Michael Totten

In the Crosshairs of the Syrian-Iranian Axis

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The South Lebanon border area is what Robert D. Kaplan calls a “shatter zone,” a region where government authority is either diluted or non-existent and where conflict is therefore all the more likely, if not inevitable. “Like rifts in the Earth’s crust that produce physical instability,” “he wrote in Foreign Affairs”:http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=4862&print=1, “these shatter zones threaten to implode, explode, or maintain a fragile equilibrium. And not surprisingly, they fall within that unstable inner core of Eurasia: the greater Middle East, the vast way station between the Mediterranean world and the Indian subcontinent that registers all the primary shifts in global power politics.”
I’ve visited a number of these shatter zones in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, sometimes while they’re on fire and other times afterward. The conflicts in these places almost always seem to be fought along ethnic or religious-sectarian lines — between Turks and Kurds in Anatolia, Arabs and Kurds in Northern Iraq, Sunnis and Shias in Mesopotamia, Slavic Christians and Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, Turks and Greeks on the island of Cyprus, Arabs and Israelis in the Holy Land, and between just about every ethnic and sectarian faction imaginable in Lebanon.
After the Syrians were thrown out of Lebanon in 2005 and the central government reclaimed most of its sovereignty, the south along the frontier with Israel remained strictly off-limits and under Hezbollah control. While sovereignty in that area is now technically shared with the state, Hezbollah can still do what it wants without interference. The “March 14” government would adhere to the de-facto armistice between Lebanon and Israel if it could, but it can’t. The Lebanese-Israeli border therefore remains a potentially hot front-line in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
And because Hezbollah is nothing if not a proxy for the Islamic Republic regime in Iran, South Lebanon is a potentially explosive front-line in the Iranian-Israeli conflict. If Israel launches air strikes against Tehran’s nuclear weapons facilities, or if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Khamenei believe a nuclear weapons arsenal means they can activate Hezbollah and Hamas with impunity, South Lebanon may become one of the two most dangerous shatter zones in the entire Middle East. (The other would be Iran itself.)
Last time I visited Beirut, before the Hezbollah-led “March 8” bloc lost the recent election, I spent several hours with Eli Khoury, one of the smartest regional political analysts I have yet met. I try to see him every time I’m in country to discuss this stuff because his analysis almost always turns out to be right when everyone else’s — including my own — turns out to be wrong.
He’s the president of the “Lebanon Renaissance Foundation”:http://www.lebanonrenaissance.org/, publisher of “NOW Lebanon”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/, and an informal advisor to a number of Lebanese political leaders. This time we discussed, among other things, the war in Iraq, the election of Barack Obama, how to engage and not engage Syria, and Iran’s imperial ambitions in the Middle East.
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Eli Khoury
MJT: What if Hezbollah actually wins the election? What do you think would change inside Lebanon?
Eli Khoury: Not much. The only difference is we’ll go back to the same republic we had under the Syrian regime. This anti-Zionist, anti-US, anti-this and that. The republic was not Western-friendly, but it won’t be an Iranian-style government. And we’ll have a very strong opposition which will be ten times stronger than before 2005.
MJT: That sounds about right to me, except that it would change the way Western governments deal with Lebanon — which might effect what happens inside.
Eli Khoury: It won’t have effects inside. We’ve had that for thirty years to a certain extent. Anyway, they can’t win. It’s impossible. They don’t have the numbers. The only thing they can do is take the country by force. And taking the country by force…they can’t do that either.
MJT: Not the whole thing, anyway.
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Eli Khoury’s office tower, Achrafieh, East Beirut
Eli Khoury: Really, the ones who are in deadlock are the [Hezbollah-led] opposition. However [the anti-Syrian] “March 14” [coalition] is not in a comfortable position either for many reasons. Take the Israel-Hezbollah war. Take the changes in the policy across the West starting with [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy now to Barack Obama.
All this “engagement” is going to have some effect on us but, frankly speaking, I’m laughing. All those who are nervous about Lebanon being sold to Syria again…I laugh at Syria. I say let’s see. Let’s see if they can deliver. They can’t deliver. The circumstances are different. They can’t divide Lebanon by Christians and Muslims anymore. We have a strong Sunni majority that’s against any Syrian intervention
I think Saad Hariri is different from his father. His father was a deal-maker and somebody who put things together, patched them up until a better day. Saad Hariri is more confrontational and more of a decision-maker at times. That’s one difference. Also, the mood among the people is totally different. They’ve smelled the freshness of the air.
