When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Southern Lebanon to great fanfare last month, he did more than irk Israelis and the West who seek to diminish Iranian influence in the Levant. The visit served to underscore the increasing polarization in the broader region, placing the divergent views of Iran and the Arab states in stark contrast, with Syria in the middle. As a result, Syria is under new-found pressure. Can Syria afford to maneuver as an ally of Iran and its proxies and risk its central role in the Arab World? Or is it willing and/or able to change course and join the Arab world in blunting the expanding growth of Persian influence? Syria's answers to these questions could shape the development of events in the Middle East in the near future, and especially between Israel and Lebanon.
Prior to Ahmadinejad's visit, numerous developments in the past year indicated that Syria was on the rise, reasserting itself as a central player in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri, to the surprise of many, absolved Syria from any wrongdoing in the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria and Saudi Arabia engaged in a rapprochement, with a highly publicized joint visit to Beirut, symbolizing a new-found partnership and tacit recognition of Syria's renewed power in the Levant. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been seeking to improve U.S.-Syria ties and to jump-start Syria-Israel peace talks. President Obama nominated a U.S. ambassador to return to Damascus earlier in the year, and numerous envoys and elected officials have traveled to Damascus for high-level talks with President Bashar al-Assad and his associates. Furthermore, Syria has expanded its economic ties with numerous nations, most notably France and Turkey, and has taken significant measures to liberalize its economy in an effort to invite foreign investment and prepare the economic infrastructure conducive to long-term growth. All the while, however, Syria has continued to work with Iran to provide Hezbollah with logistical and political support and delivered advanced missile systems to the extremist group, which is reportedly now in possession of more than 40,000 rockets and missiles.
After a year of progress, Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon may be a game-changing chapter for Syria. The visit has intensified Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shi'ah tension - already high after the United Nations tribunal on the assassination of Rafik Hariri, which implicates Hezbollah operatives and is likely as well to point the finger at Damascus for plotting it - sparking fears of renewed sectarian violence. To the Arab world, already vexed that the most influential states in their region -Israel, Iran and Turkey -are non-Arab states, Ahmadinejad's trip provoked concerns that Syria's influence in Lebanon is being surpassed by Iran and even by Hezbollah itself. That neither Syria nor Saudi Arabia could have stopped Ahmadeinjad's visit at a time of deep concerns of renewed sectarian strife in Lebanon signifies how powerful and decisive Hezbollah has become in Lebanon. Furthermore, reports in the Saudi press deeply critical of Ahmadinejad's visit illustrate the precarious nature of the game Syria is playing.
The renewed rift places Syria in a bind. As long as a pressured atmosphere remains - and the findings of the tribunal will strengthen, not dissipate this pressure - Syria will inevitably lose much of its maneuverability. It cannot continue its balancing act whereby it strengthens ties to the West and the Arab world, while simultaneously supplying Hezbollah and strengthening Iranian influence in Lebanon. Syria can no longer have it all. It stands to lose much of its gains unless it takes immediate corrective measures. Syria's dilemma will become considerably more acute should there be a new round of violence between Israel and Hezbollah.
Warning signs suggest that it may be a matter of 'when' not 'if' a new war breaks out along the Lebanese-Israel border. In a recent farewell meeting with the Israeli Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, outgoing Israeli Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin stated explicitly his concerns that the next war Israel faces could be much longer, and could lead to a wider conflagration, including Syria. It is likely that in any conflict with Hezbollah, Israel would seek to do no less than to wipe out Hezbollah's arsenal of weapons, as well as its infrastructure. By any military estimates Israel's strategic objectives in a new war with Hezbollah will make the level of destruction inflicted on Lebanon in the 2006 war pale in comparison.
Facing the possibility such a bloody conflict, Syria has to make a choice: Will it enter into such a conflict to aid Hezbollah and open itself up to a direct military confrontation with Israel in which it will suffer a devastating blow? Or, will it turn its back on Hezbollah and Iran? That is, if Syria wants to maintain and further entrench its influence in Lebanon, it will have to choose sooner rather than later between Hezbollah or its larger interest in all of Lebanon. Syria could be forced to make this choice should an incident occur similar to the cross-border attack by Hezbollah that sparked the war in the summer of 2006. With Hezbollah significantly strengthened, whether Damascus could keep such an incident from occurring is also dubious.
Even more troubling is how Iran might come to the aid of its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, in the event of renewed violence, and how it would pressure Syria to come to their defense. Meanwhile, just as Saudi Arabia was tacitly supportive of Israel's effort to wipe out Hezbollah in the war in the summer of 2006, Saudi Arabia would likely seek to use its improved ties with Syria to press it to remain on the sidelines of a new conflict. More still, Syria's continued aid to Hezbollah could lead to an Israeli strike on Syrian targets utilized in the weapons supply line to Hezbollah, dragging Syria into a violent conflict. Faced with such a scenario, Syria's balancing act will no longer be possible. If it does not find a solution to this dilemma before a new round of conflict begins, Damascus' new-found influence and ties in the region will be undermined severely. It could be further marginalized by the international community at exactly the time it is seeking to strengthen its regional role as a power broker and emerge, for good, from its international isolation.
Critics argue that Syria is not facing such a dilemma. It has and will continue to play both sides of the coin in the Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shi'ah battle for influence in the region. Even more, some may argue that just as Syria stayed out of the 2006 Lebanon war, it would likely refrain from entering the conflict, thereby unleashing Israeli warplanes onto Syrian targets, regardless of any pressure to do so. But such arguments underestimate the state of the Iranian-Arab divide in the Middle East today and Syria's increasingly dangerous balancing act. Arab fears of Iranian influence are precipitously. With Arab states eager to regain power in the region, which has been ceded to non-Arab actors, and with regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt expected to undergo leadership transitions in a few years, the Arab world is especially reticent about the expansion of the Iranian-proxy state in the Levant created by Hezbollah. But Syria's continued aid to Hezbollah is enabling exactly just that. While Syria did not enter the 2006 war, the environment of the winter of 2010-2011 may prove to be much different. The brazen visit by Ahmadinejad suggests that Syria could become beholden to Iranian interests in Lebanon. As such, in the next conflict, Syria may find that it is unable to divorce itself from its long-time marriage of convenience with Hezbollah.
The visit of Ahmadinejad to Lebanon signaled an expansion of Iranian influence in the Levant, raised Arab concerns and further deepened the Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shi'ah struggle for influence in the region. Moreover, it has exposed the fallacy that Syria can continue to enjoy the fruits of its regional balancing act. Syria must now make a decision: continue to aid Hezbollah and entrench itself as a rogue state serving the interests of Iran, or play a more constructive role by ending its political and logistical support to Hezbollah and prevent any provocative action against Israel without necessarily severing its relations with Iran. This may seem far-fetched, but it is not. Syria could have concluded a peace agreement with Israel in 2008 through Turkish mediation had former Prime Minster Olmert stayed faithful to the negotiated understanding. Damascus knows that its ultimate fortunes lay westward, along with its Arab brethren. Iran could not stand in the way then and it cannot stand in the way now.
Syria can no longer sit on the fence. If Damascus does not take this critical corrective measure now it could face a precipitous fall, and bring the prospects for peace and stability in the region along with it. This is exactly what Iran would like to see happen, which by no means would serve Syria's mid or long-term strategic interests.
A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post on 11/11/2010