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Middle East: Are Iran, Syria Playing Any Roles In Lebanon Fighting?

A masked militant of the Shi'ite Amal militia holds a position during heavy clashes with pro-government fighters in the Druze mountains southeast of Beirut on May 11 (AFP) The resurgence of violence in Lebanon has again raised the question of the motives and aims of Iran and Syria --> , which support Hizballah, one of the groups involved in the fighting. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully put these issues before Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Cordesman is a leading Middle East authority who has served as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. State and Defense departments.

RFE/RL: The divisions in the current fighting in Lebanon are, as usual, along sectarian lines. The chief opponent of the Lebanese government is the Shi'ite group Hizballah, supported by Iran. Is the Lebanon fighting political or sectarian?

Anthony Cordesman: You have at least 17 -- perhaps more -- sects and confessions as political entities in Lebanon, so when you talk about politics and religion in Lebanon, you can't possibly separate the two. The Shi’ite bloc in Lebanon also was a group that had the least power and influence of the major groups in Lebanon at the time that the Maronites (Christians) and Sunnis shared power. It is the group which, in the south [of Lebanon], found itself in most direct confrontation with Israel. So it has now emerged as the most influential power bloc, but it is a rival of the Christian and Sunni factions to at least some extent, and you can't separate these out.

What's happening is, at this point in time, a struggle which is largely Sunni and Shi’ite, with the Christians really split in terms of alignment, which has been typical of the shifting alliances here.

Now, you certainly have Iran playing some kind of role in supporting Hizballah and [the smaller, allied militia] Amal. This is as much a matter of opportunism in dealing with Israel as anything else, and the same is true of Syria. Whether [the Syrians] really have any true religious alignment here, as distinguished from both sides using each other, is a question which is very difficult to resolve.

RFE/RL: Just how does Syria fit in here? Syria is predominantly Sunni, though its government seems to be secular. What's its interest in Lebanon?

Cordesman: I think in the case of both Iran and Syria this is much more a matter of politics, of pressure on Israel, than it is a matter of deep religious conviction. The Alawite minority inside Syria is not by any normal standard Shi’ite, although they have claimed to be Shi'ite since they became more closely tied to Iran, and also because Alawites, at least in terms of the internal belief structure, have a long history of tension with other Muslim groups as to whether they are Muslim at all. This division is a very important one within Syria, but the government isn't so much secular as dominated by the Alawite minority, and it has used Lebanon as a proxy for a struggle with Israel since 1982, and it is very unlikely this relationship will change.

RFE/RL: Some observers have noted that Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East resent the ascendancy of Iran in recent years, and these observers have expressed concern that it may lead to a regional conflict between Sunnis and Shi'as. Can the current fighting in Lebanon be seen as a preface to such a conflict?

Cordesman: Before we make this kind of leap, we need to remember how many times people have made it and fallen flat on their face. The power struggles that you're watching inside Lebanon have been going on since the 1950s. The seeds of the [Lebanese] civil war were sown in the early 1970s. The power struggles internally between Maronite factions, Sunni factions, and Shiite factions have dominated the country's politics for most of its recent history.

Now, outside players have used this in different degrees. At one point, Israel occupied southern Lebanon and sponsored what was a supposedly Christian group in southern Lebanon, of which at least 70 percent was actually Muslim. We have to be very careful about whether this [current fighting] is going to be a preface to anything. It has almost been a problem which hasn't stopped, and certainly since the Israeli invasion in 1982, which triggered a great deal of the shift in terms of Shi’ite attitudes and helped create movements like Amal and Hizballah. This really has not spilled over as anything other than a local proxy conflict both inside Lebanon and on the border with Israel.

RFE/RL: Israel keeps recurring in your comments. Is Israel the real focus of the strife in Lebanon and the support that Iran and Syria give to Hizballah?

Cordesman: Nothing in the region is that simple.

Iran does have historical ties to the Shiites in Lebanon. The clergy that came to convert Iran from Sunni to Shi’ite beliefs came from Lebanon. There are some ties of religion which really do matter. Syria basically has never really fully recognized Lebanon as an independent country. It still sees it as territory stolen from Syria by France after World War I. It also sees Lebanon as a critical security buffer to Syria. And you look at the alignments here, and it is important to note that you have countries like Saudi Arabia who see this basically as the creation, under Iranian and Syrian pressure, of something which has gravely weakened the Sunni faction inside Lebanon. And there many other Arab states who see this as a problem.

When you talk about how this game is being played, it is essentially a game of three-dimensional chess in which the players have no clear rules and often seem to be wearing blindfolds. So you can't simplify it without misunderstanding it.

RFE/RL: So what does Iran expect to achieve in backing Hizballah in this conflict and others? Does it merely want to help a like-minded group of Shi'as, or does it expect to get more?

Cordesman: I think first, Iran has understood that this is an area where it can use a proxy against Israel. It also understands that it minimizes, to some extent, Arab concerns with Iran by backing the Hizballah in putting pressure on Israel. It has been a way of deflecting concerns in the Gulf and political pressure on Iran. It is not, however, something where Iran has made this into a major objective, and the current fighting [in Lebanon] is very clearly much more an internal power struggle than anything that Iran and Syria have been directly involved with.

The problem for the [Lebanese] government -- which is essentially Sunni and at least Christian in part -- is it does not want to have a strong military rival [in Hizballah]. The problem for Hizballah is that its power consists, to a great extent, of its military capabilities, and this gives it much of the strength it has politically. So when we talk about outside players, they are certainly interested, but we need to understand that Lebanon's problems are a self-inflicted wound. They're not something caused by outside nations.