MJT: For years now.
Eli Khoury: It has been four years now. I think they tasted something they didn’t taste before. Besides you have to understand the Christians, even those with “Michel Aoun”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Aoun and Hezbollah. They’re tactically with Aoun, but at the end of the day they fall in the right place. With the exception of the Hare Krishnas.
MJT: Hare Krishnas?
Eli Khoury: Yeah. Hare Krishnas are those who go with anything Aoun says.
MJT: Yeah, okay. I’ve met some of these guys.
Eli Khoury: Basically their rhetoric is similar to that of “Suleiman Frangieh”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suleiman_Frangieh,_Jr. and the Syrian nationalists which are from the “coalition of minorities.”
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Hezbollah’s primary Maronite ally Michel Aoun (top left), Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah (top right), and Hezbollah’s secondary Maronite ally Suleiman Frangieh (bottom left)
The “coalition of minorities” has a simple flaw. Once all these minorities are friends, who are they going to talk to? What are they gonna do once they forgive, hug, and embrace each other? I’m talking here about Shias, Jews, Christians, all these people. Say they embrace each other. What are they going do about the Sunnis?
If I was in Israel today, I’d have two strategic choices in the presence of the Iranian threat. And I’m talking here about pure politics, pure wheeling and dealing. This has nothing to do with opinions, ideas, thoughts, or beliefs. Israelis have two options. They can go with the “coalition of minorities” against all these Sunnis. Or they can use the opportunity while the Sunnis are afraid of Iran and make a deal. The Sunnis are not only worried about the Palestinian cause, which is a minor issue compared with the Iranian threat.
The Arabs know — even if they won’t say it — they know that Israelis will only use nuclear weapons if they’ve been annihilated. But an Iranian nuke’s destiny isn’t in Israel. They all know that the Israel propaganda thing is just BS.
MJT: You mean the anti-Israel propaganda from the Iranians?
Eli Khoury: Of course.
MJT: I often think so, too, but I don’t know for sure.
Eli Khoury: There are some who say flat out, “why not leave the Iranian nuke program alone because it really threatens the Sunnis and not the Israelis.” There are some who…
MJT: Who says that?
Eli Khoury: I can’t remember a journalist or a politician saying that, but it’s something I’ve heard in salons and read hints of.
MJT: Here’s my read on this: The Iranians continue to threaten Israel while they’re building this system, and I suspect they’re doing this to calm down Sunni Arabs. The Iranians say “Hey, we’re not after you guys, we’re after the Jews. Relax.” But what they really want to do is dominate Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, wherever there are Shias.
Eli Khoury: The Gulf and the Levant. They want to dominate the Gulf and the Levant.
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Hezbollah’s assassinated military commander Imad Mugnieh and Iran’s “supreme guide” Ali Khamenei
MJT: I’m not sure that’s right, but I think that’s what’s probably happening.
Eli Khoury: I agree. But does that mean Israel is safe?
MJT: No.
Eli Khoury: It’s not. Because it’s a temporary pattern of domination. Iran means to dominate the Levant and the Gulf. And once that’s done, there will be a very different discussion about Israel. So, really, all the options lead to the same thing at the end of the day.
Any radicalism, be it Sunni or Shia, is not healthy for anyone in this region. Not Israel, not Lebanon, not even the Arab countries themselves. Jordan, Syria, Iraq, you name it.
Those who advocate talking to Iran based on the fact that Iran ultimately hates the Sunnis more than the Jews are going to fall into a trap because they’re advocating a radical version of Shia Islam. Not really Shia Islam, I mean…I wish we were talking about the Shias we knew before the advent of Khomeini.
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Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Iran has a smart savvy propaganda machine that knows what to sell at the right time. In Washington, in think tanks, I heard people on panels — Jews from the far right and left of Israel, as well as Americans — advocating talking to Iran and Hezbollah.
MJT: You can’t even talk to Hezbollah. I mean, Jimmy Carter of all people came here and Hezbollah snubbed him. If they’re not going to talk to Carter, who are they going to talk to?
Eli Khoury: It’s a dangerous game these people are playing, but I think it’s only a matter of time until the newcomers burn their fingers with the same realities that we’ve seen over and over again. I mean, somebody my age, 48 years old…I’ve seen it all when it comes to Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.
I’ve seen every strategy: Kissinger’s step-by-step approach, full engagement — which means sleeping with the enemy, basically — and the solid stand as with the Bush Administration. I’ve seen them all. The only one that works so far in my opinion has been, aside from some real stupid and dumb mistakes, is the severing of relationships. It made the Syrians behave.
