Sunday, 21 September 2014

Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, and Russia vs. the US-led anti-ISIS alliance: Cooperation or confrontation?

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at Ankara International Airport on September 12, 2014. Kerry is in the region to speak with leaders about strategies to address the threat from ISIS. (Photo: AFP-Brendan Smialowski)
Published Thursday, September 18, 2014
Neither on the side of terrorism nor on the side of foreign occupation, especially when the first is, basically, a creature of the second: the war that Washington and its allies intend to wage on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is raising a lot of suspicions among all sides of the Resistance Axis. If these suspicions pan out, they could lead to a major confrontation, unless…
Since the Jeddah meeting, Hezbollah has yet to issue an official position regarding Lebanon’s participation in the alliance that the United States is building to fight terrorism. Sources close to the party were quoted as saying Hezbollah had a number of reservations regarding the Lebanese government’s hasty decision to take part in the meeting in Jeddah. However, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Basil soon addressed this issue on the sidelines of the conference in Paris on Monday, when he said that Lebanon would not join any axis and that his government had not given the Americans any mandate to carry out strikes against ISIS in Lebanon.
Clearly, Hezbollah, as a resistance party that has its own symbolic status in the Arab and Islamic world, cannot be on the same side as the United States, even if the US happens to be at war with one of Hezbollah’s most bitter enemies.
The enemy of my enemy
The enemy of my enemy is not my friend in this case. Hezbollah refuses for Lebanon to be part of this alliance, not because it objects to the fight against terror, but because it rejects for this war to be led by the US, its argument being that this would ultimately end up substituting terrorism with flagrant US occupation seeking to offset the US strategic defeat in, and withdrawal from, Iraq. Furthermore, the deployment of forces from the US and its allies in the area between Baghdad and the Syrian countryside could act as a strategic barrier between Iran and its own allies. In short, the Americans are seeking to offset their strategic losses in the region, or at the very least, to undermine the strategic gains made by the Resistance Axis and by one of its fundamental pillars, Hezbollah.
Most likely, the constituents of this axis would implicitly be happy to see ISIS eliminated. Iran and Hezbollah will not grieve if this existential threat that is fueling sectarian strife in the region is removed. Nor will the Syrian regime be uncomfortable with the prospect of a strike that would remove a major menace from its way. Likewise, Russia would not have any qualms about the eradication of a terrorist organization that endangers its strategic interests in the region. Meanwhile, it won’t do this axis any harm if Washington is drawn into a long-term conflict with all Salafi movements in the region.
Does this mean this axis intends to wait by the river until the bodies of its enemies float by, to paraphrase Sun Tzu? Certainly not. There are deep suspicions regarding American intentions, and many questions too: Is the goal to strike ISIS or contain it? What about other terrorist groups such as al-Nusra Front, which is also designated as a terror group by the US and others? What is the next step? What are the reasons for the Turkish reluctance, given Ankara’s well-known role in smuggling weapons and fighters? Does Turkey expect the head of the Syrian regime as its consolation prize? Finally, what price does Saudi Arabia expect to get in return for its eager participation in a war against those who essentially share its same ideology?
According to informed sources, when Iran senses the US threat is coming to its borders, when Syria senses there is a threat to its regime, and when Russia senses there is a strategic threat to its interests, it would be useful to recall the declared positions that remain valid, most notably those of Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in the summer of 2013, when he said that Damascus’ allies would never let it fall into America’s hands, and warned of dire consequences for any US war on Syria.
This pledge applies today as it applied the day it was declared. Tehran will not accept in any way the presence of US troops on its borders, having fought a fierce war to drive the US out of Iraq before. Today, Iran is prepared to repeat this. Meanwhile, Moscow has restated its unlimited support to President Bashar al-Assad. Accordingly, this axis will not allow the new alliance to squander its gains, or at the very least, will spare no effort to limit its own losses.
So what is the next step?
Recent statements made by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ali Khamenei, in which he said he had personally rejected an American offer to discuss collaboration against ISIS, was the first indication of the willingness of his camp to go toward a confrontation. He spoke about the pointlessness of cooperating with a state whose hands are dirty, as if to tell the American: If you return to hostility, then so shall we.
On the ground, the Iranians, since the attack on Mosul, have rushed to contain the ISIS tide. The first step was to unify the positions of the National Alliance (the forces of the ‘Shia majority’) vis-à-vis the crisis. After that, efforts focused on formulating a general position that included the Kurds and other ruling factions, expediting talks for a new government as Tehran ditched Nouri al-Maliki as its favored choice for prime minister. This coincided with the reorganization of military formations in a way that would allow them, in the event of any foreign intervention, to deploy in any area of Iraq liberated from ISIS control to prevent it from falling into the hands of groups that are outside the authority of the state.
The Americans have also heard very clearly and through several channels that the way things have moved since the NATO summit in Wales, and then the meetings in Paris and Jeddah, resembles the way a bull would move in a china shop. If this continues, it might destroy a lot of things in its way, including the nuclear negotiations, and Iran's recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and its outcomes in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere.
As international talks were launched to form the alliance against ISIS, the Iranians and Russians told Arab and Western governments concerned that bypassing the official frameworks of states in the forthcoming battle would complicate matters greatly, and could make it difficult to confine the crisis to Syria and Iraq. Instead, they proposed a mechanism for coordination over Syria and Iraq, which Western diplomats explained as an Iranian proposal for Baghdad to coordinate with Damascus, since the alliance refuses dealing with the Syrian regime.
Moscow and Tehran have also warned against Western operations deviating from targeting ISIS, especially with the talk about the possibility of handing over the areas liberated from ISIS to the “moderate” Syrian opposition.
The Americans were told clearly that the Russians would step up the level of military support to Damascus, with some sources saying that Washington’s recent warning to Syria about intercepting its planes was essentially addressed to Russia and Iran. The Americans also know that Russia continues to restock the Syrian army with everything it needs in its war against the armed groups, but also in a way that would help fortify its positions against any US strikes, be they intentional or accidental.
Does this mean that a confrontation is inevitable?
There could be room for an understanding, even if it is indirect, over the limits of the operation, with guarantees provided that the Syrian regime would not be targeted, that US troops would not be deployed to Iran’s borders, that no buffer zone would be established in the central Sunni-majority areas in Iraq that would cut off the contiguity between Tehran and its allies, and that no major gains would be achieved by Turkey and Saudi.
In this regard, reports about a 30-day waiting period before the war raises further questions: Is it meant to secure more cohesion within the Western-Gulf alliance, which remains ambiguous, and for the sake of more military preparations? Or is it meant to give talks with the other side a chance?
The answer might be a combination of both. The White House must measure things very carefully to appease conflicting interests within the alliance. US military officials want the White House to provide answers about air corridors that would not be possible without coordination with the Syrians, Russians, and Iranians.
According to sources, there are signs that contacts have already been made between Syrians and Americans through the Norwegian embassy in Damascus. Iraqi National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayad, according to the same sources, visited President Assad as an “American” rather than an Iraqi envoy. Recent Syrian air sorties and precise strikes against ISIS positions also indicate there has been coordination with the Americans, even if through a third party.
In the opinion of these sources, a certain level of coordination, albeit indirect, would dispel many of the concerns of the other side. The Americans, in the end, are pragmatists, and would not hesitate to give up allies and some of their gains if this would help protect the lives of their soldiers. But if the opposing side is forced to choose between two bitter options, namely, terrorism or occupation, then this could push this axis into a major confrontation to force a third option.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian   
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