Throughout the past couple of years, Iran has obtained a significant strategic advantage in the Middle East. In Syria, the Islamic Republic was able to keep the Assad regime alive and has gained the upper hand in the country’s civil war. In Iraq, Tehran utilizes local political allies and Shi’a militias to wield substantial influence over domestic politics. In Lebanon, the Iranian proxy Hezbollah constitutes the country’s dominant political and military force. It appears that the Islamic Republic today controls a strategic corridor stretching from Tehran in the East to the Lebanese capital Beirut in the West.
On February 2, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy addressed the question of Tehran’s apparent rise in a policy forum titled “Rolling Back Iran’s Foreign Legions.” Hanin Ghaddar, a veteran Lebanese journalist who currently serves as the Friedman Visiting Fellow at the Washington Institute, presented the findings of her latest report “Iran’s Foreign Legion: The Impact of Shia Militias on U.S. Foreign Policy.” Phillip Smyth, who is the author of the blog “Hizballah Cavalcade” and a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute, joined the discussion via Skype. (A full recording of the event is available online).
Ghaddar argues that Iran has taken over power in Lebanon. Political balance in the country has ceased to exist. Hezbollah is not only the strongest military force but has also infiltrated the political system. The Iranian proxy controls public institutions and uses the state as vehicle to dominate Lebanon. Hezbollah is no longer a state within the Lebanese state as commonly believed. Rather, as Ghaddar emphasizes, “the Lebanese state has become part of the Hezbollah state.”
She stresses that Iran will emulate the Hezbollah model in both Syria and Iraq. In both countries, Tehran – through the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – commands a remarkable number of Shi’a militias which have so far mostly acted as the backbone of Iranian military endeavors. The Islamic Republic is eager to transform these irregular fighting forces into political actors which will take hold of state institutions. The participation of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in the upcoming elections in Iraq is a clear sign of this approach. According to Ghaddar, the Hezbollah model will provide Tehran with substantial influence over Lebanese, Iraqi, and Syrian politics and hence enshrine Iran’s preponderance in the Middle East.
Ghaddar highlights that this potency manifests itself in the establishment of a strategic corridor between Tehran and Beirut. This land bridge constitutes a critical supply route that enables the cheap and steady transportation of arms. Moreover, the land bridge is of pivotal ideological importance. Located at the heart of the Shi’a crescent, it enables a transnational Shi’a identity. The consequence is a decline of national identities among Shiites and the erosion of the current state system, which will be replaced by an Iranian-dominated order.
Phillip Smyth expects that this new system will increase polarization in the region. For many Iranian proxies, the religious principles of the Islamic Republic have become subordinated to the mere struggle against the other, i.e. Sunni Muslims. Iran’s non-inclusive ideological project is therefore likely to cause a backlash among Sunnis. They will react in increasingly radical ways if they become convinced that all Shia are agents of Iran.
Ghaddar draws a bleak picture of the future of the Middle East. Iran’s creation of a Shi’a foreign legion that seeks military and political hegemony will escalate sectarian clashes. In the absence of an outside power preventing these conflicts, perpetual war is on the horizon.
Whether this Hobbesian doomsday scenario proves true remains to be seen, however. Indeed, Tehran’s perceived strength often does not reflect the situation on the ground. Headed by Ayatollah Sistani, Iraqi Shiites remain independent. In the Syrian theater, Iran depends greatly on Russian support. The upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon will show whether Hezbollah really controls the country. The actual strategic importance of the land bridge between Tehran and Beirut is debatable. Likewise, it is questionable whether the Islamic Republic could sustain a strategic corridor, considering military and economic overstretch. Domestic change within Iran could quickly alter the country’s positioning in the wider Middle East.
The United States should nevertheless be vigilant. Iran is seeking to increase its regional influence on many fronts, and Washington must be prepared to support local forces that stand up to Tehran’s ambition of creating a hegemonic order.
Secretary of State Tillerson today in a speech at the Hoover Institution outlined US goals in Syria. Tobias Schneider summarized them succinctly on Twitter:
- Enduring defeat of ISIS & AQ in Syria
- Political resolution to Syria conflict (w/o Assad)
- Diminishing Iranian influence
- Create conditions for safe refugee return
- Syria free from WMD
Those sound in principle desirable to me, though they leave out an important one: preventing instability in Syria’s neighbors, including Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan (all more or less US friends if not allies).
