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Raghida Dergham

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How Will Iran and Hezbollah Respond to the Syrian Regime's Predicament?

Posted: 09/04/11 07:42 PM ET

New York - The campaign waged by major leaders of the Republican Party against the foreign policy pursued by Democratic President Barack Obama may be marred by excessive one-upmanship. But ignoring it or treating it with condescension, motivated by the achievements in Libya, would cost Obama dearly, especially if he fails to take decisive action in Syria or provides Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon -- as well as the regime in Damascus -- with a way out. True, Europe is the United States' current partner in the new alliance alarming Iran today, which includes effective Arab countries such as those in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), alongside Turkey the NATO member-state. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of disparity between the American and European stances, because their interests diverge, and also because the dynamics of Europe's relationship with the countries of the region differ from those of their American counterpart. If Barack Obama is not to fall into a pitfall here or a trap there, he must pay the utmost attention to the American-European relationship with Iran, and immediately start figuring out what's required in terms of dealing with Lebanon at the present stage, until the regime in Damascus collapses, through regime-change, radical defeat or a coup d'état. Second, Obama must try to fully comprehend the nature and geography of Iran's inevitable revenge for the defeat it would have suffered as a result of the downfall of its ally in Damascus, which was otherwise central to the ambitions of the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Clearly, Lebanon was, until recently, barely on the Administration's radar. Today however, in the wake of the popular uprising in Syria, it has once again come under its microscope. The reason for this is not just the relationship with the tripartite alliance among Bashar Al-Assad's regime in Damascus, the regime of the mullahs in Tehran and Hezbollah's regime in Lebanon. Nor is it Israel, which represents a major element of American policy, locally, regionally and internationally. But rather, the reason is the geopolitics that makes Lebanon, with the kind of government it has today, an artificial lung for both Iran and the regime in Damascus to breathe through.

The Obama Administration has finally acknowledged that regardless of whatever bilateral or multilateral UN sanctions it imposes against major figures of the regime in Damascus and in Tehran, they will remain of little use as long as the Syrian and Iranian regimes can still find air to breathe through Lebanon. The Administration consequently recognized that Lebanon was the decisive element for completing the task -- the task of shutting off the life support system sustaining Damascus and Tehran. This will require sanctions that are not restricted to Syria and Iran, but which also include leaders in the government of Lebanon. The sanctions currently explored far from the spotlight are not restricted to the banking sector, clamping down on money laundering, drug trafficking and their links to terrorism. Nor do they only affect individuals involved in partnerships and corporations inside and outside Lebanon, in particular with the major figures of the regime in Syria. The sanctions the Americans and the Europeans are considering at present seek to strike a blow against the very infrastructure of Damascus and Tehran's artificial lung, starting with Lebanon's airport, which is under Hezbollah's control. Barack Obama does not want to repeat the Libyan scenario in Syria, with air-strikes carried out by NATO; he even fears an indirect role for NATO in ground operations. The last thing Obama wants is "American boots" on the ground, especially during an electoral cycle. Therefore, shutting off the Lebanese lifeline to the Syrian and Iranian regimes is very tempting, especially as it would achieve two other things in the process, namely stepping up the siege on Hezbollah and providing Lebanon with an opportunity to breathe normally. If Lebanon's airport is indeed a launching pad for unlawful operations at various levels, then blockading it with cumulative sanctions would shackle the tripartite alliance among the regimes in Damascus and Tehran and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

There are many means of achieving this, be they exclusively American or joint American-European sanctions, and they do not require international resolutions. They are effective means that would shackle irregular free trade through the airport and other crossings, which would pull the rug from under the feet of the tripartite alliance without the need for military operations. It is a process of stepping up the siege on Iran and Syria through Lebanon, something that the Administration could come to an agreement over with the European governments, or could implement unilaterally if signs of back tracking or disagreement were to appear in the ranks of some of European leaderships whose relations with both Iran and Hezbollah differ from those of the US. The alliance that exists today between the United States and Europe over Libya does not negate the reality of the disparity in both the nature and dynamic of the European relationship with Iran and Hezbollah, compared to the relationship the United States has with the two, and subsequently with Syria. Hezbollah is not listed as a terrorist organization in Europe as it is in the United States. Many Europeans maintain covert relations with Iran. And until recently, France had sought to break isolation of the regime in Damascus -- at the behest of President Nicolas Sarkozy -- in total disregard of the reasons for which such isolation had been imposed in the first place. Former French President Jacques Chirac took the lead in this because of the Syrian meddling in Lebanon and its involvement in political assassinations there.

The United States needs to form a policy for the period of post-enthusiasm in the American-European partnership. This is because Europeans do not view Iran and its proxies in Syria or Lebanon from the American perspective, and vice versa. GCC countries that are in a marriage of convenience with NATO perceive the Iranian factor following the collapse of the Syrian regime from a completely different perspective. They anticipate that Iran will engage in retaliatory operations through Hezbollah and other militias affiliated with Tehran, not against Israel, but against the Arab Gulf countries. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi call on Bashar Al-Assad to meet the "legitimate" demands of the Syrian people resembles more an initiative by an academic who strives to be a reformer but who is not part of the "core" of the regime. His words were personal to a man who wields no influence, and they have had no repercussions or impact, neither among the leaders of the regime in Iran nor through its Lebanese mouthpieces.

Assad's Syria today has no allies other than Iran and Hezbollah. Europe and the United States succeeded in isolating it both regionally and internationally. This was achieved by exhausting the Syrian regime with sanctions, intensifying its siege by allying with the GCC countries, and by the League of Arab States finally -- even if quite belatedly -- taking a stance and offer to send a delegation to visit Damascus -- an offer that was rejected by the Syrian regime. Even Russia's alliance with the Assad regime is an ephemeral one -- a transitory alliance that cost dearly innocent Syrian lives. Russia's interests with the West are much greater than its interests with the regime in Damascus. As such, Russia's leadership will do what it has done in the past when it has found this to be in its interest: it will retreat and backtrack. This will happen sooner than later, under one pretext or another. But Iran will not do the same.

The regime of the Islamic Republic is well aware that if it should lose Syria, this will cause a tremendous setback that it will be compelled to compensate. Iran may fear the new alliance of the GCC countries, Turkey, Europe and the United States, but it will not stand idly by and do nothing. The GCC expect the regime in Iran, following the collapse of its ally in Damascus, to become a "wounded tiger" geared up for revenge. Yet such revenge, according to expectations of those countries, will not take place in Lebanon at the border with Israel by using the Hezbollah card there. They expect the Hezbollah card and that of other militias in Iraq and elsewhere to be played within the GCC zone through sabotage and terror, in order to undermine stability. In other words, Hezbollah, according to those who are of this opinion, will turn into a destabilizing and subversive factor at the regional level, not at the Lebanese level -- because the position held by Israel at the Lebanese border would hold back both Hezbollah and Iran together. The Gulf countries will try to distance themselves from ideological and partisan politics, as they believe that Hezbollah, after the fall of the regime in Syria, will be docile in Lebanon but rowdy in the Gulf region, to the benefit of Iran. Here too, the shadow of the differences between American and European stances appears.

What the Gulf countries are working on is sending a clear message to the US Administration, signifying that if American and European ranks do not unite in confronting Iran in earnest, then the cards of subversion and destruction will affect this resource-rich region, and with it both American and European interests.

For all these reasons, the issues of American foreign policy must not become a mere squabble between the Republicans and the Democrats at such a crucial stage for the Middle East. Instead, it deserves the utmost seriousness.

 

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