MJT: For a while.
Eli Khoury: For a while.
I’m not one who says Iraq was a failure. I don’t think Iraq was a failure. If you look at the givens in the Middle East, Iraq wasn’t a failure.
MJT: I wouldn’t say it’s a success either, although it’s much better than it was two years ago. It’s much better, but it’s still, I am sorry to say…
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Baghdad, Iraq, 2008
Eli Khoury: Did you talk to any Iraqi bystanders?
MJT: I talked to lots of Iraqis. It’s really hard to get a straight answer out of them. Have you had much interaction with Iraqis?
Eli Khoury: They’ve learned not to say what’s on their mind like most Arabs who live in dictatorships.
MJT: It’s very difficult. It’s not safe to talk straight. They have an ingrained pattern of concealing whatever they really believe. Speaking freely was dangerous with Saddam Hussein. It has been dangerous for the last five years with all these militias around.
Eli Khoury: The guy who threw his shoe at Bush — if he had ever tried to even throw a flower at Saddam, we would have appreciated what he did. But since he’s only strong against peaceful foreigners, there wasn’t much to appreciate.
You know what’s the nickname of Americans in Iraq?
MJT: There are several.
Eli Khoury: The one that was most recurrent was “guests.”
MJT: What do you think of Barack Obama?
Eli Khoury: I was very impressed by a white majority voting for a black president. My bets were on McCain until the last minute. I did not believe for a minute that Americans would impress me this much. And once Obama won, the first reaction I had to my friends, was that I’m impressed. It’s a beautiful thing. Obama stands for a lot of good ideas. The only thing I was worried about is his entourage. What are they going to tell him about Lebanon and the Levant?
MJT: I am concerned about Iraq, as well. I don’t have the personal connection with Iraq that I have with Lebanon and I probably never will, but it’s still very very important.
Eli Khoury: Speaking of Iraq, I want to point you to an article by Eli Lake. He and I spoke many times. We met maybe once.
MJT: I met him in Cairo.
Eli Khoury: He’s a good guy. He wrote something about Iraq which was remarkable. He knows Lebanon fairly well, too.
He said Iraqis are like Lebanese. They think they own the world. And if the Americans leave Iraq alone, every Iraqi will think he can mess around with the rest of the region. The only difference is that the Lebanese will do it with Saudi money while the Iraqis will have their own money.
Think about the Shia Iraqi groups and the Sunni Iraqi groups full of ambition and the grandeur of having the only democracy. They’ll start asking themselves how much influence they can have in Syria, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. To think that way is fine, but to also have money for it? That’s another story.
In Saudi Arabia, you’re either with the ruling family or you’re with Bin Laden, the opposition. In Iraq, you have no idea who’s conspiring with who against who. You have Kurds, Sunni, Shias, this and that, and within each faction you have two or three sub-factions.
MJT: Iraq is a really complicated place.
Eli Khoury: I sorted it out.
If you compare Israel and Lebanon, you won’t find similarities. But if you take each sect alone, if you compare Lebanon’s Christians to the Israelis, they’re really the same.
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East Beirut, the Christian half of Lebanon’s capital
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Alcohol advert, East Beirut
When you look at each community alone, you’ll find similarities. It’s only when you bundle these different communities together that you say, wow, it’s a mess.
Look at the Shias. If you take the Shias of Iraq…
MJT: They’re different from the Shias here, though.
Eli Khoury: You mean in doctrine or political aspiration?
MJT: Political aspiration.
Eli Khoury: Well, the Iraqi Shias are similar to the pre-Hezbollah Shias of Lebanon.
MJT: Yes, that’s true. Iraqi Shias are much less ideological.
Eli Khoury: That’s how the Shias were in Lebanon until the 1990s. Up until almost 2000. You know this “chador”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chador thing? You never saw that in Lebanon. Never.
MJT: It’s all over Iraq. Christian women wear headscarves in Baghdad. Not the full chador, just the headscarf.
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Young people, Baghdad, Iraq, 2008
Eli Khoury: Really? Because they’re afraid?
MJT: Baghdad is full of radicals. The women don’t have to wear it. No one forces them to. They do it just to avoid trouble. Not all of them do, but half of them maybe.
Eli Khoury: How uncomfortable they must feel. This is how bad it can get. I can see that.
There isn’t one West. That’s a problem. Part of what screwed up Iraq is internal American political splits.