The problem lies one step further on in defining a strategy: the ways and means. Tobias and others on Twitter see this set of goals as a license for an unending US commitment to remain in Syria and to “stabilize” it. Hidden under that rock, which Tillerson was careful to say was not a synonym for nationbuilding, lies a commitment to guess what? Nationbuilding.
But let’s deal first with the the ways and means issue. As I see it, this is all we’ve got going for us in Syria:
- US military presence and capability, including control through proxies of major oil-producing wells and maybe a proxy presence along the borders with Israel and Jordan.
- A UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution (2254) that outlines a political process to prepare a constitution, hold elections, and begin a transition to a democratic system.
- The US veto in the UNSC over any successor resolution that approves and advances the political process.
- US aid to parts of Syria outside Assad’s control, US clout in the IMF and World Bank, and influence over European and Gulf aid.
Is this enough to deliver the five goals? I doubt it. Take just refugee return: it requires that people not be forced back but that they return of their own volition. The trickle (50,000 Tillerson said) who have returned in the last year are truly a drop in the bucket. Most refugees (upwards of 5.5 million if I remember correctly) won’t return until Assad and his security forces are gone, or at least blocked from acting in parts of Syria. Likewise the political resolution, diminishing Iranian influence, and getting rid of WMD also depend on getting rid of Assad, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition.
Even the enduring defeat of ISIS and Al Qaeda likely require Assad to be pushed aside, as he has consistently used his forces preferentially against the moderate opposition rather than the extremists, with whom his regime had an excellent cooperative relationship when US forces were in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. Assad will want to keep some of them around even now, as they help to justify his brutal repression of the Syrian population.
But getting rid of Assad means, let’s face it, rebuilding the Syrian state, which is unlikely to survive in a form able to deliver on the above goals once he is gone. He has made sure of that by waging war against his own population for six long years.
Remember too: he has Russian and Iranian backing to remain in power.
Without better means, it looks to me as if the US is in Syria for a long time and will ultimately fail. That’s not an attractive proposition. The question is whether it would be better to leave now, or soon. Do we have to stay to do nationbuilding? How can it be done best? How long will it take? How much will it cost? More on that in a future post.
Apologies to Khulood Fahim, who prepared this piece in a timely way. It got stuck in my queue:
On November 20, Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, Mohammed Alyahya of the Atlantic Council, and Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies attempted with moderator Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute to answer the question, “Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia’s New Zone of Confrontation with Iran?” The event took place at the Hudson Institute and was live-streamed online, which is how I accessed the discussion. The question, timely in light of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recent resignation announcement from Saudi Arabia, was answered from a Saudi perspective (Alyahya), a Lebanese perspective (Badran), and an American perspective (Doran), all three of whom agreed with each other on several issues.
That the media has falsely portrayed recent events and Saudi Arabia’s intentions was a common theme presented by the speakers. Alyahya stated that there were two important issues at hand. First, Prime Minister Hariri cited several reasons for his resignation, including the dysfunctional nature of the Lebanese government and Hezbollah’s political control. The media’s narrative, however, has assumed that Hariri had been detained and placed under house arrest by Saudi Arabia, and has disregarded the reasons that Hariri himself put forth for his resignation. The second issue is the fear mongering efforts about strikes against Hezbollah by Saudi Arabia, the US, and Israel, when no such intentions are present in any of those countries. These tactics, Alyahya maintained, are efforts to distract from “real problems” in Lebanon. The image of Saudi Arabia as an aggressor is one that the US media has been perpetuating as well, Doran added. The popularity of this image is due to two factors: persisting Obama foreign policy views that support Iran’s influence in Lebanon, and efforts to contradict President Trump, who is close to Saudi Arabia.
Badran also offered American policies from the Obama administration as reasons for the negative light in which Saudi Arabia is portrayed. In 2013, when Hezbollah began its military involvement in Syria, causing retaliation in the form of attacks in Beirut, Obama’s policy was to share intelligence with the Lebanese Armed Forces and to work with Hezbollah to limit such threats. The American goal of preserving Lebanon’s stability actually served to maintain Hezbollah’s power, Badran commented. In 2015, the basis upon which the US was supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces changed from UN Resolution 1701 to the portrayal of the Armed Forces as partners in counterterrorism efforts directed primarily at “Sunni jihadism,” a category in which the Obama administration also included Saudi Arabia. Such a narrative, then, made of Saudi Arabia an enemy, and further allowed for a “pro-Iran policy” in Lebanon.
