Iran and Syria are close in Lebanon. Will it last?

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May 31 2007 6:55 AM

Separate Ways

Iran and Syria are close in Lebanon. Will it last?

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council voted to establish a special court to try those who participated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria is the prime suspect in the crime. Its allies blocked passage of the tribunal through the Lebanese Parliament, which is why the Security Council decided to approve it unilaterally. However, an increasingly pertinent question, albeit one only now beginning to provoke interest, is what the tribunal might mean for Syrian-Iranian collaboration in Lebanon.

An uncanny image in recent days was that of U.S. military aircraft unloading weapons for the Lebanese army at Beirut's airport. The re-supply came amid a standoff in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in north Lebanon between the army and a group calling itself Fatah al-Islam. The airport adjoins Hezbollah's stronghold in the Lebanese capital's southern suburbs. In 1983, it was a front line between U.S. Marines of the Multinational Force and Shiite militiamen. When the United States suffered 241 dead in a suicide attack against the Marine barracks at the airport, it withdrew from Lebanon and promptly ignored the country for two decades.

That has changed. Lebanon, thanks to a series of Security Council resolutions designed to bolster its independence from Syria, investigate the Hariri murder, and reinforce a U.N. peacekeeping force along the border with Israel, finds itself under de facto international trusteeship. For Hezbollah to find the Americans at their doorstep again must have been galling. The United States, France, the United Nations, and leading Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, have attempted to firm up the country against two parallel developments: Syria's persistent efforts to destabilize Lebanon, mainly to undermine a Hariri tribunal that threatens the Syrian regime; and Iran's desire to use Lebanon as an outpost in the Levant from where it might derail American, Israeli, or Western initiatives with which it is unhappy; but also from where it can deter, through Hezbollah, an Israeli or U.S. strike against its nuclear facilities.

But will Syria and Iran remain on the same wavelength in Lebanon now that the regime of President Bashar Assad is more vulnerable than ever? The two countries have cooperated closely, and according to a diplomat who travels to Damascus, Iran is manning listening posts in Syrian territory from which even Russian experts are denied entry. The notion of a sudden Iranian-Syrian split seems, for the moment, naive.

However, with a green light for the Hariri tribunal, things may become more complicated. For the Lebanese authorities, the presence of Fatah al-Islam in North Lebanon is Syria's way of wreaking havoc and showing that the tribunal will come at a heavy cost. The group claims to be an al-Qaida affiliate, but its weapons reportedly come from Palestinian groups working for Syria. One Palestinian source from an organization usually opposed to the Lebanese government told me that Fatah al-Islam's al-Qaida link was not obvious to him. What he meant was that the group was really doing Syria's bidding. This comes amid new reports this week that Syria is infiltrating more pro-Syrian Palestinians into the refugee camps in Beirut to provoke unrest.

The Iranian response has been ambiguous. Last Saturday,  France's Le Figaro published an interview with the head of Iran's national security council, Ali Larijani. While his main brief is conducting nuclear negotiations with the West, Larijani also encouraged French-Iranian cooperation to help stabilize Lebanon. He proposed a four-point plan that included, for the first time, a potential process to disarm Hezbollah. Larijani's message came as the United States and Iran prepared to meet in Baghdad to discuss the war in Iraq, and it suggested that Iran was open to seeking similar cooperation with Paris in Lebanon.

This worries Syria to no end. The Syrians have always argued that they alone could bring Hezbollah to heel by being present in Lebanon, so for the Iranians to say the party's future lies in Tehran's hands undermines an argument in favor of a Syrian return to the country. Damascus also fears it will pay the price for eventual improved U.S.-Iranian ties, even as the sword of Damocles of the tribunal hangs above its head. In this context, it is probable that Syria will foment more sectarian discord in Lebanon, perhaps to turn the country into a new Iraq. Its hope is that it will then be invited back in to impose peace.

It's too early to judge Iran's intentions. Larijani's proposals may have been a maneuver to break France off from the United States in confronting Iran on the nuclear issue or in Lebanon. However, the Iranians probably also want to avoid a Sunni-Shiite conflict in Lebanon, as does Hezbollah. Recently, two Sunnis were kidnapped and murdered in Beirut in what was made to look like the work of individuals close to Shiite Hezbollah. The party was most likely innocent of the crime. Observers and politicians believe the episode was a Syrian attempt to provoke clashes between Sunnis and Shiites, even though Hezbollah is close to Syria. But Syria's regime sees no red lines in saving its skin.

It may be worthwhile for the United States and the international community to investigate if the Iranians and Syrians are beginning to go their separate ways in Lebanon. A divorce between the two is doubtful in the immediate future, if it takes place at all. With Iran only at the start of its discussions with Washington and possibly facing new U.N. sanctions for its nuclear program, it has no incentive to break with Syria. But the Syrians are increasingly desperate, thanks to the tribunal, and they can see that the international community is making inroads next door. Iran is more pragmatic. In inviting a dialogue with France—a France headed by a pro-American president—over Lebanon, it may be indicating that it accepts this international presence and is willing to deal with it. If there is something genuinely new here, the Syrians are right to worry.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle, which the Wall Street Journal listed as one of its 10 standout books for 2010.