MJT: Iraq has been the primary American split the last couple of years. My opinions about Iraq and Lebanon pushed me politically rightward. Just supporting the surge got a person branded a Republican whether they liked it or not.
Eli Khoury: And if you’re a Cedar Revolutionary, then you’re a Bush supporter.
MJT: Isn’t that bizarre?
Eli Khoury: I asked for a meeting with the editorial board at the New York Times. I actually got on the train from Washington and went to meet with the board. “They wrote an editorial about it”:http://theboard.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/a-visit-from-eli-khoury-lebanese-activist/?scp=1&sq=%22eli%20khoury%22&st=cse. I said, “Listen guys. A grassroots movement like the Cedar Revolution should expect support from a newspaper like the New York Times. If it doesn’t get it from the New York Times, where else is it going to get it?” And they looked at me and said “Hmm, that’s interesting. Tell us more.”
I told them Lebanon is a country that didn’t need the help of the U.S. Army. You guys didn’t have to bomb our country. We’re talking about a bunch of grassroots democrats who went into the streets and seized their own thing with their own hands. And they expect democrats in the rest of the world to support them. Since then the New York Times has not done one single bad story about Lebanon.
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MJT: Really? Well, good for you. Good for them.
Eli Khoury: They did one impressive story about “March 14” that was full of pictures from…what’s her name, an American photographer who used to live here. I forget her name.
MJT: You should not have had to explain that to them.
Eli Khoury: Well, I know. I told them that because of education and money, the underdogs of Lebanon don’t look like underdogs.
MJT: Yes, exactly.
Eli Khoury: We’re the underdogs, but we don’t look like it.
MJT: No, you don’t. Hezbollah and the Shias look like the underdogs, but they’re not anymore. They used to be.
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Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah
Eli Khoury: That was, what, 20 years ago?
MJT: They really were then.
Eli Khoury: They were, but not because the system wanted them to be that way. It was in their own making. The Shia establishment was feudal and didn’t care much for its own people. The Maronites weren’t any better, but because of their exposure to the West they behaved better. The system itself was not anti-Shia or anti-Islam.
MJT: I want to ask you something about the “Maronites”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maronite_Church.
[Note: Maronites are Eastern Catholics from the Mount Lebanon region. They make up the majority of Lebanon’s Christian population, and around 25 percent of the country’s population. In Lebanon’s sectarian spoils system, the president of the republic is always a Maronite, the prime minister is always a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament is always a Shia.]
Before I visited Lebanon, I knew most Maronites didn’t self-identify as Arabs. I used to think that was ridiculous, that you guys were being reactionary. I apologize for that.
Eli Khoury: You get it now?
MJT:Yes. It wasn’t fair of me to impose the Arab label on you. But it didn’t occur to me how unfair it was until I went to Northern Iraq and talked to the Kurds. Those people also live in an Arab majority country and insist they aren’t Arabs. And when they say they aren’t Arabs, the world says “Okay, you aren’t Arabs.” So why is it the Kurds get to be recognized as non-Arabs, but Lebanese Maronites don’t?
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Eli Khoury: There is a problem that lies in the hands of the Maronites themselves. A big portion of the Maronites would deny that Maronites are Arab. Maronites are originally Aramaic. “St. Maron”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Maron came here from Syria with a few monks, lived up in these mountains, and converted the people around him. The Maronites are originally from this land. In fact, National Geographic did a study on genes in Lebanon and found that the Sunnis are more Phoenician than the Maronites.
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The Maronite-dominated Mount Lebanon region on the road to Damascus
MJT: I imagine they would be since the Phoenicians lived on the coast like the Sunnis do.
Eli Khoury: Anyhow, historically there were the Aramaics. And they thought the only way to fight off the Ottoman Empire was by creating Arab nationalities. In fact if you ask a lot of Sunnis or Muslims they’ll tell you that those who created Arab Nationalism were the Maronites and those who created Syrian Nationalism were the Greek Orthodox here. At the end of the day, they fought off the Ottoman Empire by becoming Arabs.
They started translating the Bible and all the liturgy into Arabic and started teaching their kids Arabic. That was maybe 100 years ago. There are a few towns that still speak Aramaic on the borders of Syria and Lebanon. It was a Maronite decision, a clergy decision, an elite decision, to join the Arabs.