Continuing to present an alternate picture, the speakers discussed the true extent of the power possessed by Prime Minister Hariri and Hezbollah. The initial idea that Hariri’s return to power in 2016 could limit Hezbollah’s power was erroneous, Alyahya began, and Saudi Arabia had opposed it from the beginning. Badran agreed, saying that the lesson learned in the last few weeks is that there are no strong Lebanese actors opposing Hezbollah, and that the government can be considered an “accomplice” to the organization. Echoing the Saudi stance, Badran opined that their original mistake was to allow Hariri to return to power in the first place, and that their recent push for his resignation was needed, albeit a “year too late.” Hezbollah’s power can be best imagined when seen in a regional context, as the organization is not merely a Lebanese problem. Hezbollah’s influence can be seen in multiple countries and on many levels, including in logistical planning on the behalf of Houthi rebels in Yemen, and in military involvement in Syria and elsewhere as Iranian proxies.
Saudi policy, Doran contended, is a message to Washington that there is no Lebanese alternative to Hezbollah’s power, and that, like Iran and Russia in Syria, Hezbollah has been building its power in Lebanon through the establishment of “red lines”- boundaries that it forces everyone to respect. Despite this, Doran explained that American policy so far has adopted an indirect approach, avoiding confrontation with Iranian proxies and instead supporting its own proxies, such as the Abadi regime in Iraq and the Lebanese Armed Forces. This approach has not been effective, as American proxies “never win” in clashes.
Badran stated that there is a desire in Lebanon to maintain the status quo, encouraging Saudi Arabia to deal with the Hezbollah by confronting Iran elsewhere and not Lebanon. Badran criticized this by saying that Lebanon is critical to Hezbollah’s activities, as it is a training ground and a base for its actors. “Lebanon,” he maintained, “is an exporter of destabilization to the region.”
Most pertinent in the discussion was what the panelists considered widespread misrepresentation of the situation, which has resulted in harmful misinterpretations, but Badran thought conflict or a “proxy war” in Lebanon unlikely.
- Private Sector Engagement in Afghanistan | Monday, November 27 | 1:00 – 3:00 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | Private sector development in Afghanistan is a crucial topic for U.S engagement in the region. Between 2002 and 2010, about 57 billion US dollars of official development assistance (ODA) was disbursed to Afghanistan for purposes of reconstruction and development. More recently, the Trump administration committed to extending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan into the foreseeable future. Military resources alone cannot achieve U.S. foreign policy goals in Afghanistan: it is important to look at the role that the private sector plays in consolidating Afghanistan’s future prosperity and growth. Afghanistan is doing well in fiscal policy, inflation, access to credit, and some aspects of human capital investment (i.e., health expenditures and primary education expenditures). However, to promote private sector growth, Afghanistan needs to tackle political rights, fight corruption, uphold the rule of law, build effective governance, and reform business regulations, to name a few. Fostering a solid private sector in Afghanistan is important for long-term sustainable growth and improving the quality of life for its citizens. Leveraging the private sector to build a robust economic foundation in Afghanistan is a necessary and timely discussion. Panelists will include Gregory Huger of USAID, Mozhgan Wafiq of the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Jeffrey Grieco of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, and Hussein Ali Mahrammi of Federation of Afghanistan’s Craftsmen and Traders. They will be joined by CSIS’s Romina Bandura, Earl Anthony Wayne, and Daniel F. Runde.
- What’s Next for Lebanon? | Wednesday, November 29 | 1:00 – 2:30 pm | Arab Center Washington DC (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | Join us to discuss the implications of the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the increased belligerent rhetoric against Iran and Hezbollah by Saudi Arabia. This event will feature Joseph Bahout of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Joe Macaron of the Arab Center Washington DC, and Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute.
