; a move that would generate new and potentially crucial opportunities.
Syria will become an increasingly important player within the affairs of the Middle East. A comprehensive appreciation of the country and its internal dynamics is a clear requirement and shall form the basis for a new UK Defence Forum country series on Syria.


Syria is a country that bridges military, political and social divides between several key Middle East countries. As a result, a perception lingering over Syria is that of contradiction and 'double-standard games' with the West. Syria's stated aim is peace with Israel and yet they have allied themselves with partners whose stated aim is the destruction of Israel. Syria is a bastion for secularism and yet they promote a common cause with numerous political Islamist groups. Syria simultaneously supports Iraqi Sunni insurgents and Lebanese Shi'ite armed groups.


These glaring and controversial actions have played no small role in obstructing diplomatic progress between Syria and the US. Western perception is that Syria has yet to take the first, genuine steps towards redressing these areas. The other and problematic side of this coin is that Syria believes it has taken these first steps, demonstrated as they see it by their cooling of relations with Hezbollah and warming of relations with Turkey.


Consequently, an impasse exists whereby the US waits for a show of commitment by Syria to rethinking its alliances with such undesirable partners as Hezbollah, Palestinian armed political groups and critically, Iran. Syria in turn waits for a greater show of commitment by the US for support if these entrenched status-quos are to be uprooted. Syria simply does not have the motivation to do so until they feel that the steps they have taken are appreciated; Syria is weary of what Damascus sees as a one-way show of commitment.


Equally, there is undoubtedly safety and comfort for Syria in preserving its current position. The Syrian regime, itself a Shi'ite minority within a Sunni majority nation, has been described as one that must preserve certain instabilities in order to survive. Its relations with such countries as Iran are fraught, and indeed perhaps governed, by parallel shared and competitive interests. Damascus manoeuvres between Ankara, Riyadh and Tehran, pursuing the bilateral relations it has with each whilst holding the others at bay with the 'stick' that it does have at its disposal.


Each side tends to view their own "gestures of goodwill" as holding enormous significance while dismissing the others' as insignificant. Resolution of contradictions on Syria's part will likely require a slow-but-sure start rather than sweeping and dramatic changes. Gambling with their future is clearly not something the Syrian regime can do. The regime is, for the medium term relatively secure. Economics is central, and while the country is faring well in terms of macroeconomics, underlying problems will in the longer term become increasingly problematic for the current regime's survival.


Syria can indeed be described as a low hanging fruit among potential Middle East partners for the West. However, progress in improving relations will have to be seen if it is to be 'plucked' or flipped towards a new regional status quo of power. Not simply normalisation but instead an expansion of dialogue shall be required to discuss the relevant issues and problem areas in order to determine a new regional role for Syria.

 

By Andras Beszterczey, UK Defence Forum Researcher

Hizballah is often heralded by allies and enemies alike as the textbook example of how an Islamist organisation can be assimilated, albeit painfully, into a democratic system. However, it is not clear whether the Party of God's 'Lebanonisation', coined by the veteran Lebanon commentator Augustus Richard Norton, was conducted willingly. The question is of the utmost importance as the nation awaits the findings of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), investigating the 14 February 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, which is likely to implicate members of Hizballah and reveal its true commitment to the democratic system.

The decision to participate in the 1992 elections, Lebanon's first since the civil war began in 1975, was a painful one for Hizballah. Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, the Secretary-General from 1989, warned that if the Party of God agreed to discard its ultimate objectives of creating an Islamic Republic for the sake of domestic political growth, it would only be a matter of time till the resistance against Israel was likewise abandoned. He was so adamant in his stance that Tufayli subsequently left, or was perhaps expelled – outsiders will never know, and ultimately he proved to be correct.

The fundamental misconception surrounding Hizballah is also the resistance's greatest hour – the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000. Hizballah did not beat Israel in the manner that international opinion believes. The Israeli Prime Minister in 2000, Ehud Barak, had, since the height of his military career in the early 1980s pushed for a full withdrawal from Lebanon and simply implemented a policy that he had desired to see for nearly two decades once gaining the premiership in July 1999. The lack of Israeli response to continued guerrilla activities along the Israeli-Lebanese border – Hizballah made an estimated eleven attempts to abduct Israeli soldiers between May 2000 and July 2006 – was first and foremost due to Israel's preoccupation with the Second Intifada. Nasrallah gravely miscalculated in July 2006 that Israel was still paralysed. The July War that Hizballah provoked with its abduction of two Israeli soldiers was so destructive that the Party could never again bring a conflict of such devastation upon Lebanon, knowing well what Israel's response would be lest Hizballah attack, and still survive as a political party.

