Iran and Syria, in the Role of Russia

Itamar Rabinovich
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Itamar Rabinovich

Now that the fighting in Georgia has died down, policy shapers and pundits in the West are free to analyze the maneuvers and results, and draw lessons. The picture that emerges is a dismal one. Vladimir Putin's Russia exercised brutal force with the object of bringing a rebellious neighbor to its knees. The United States, which encouraged Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to defy Moscow, did not give him any real support. Former Soviet republics and satellites will now think twice before confronting Russia, or will be tempted to seek shelter beneath the cover of the U.S., NATO or the European Union. Oil is now much less likely to reach the Caspian Sea without Russia's involvement.

The Georgian crisis will have specific repercussions on the Middle East. There is less of a chance that the United States and Russia will be cooperating to stop Iran's nuclear program. There is a greater chance that Russia will wage a more ambitious and aggressive policy, including selling advanced weapons systems to Iran and Syria. There will also be a host of indirect repercussions. In this context, there is a striking similarity between the Russian move in the Caucasus, and Iran and Syria's move in Lebanon.

On May 7, an armed struggle broke out between Hezbollah and the so-called March 14 coalition, led by Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The crisis was prompted by Siniora's refusal to put up with Hezbollah having its own nationwide communication network, another blatant blow to the Lebanese government's sovereignty. Hezbollah beat its rivals in the violent conflict, but refrained from extracting a military achievement, opting instead for political gains.

On May 23 a political compromise was reached in Doha, Qatar, enabling a new government led by Siniora, and letting the elected president, General Michel Suleiman, enter his post. In addition, Syria agreed, with French mediation, to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon, thereby obliquely recognizing it neighbor's independence and sovereignty. That understanding paved the way for Bashar Assad's invitation to the July 13 conference of the new Union for the Mediterranean, as an honored guest of France.

However, the full significance of the Doha compromise soon became clear. When Hezbollah threw a homecoming party for Samir Kuntar, the president and prime minister took part (the latter, at least, seemed to be under duress), and thus were seen as accepting Hezbollah's hegemony and role as a semi-state institution, and as accepting Kuntar and his murderous acts as a heroic Lebanese operation.

More importantly, the new government's guidelines and President Suleiman's speeches gave legitimacy to Hezbollah's ongoing battle for the Shaba Farms. Hezbollah was therein given a standing equivalent to the Lebanese Army's, and a rationale for continuing its violence against Israel - not as a terror organization, but as an arm of the Lebanese state.

Hezbollah and its patrons have settled for these accomplishments for now, and have chosen not to use their military victory as a springboard for a complete takeover of the Lebanese state.

The similarity between this chain of events and the crisis in Georgia is striking: Iran and Syria parallel Russia, Siniora and Saakashvili are the pro-Western leaders, Hezbollah resembles the separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, France is the frenetic Western mediator, and above all - the Bush administration, encouraging Saakashvili and Siniora as supporters of democracy. Both leaders tried to stem the tide, wound up confronting a superior force, and discovered that the waning Bush administration was of no use.

Israel continues to monitor the crisis in the Caucasus, but has a far greater, more immediate interest in how things play out in Lebanon. So far, it has been a nearly passive spectator. The Israeli government, approaching the end of its term, has learned from the 1982 attempt to shape Lebanese politics and the baggage left by the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

For Israel, the developments in Lebanon are part of a complex strategic, political picture - Iran's aspiration to regional hegemony and nuclear weapons; the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis; the negotiations with Syria, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas; the Bush administration's decision to refrain from attacking Iran's nuclear facilities and its pressure on Israel to wait for diplomacy - all while the Israeli government and the Bush administration are approaching their end, with their potential heirs mired in elections and inheritance battles.

This interim period is expected to end in early 2009. That is when the new U.S. administration and the Israeli government will have to formulate both an overall strategy and specific solutions to the above issues. In view of the dilemmas Hezbollah and its patrons are posing in Lebanon, Israel will have to choose between a political response (from an Israeli standpoint, an agreement with Syria; from an American standpoint, dialogue with Syria and possibly Iran), and preparing to meet more serious challenges than the ones we faced in the summer of 2006.

The writer served as Israeli ambassador to the United States.