- Raqqa After the Islamic State: Governance Challenges in Post-ISIS Syria | Wednesday, November 29 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | With the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s hold on Syrian territory vastly diminished, the campaign to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) enters a new phase. The fall of Raqqa—the capital of ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate—marked a powerful strategic and symbolic loss for the extremist group. Yet the success of the counter-ISIS campaign will ultimately be determined not by battlefield wins, but instead by what follows. Please join the U.S. Institute of Peace to discuss the complex governance challenges in Raqqa and how the United States and the international community can constructively address them. In a recent USIP Special Report, Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor for Syria, the Middle East and North Africa at the Institute, examines the critical governance challenges in Raqqa after the Islamic State. Her report highlights the ethnic, tribal, and strategic complexities that will affect this new phase. To sustain security in the territories freed from ISIS, a broad approach to stabilization will be vital. That approach will have to ensure effective and inclusive governance that is responsive to the needs of the local population. This event’s speakers include Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Nicholas A. Heras of the Center for a New American Security, Mona Yacoubian of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and moderator Sarhang Hamasaeed of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
- A Coming Storm? Shaping a Balkan Future in an Era of Uncertainty | Wednesday, November 29 | 9:00 am – 6:15 | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Although the Western Balkan region has made significant progress in its efforts to integrate into the wider transatlantic community, inspired and guided by its commitment to eventual membership in the European Union (EU), NATO, and other global institutions, that progress is now at risk. The conference will seek to generate new ideas and policy-relevant proposals to craft a way forward for the Balkan region, firmly embedded within the transatlantic community. This conference will engage the highest levels of transatlantic decision-makers, bringing together over 100 participants, ranging from regional leaders to decision-makers from both sides of the Atlantic and top experts in the field, to spotlight what is at stake and spur support for a reenergized Balkans policy in the United States in partnership with the European Union. The all-day event will include five panels and a keynote address.
- How to Help Vulnerable States Prevent Their Own Crises | Thursday, November 30 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | The European Union recently has added a new priority to its foreign and defense policies: Help countries vulnerable to crisis build their resilience against catastrophic events, notably violent conflict, which has uprooted 65 million people worldwide. The EU’s shift is part of a growing global focus on the importance of preventing civil war and its devastation. The United Nations, World Bank and U.S. government are among the organizations taking up this agenda. On November 30, USIP gathers U.S., European and World Bank officials to discuss how governments and international organizations can better coordinate the implementation of this broad new approach to halting violent conflicts. The European Union issued its new framework for policy this year as the World Bank and United Nations are completing a broad study on ways to catalyze the international community to better prevent violent conflicts. Concurrently, the State Department and other U.S. agencies are reviewing the United States’ efforts to help states struggling for stability in the face of warfare. As governments and international organizations improve these strategies, where are the obstacles to better coordination? Christian Leffler of the European Union will open this discussion by laying out the new EU policy framework. Other speakers will include Nancy Lindborg of the US Institute of Peace, Franck Bosquet of the World Bank, Raphael Carland of the State Department, and moderator Joe Hewitt of the US Institute of Peace.
- Public Opinion in a Conflicted Middle East | Thursday, November 30 | 12:00 – 1:30 | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Arab American Institute (AAI) are pleased to host James Zogby (AAI and Zogby Research Services) for the presentation of fresh polling results from across Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and Turkey. The report examines opinions from 7,800 respondents about the U.S. and other regional states’ roles in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. It also looks at Trump Administration policy, political Islam, prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Iran nuclear deal, and the region’s refugee crisis. Joining Dr. Zogby to discuss the poll findings will be Yousef Munayyer (MEI & U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights), Barbara Slavin (Atlantic Council; Al-Monitor), and Gönül Tol (MEI). MEI senior vice president Paul Salem will moderate the event. The poll and resulting report were commissioned by the Sir Bani Yas Forum, convened annually in the United Arab Emirates on the initiative of H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the U.A.E. Foreign Minister. The findings are being made available for use by the public.
Atheer Ahmed Kakan of the (Turkish) Anadolu Agency asked questions last week. I replied:
1. What do you think of Trump policy in the Middle East right now?
A: Trump policy in the Middle East seems calculated to push back hard on Iran, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but it is having perverse effects. The war in Yemen is going badly, the blockade of Qatar has driven Doha closer to Tehran and Ankara, and the forced resignation of Saad Hariri has united Lebanon against the Kingdom. Ironically, Trump has done nothing to push back against Iran or its proxies in Syria.
2. What do you have to say about Saudis new developments? Adopting “moderate version of Islam”? Attacking Iran publicly? Aligning with Israel against Iran? Re-engaging with Iraq?
