Syria’s last trump card

Since the start of the Iraq war, Syria has felt increasingly vulnerable and isolated. The country held its breath as US troops entered neighboring Iraq and neoconservatives focused in on Syria and Iran as possible targets in their plan to reform the Middle East. Then came the Israeli bombing of an alleged Palestinian training camp on Syrian territory in October, the breakdown of talks on the European Union Association Agreement due to the issue of weapons of mass destruction in December and finally the implementation of US sanctions in May. Earlier this month, Syria’s decision to ram forth the extension of President Emile Lahoud’s term led to the US-French backed UN resolution 1559, which is in essence a call on Syria to redeploy its 20,000 troops from Lebanon and end its influence there.

At the heart of sanctions currently placed on Syria is a US demand that Syria stop its support for Palestinian militant groups and for Hizballah. UN resolution 1559 also calls for the dismantling of Lebanese and non-Lebanese militia groups–an indirect reference to Hizballah’s military arm.

Syria cannot afford to forego its relationship with Hizballah before it sees some tangible movement on the peace process with Israel. Hizballah is Syria’s last strategic bargaining chip in its current struggle to regain the Golan Heights from Israel and to nudge the US into cooperation. Last month, Syria reiterated its support for Hizballah with its backing of Lahoud, who has refused to bend to international calls to dismantle the militant Shiite group over his last four years as president. Hizballah also asserted its presence when its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah rejected resolution 1559, stating that the disarmament of militias would be equivalent to the disarmament of the resistance.

For almost 20 years, Hizballah has kept the 70-mile border between Lebanon, Israel and Syrian territory occupied by Israel, also known as the blue line, active. To varying degrees over that time, Syria has prodded Hizballah to increase or decrease its incursions across the border depending on its own strategic needs in its struggle with Israel. Hizballah, in turn, has frequently coordinated its attacks with Syrian interests in mind.

Syrian ties with Hizballah strengthened considerably in the early 1990s with the signing of the Taif Accords. But when Israel pulled out of South Lebanon in May 2000, Syria feared it could lose its trump card in its negotiations with Israel if the frontier quieted. But it didn’t and the Shebaa Farms, a 15-square mile strip running along side Lebanon’s southeast border with the Golan Heights, now remains the main means through which Hizballah continues to apply pressure on Israel.

It is difficult to assess Syria’s role with Hizballah and its fight with Israel without mentioning Iran. In the Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah equation, Hizballah’s leadership looks to the Velayet-e-Faqih Ayatollah Ali Khameini for spiritual guidance. He has often intervened in times of internal discord, such as in the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal from the south when a disagreement arose within Hizballah’s ranks on what its new role would be.

Hizballah depends on military training and equipment and receives some financial backing from Iran. Syria acts as the coordinator and facilitator–taking shipments through Syrian territory. One Syrian analyst described the relationship between the three as the following: if Iran is Hizballah’s oxygen tank, Syria would be the air hose. How can Iran support Hizballah without Syria?

Nonetheless, Hizballah has also acted independently of Syrian and Iranian interests, not always responding to Syrian demands. As peace negotiations between Syria and Israel opened in early 1996, Syrian wishes to calm down the Israeli-Lebanese border were initially heeded by Hizballah, and the Syrian government even started to speak openly about dismantling Hizballah. Not long after, however, Hizballah reinitiated incursions across the blue line.

Nevertheless, Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah relations may very well grow stronger if the international climate surrounding the three intensifies. Repeated overtures by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to restart peace talks with Israel have thus far been rebuffed by the Israelis and the younger Assad is said to have even stronger ties to Hizballah than his father, Hafez al-Assad. Further discord could mean more cooperation between the three groups.

For now, Syria is trying to placate the United States and the international community. A recent visit by Assistant Under Secretary of State William Burns to Syria has resulted in further cooperation between Syria and the US over Iraq. What may help Syria is that the US needs both Syria and Iran to help stabilize Iraq.

A central question remains: how would peace between Syria and Israel affect Hizballah? Hizballah retains a strong constituency in the south of Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley. There are 12 Hizballah MPs in the Lebanese parliament. And for Hizballah, the resistance goes beyond the Shebaa Farms to support of the Palestinian causes within the occupied territories. Even if Syria broke rank with Hizballah, it would still have popular backing and a cause. At most, it might be forced to undo its military wing or incorporate it into the larger Lebanese Army, possibly lending even more strength to Hizballah’s legitimacy. In the end, for Lebanese Shiites and Lebanon in general, the party has become an active social and political player on the domestic scene, with or without Syrian support.