There were people who opposed that. There is a historic debate among the Maronites. One side says no, we are not Arabs, the other says yes, we are Arabs. I belong to the side that says we are not. That doesn’t mean I’m an enemy of the Arabs. But I’m not an Arab. In my opinion, it was a historic mistake. And I think the Maronites are paying the price.
MJT: How so?
Eli Khoury: We were not able to maintain neutrality during the Arab-Israeli wars because we were labeled Arabs. The Taef Agreement [that ended Lebanon’s civil war] was the first time the constitution of Lebanon actually said that we’re Arabs. We didn’t have that before.
MJT: Who put that in the Taef Agreement? The Syrians?
Eli Khoury: Just so that the concept is now totally over and done with.
I say let the Arabs be Arabs, let them be Muslims if they want. That’s their right. It’s their cultural heritage. We shouldn’t deny them that. And we should stick to our own cultural heritage and our own rights while being friends with them and making deals and what have you.
A majority of Christian kids here are not very good at the Arabic language. Have you noticed how much French there is here? People feel stronger ties to French and English than to Arabic.
Mind you, people don’t know — and even many Maronites don’t know — that a lot of the Arabic words they think are Arabic are actually Aramaic. The names of towns here are 80-90 percent Aramaic. If you drive up into the mountains, all these names you see have nothing to do with Arabic.
MJT: Why is it that so many Sunnis here get so upset when Maronites say they aren’t Arabs?
Eli Khoury: They think it’s pompous. In blood terms, the Sunnis may be less Arab than Maronites, but culturally speaking they feel Arab. And if you tell them “You’re an Arab and I’m not,” it’s like saying they are second class people.
The Phoenicians were neither Muslim nor Christian, but Muslims here are starting to feel a stronger attachment to the Phoenician heritage.
MJT: I’ve met Shias who say they aren’t Arabs, and that surprised me.
Eli Khoury: That’s easy. That’s normal. Shias and Maronites agree on this.
MJT: How many Shias agree?
Eli Khoury: I think a good portion of the elite. It’s the same way in Iraq. You have to understand that the Levant was originally not Arab.
MJT: Of course. Of course.
Eli Khoury: Okay, so Syria and Iraq decided to become Arab, and Jordan. But Lebanon up until thirty years ago was not an Arab country. We joined the Arab League, but basically it was a mercantile attempt like Israel would want to do, to join an economic group with a bunch of rich countries with guns. There was an oil boom and all that.
I am part of the committee to assess the Christian situation in Lebanon.
MJT: As far as…
Eli Khoury: …as numbers. To assess…
MJT: A census.
Eli Khoury: Exactly. To figure out what the numbers are like, what is the inflow and outflow. What do we mean when we say “Diaspora?”
I put my hands on the most accurate figures available. Luckily one of the guys in our committee was head of the census during the Syrian revolution. At one stage, the government was overthrown overnight. The guy had thoroughly checked every single registry in the government. He had the hard list in his pocket and didn’t know what to do with it, so he took it home. It’s the most thoroughly checked data.
MJT: What are the numbers?
Eli Khoury: We published them, they aren’t secret. The first thing you need to know is that the Sunnis and Shias are almost exactly the same size. There is no Shia majority. The Sunnis are 27.5 vs. 27.6 for the Shias.
The Druze and others are like four or five percent. The rest are Christians which leaves them with more than 35 percent. In a trilateral country, 35 percent is the largest minority. And it’s safe to say that Shias and Sunnis are equal in size.
MJT: What’s the situation in the south now? When I ask people here whether or not I should go, the answer is, unanimously, “Don’t go down there.”
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South Lebanon in 2009, Israeli border in background
Eli Khoury: Hezbollah is very nervous.
MJT: More than two years ago?
Eli Khoury: You can always sneak your way through with, you know, proper company.
MJT: Is it worse now than it used to be?
Eli Khoury: Their eyes are more open. They’re all over the place. Anybody who goes and takes a picture…we’ve heard so many stories.
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Hezbollah’s heavy weaponry, South Lebanon 2009
They stopped the French ambassador recently because she was taking pictures. We’ve heard about a lot of foreigners being stopped. There was an article recently about an American taking a picture who got in trouble. Luckily he escaped because one of the kids in the area helped him out. One of the Shia kids.
If you really want to go, we can arrange something. That’s no problem. I can call some friends. It’s up to you, but it seems to be not the best time. Hezbollah doesn’t know what to expect. They called our “Lebanon Renaissance Foundation conference”:http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArchiveDetails.aspx?ID=70615 in Washington last year the beginning of the Lebanese-Israeli front.
To be continued…
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