Since the July War the resistance has been inactive with the only operation potentially attributed to their fighters being the engagement on the border on 3 August 2010 between the Lebanese Army and the IDF. Accusations arose that the Lebanese soldiers were linked to Hizbullah who ordered them to initiate a small engagement along the border to reactivate the fear of the Israeli enemy, yet the fire-fight is but a shadow of Hizbullah's former guerrilla activities. As a result the 'first-leg' of the Party's legitimacy, the resistance, disappeared because the need for Hizballah to maintain its domestic image bore greater weight than the need to fight Israel.

A second misconception surrounding the evolution of Hizballah is its relationship with Syria. Before the Cedar Revolution, the demonstrations calling for Syria's withdrawal after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Syria controlled all matters of importance relating to Lebanon's foreign and defence policy. Its presence in Lebanon dates back to 1976 when it intervened, with the international community's blessing, in the civil war to stem the tide of the local radical Palestinian presence. The negative aspect of Syria's domination was that the secular pan-Arabist regime of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and his son and heir, Bashar, dictated both the scope and magnitude of Hizballah's social welfare schemes to avert the Party from gaining a preponderance of power. Released of Syrian control, Hizballah was henceforth able to dictate its own policies. This became apparent with the May-June 2005 elections as Amal and other rival forces, previously dependent on Syrian patronage, subordinated themselves to Hizbullah's leadership creating a Shia hegemon. With the subsequent growth of Hizballah's actions, exemplified by its use of its weapons for domestic political objectives in May 2008, the Syrian factor waned.

Nevertheless, Syria maintains significant influence over Hizballah that has only recently begun to be appreciated. The most visible aspect is the use of Syria as a transit for Hizballah's arsenal, specifically the missiles it used during the July War to bring life in northern Israel to a halt. Secondly, Syria still maintains significant intelligence and security apparatus within Lebanon. On 31 August fighting broke out in Beirut between Hizballah and al-Ahbash, a Sunni faction. The argument was supposedly over a parking space; however, rumours are rife that the clash was instigated by Bashar al-Assad to remind the Party of Syria's preeminent position in Lebanon.

Hizballah has been reigned in once out of domestic political considerations and Syria may well be the answer to controlling the Party again. Others have likewise come to this conclusion. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Rafiq Hariri's son, stated last month that Syria was not responsible for the assassination of his father, a volte-face of perplexing proportion considering that the anti-Syrian issue was the only uniting rallying cry of the various Maronite and Sunni groups involved in the Cedar Revolution. Yet Syria's influence in Lebanon has historically aimed at maintaining the status quo and Hariri seems to have come to the conclusion that an alliance with his father's killers is the lesser of two evils compared to the growing strength of Hizballah and its potentially antagonistic reaction to the STL.

Further UK Defence Forum research on Hezbollah can be accessed here .

 

By Reva Bhalla 

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Beirut on Oct. 13 for his first official visit to Lebanon since becoming president in 2005. He is reportedly returning to the country after spending a stint there in the 1980s as a young Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officer tasked with training Hezbollah in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. A great deal of controversy is surrounding his return. Rumors are spreading of Sunni militants attempting to mar the visit by provoking Iran's allies in Hezbollah into a fight (already the car of a pro-Hezbollah imam who has been defending Ahmadinejad has been blown up), while elaborate security preparations are being made for Ahmadinejad to visit Lebanon's heavily militarized border with Israel.

Rather than getting caught up in the drama surrounding the Iranian president's visit, we want to take the opportunity provided by all the media coverage to probe into a deeper topic, one that has been occupying the minds of Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah officials for some time. This topic is the durability of the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria alliance, which STRATFOR believes has been under great stress in recent months. More precisely, the question is: What are Syria's current intentions toward Hezbollah? Read more »

(c) Stratfor. Reproduced with permission. 

 
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