A: No one I know would object to the Kingdom advocating for more moderate Islam. Re-engaging with Iraq is also a good idea. Mouthing off against Iran is not. I’m not sure how far the alignment with Israel is really going to go.
3. What do you think the consequences of Trump letting Saudis hand in the MidEast? Are we witnessing Saudi-Iranian war? New civil war in Lebanon? New opened war in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon beside Yemen?
A: I trust cooler heads will prevent some of those things from happening, but there are a lot of risks. The Kingdom needs to assess its own capabilities and align its actions with those. Hotheadedness doesn’t win wars, or peace.
- Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia’s New Zone of Confrontation with Iran? | Monday, November 20 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Under the new leadership of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has found itself in the middle of a storm generated by internal opponents to his rule, the country’s foreign adversaries, and partly by the young ruler himself. Earlier in November, Saudi air defenses intercepted a missile fired at Riyadh by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. On the same day, Saudi authorities arrested dozens of senior figures, including well-connected royals like Prince Walid Bin Talal, on corruption charges and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, while traveling in Riyadh, announced his resignation and denounced Iran’s long arm in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Saudi officials followed Hariri’s statement with warnings of their own, explaining that as long as Lebanon was controlled by Hezbollah, it would be treated as an enemy. Is Lebanon Saudi Arabia’s newest regional theater of conflict with Iran, after Yemen and Syria? What’s the Crown Prince’s next move? What does it mean for Lebanon if Hezbollah’s base of operations is now a potential conflict zone? And how is the Trump administration managing its regional partners and the larger strategic picture in the Middle East? On November 20, join us at Hudson Institute for an important and timely lunchtime panel discussion moderated by Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute, and featuring Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, Mohammed Alyahya of the Atlantic Council, and Tony Badran Foundation of Defense of Democracies.
- Iranian and Russian Involvement in Syria: Purposes and Prospects | Monday, November 20 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | International Institute for Strategic Studies | Register Here | Syria may be the theatre where Western interests clash most directly with those of Iran. Russian and Western policies have also come into direct clash over Syria. In these clashes, Russia and Iran have been tactical allies, but their goals are not wholly congruent and their partnership shows fragility. Please join us in the next installment in the IISS Manama Dialogue 2017 Discussion Series to explore the involvement by these two powers in Syria. This series, focusing on political, economic, social, and security challenges in and around the Middle East and North Africa, will be held before and after the December IISS Manama Dialogue. This event will be a timely discussion of the current security and political challenges in Syria, the roles that Iran and Russia have played in the conflict, and what can be expected in the months to come. Speakers include Dr. Mark N Katz of George Mason University and Dr. Neda Bolourchi of the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory. Mark Fitzpatrick of IISS-Americas will chair the conversation.
- Costing U.S. Nuclear Forces | Monday, November 20 | 1:00 – 2:30 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | The United States has embarked on the process of modernizing almost every component of its nuclear forces, sparking a debate about the costs of such a project. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has released a report estimating that the nuclear force plans that the Trump administration inherited from its predecessor would cost $1.2 trillion between 2017 and 2046, and outlining options to reduce or delays costs. Michael Bennett from the CBO will present the report’s findings, and Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association will discuss its implications for policy. Other speakers include Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute and James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
- Putting Sectarianism in Perspective | Tuesday, November 21 | 3:00 – 4:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The Middle East Institute is pleased to host a conversation with Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, editors of the new book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. Their book critiques the reliance on religious identity as the explanation for the region’s violence, and analyzes the ways in which geopolitical rivalries or domestic grievances have become, or been mobilized into, sectarian wars. How, Hashemi and Postel ask, can the region’s politics be “de-sectarianized” Register now to join this valuable conversation moderated by MEI senior vice president for policy research and programs Paul Salem.
- The U.S. Policy on Iran: The Way Forward | Tuesday, November 21 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | Organization of Iranian American Communities (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | We are delighted to announce the upcoming event scheduled for November 21, 2017 at 10:00 am at the National Press Club, Holeman Lounge. The event is the second in a series of discussions on “The U.S. Policy On Iran: The Way Forward”. As part of implementing its new Iran policy, the administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity (SDGT). Moderator Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan of the University of Baltimore will speak to Senator Joseph Lieberman, formerly of the U.S. Senate, and Gen. Chuck Wald, formerly of the U.S. air force.