Column: Iran’s goal, The blending of Lebanon and Syria

Column: Iran's goal, The blending of Lebanon and Syria
Iran is a conquering shadow behind Lebanon and 'useful' Syria.

In 2009, Muammar Gaddafi made a plea for a new state called Isratine, one state inclusive of both Israel and Palestine. Even though that state remains far away, the Libyan dictator made a good case for it.

Today, there may be another kind of merger between Middle Eastern states underway, an undeclared one to be sure, another indicator of the kaleidoscopic disintegration of Sykes Picot and the dissolution of borders. That fusion may be between Lebanon and what is tragically called “useful” Syria, the geography that encompasses Aleppo, Damascus, the Mediterranean coast and Damascus airport.

It is the part still under the control of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and it wraps around Lebanon like a large belt, and that is not a coincidence: it represents one security zone, effectively controlled by Iran and its leading local actor, Hezbollah.

What makes the blur between these two entities even more real is also the untold numbers of Syrian refugees in Lebanon today.

Blending of two nations

Their presence ironically achieves what political parties calling for a formal Syrian-Lebanese union could not, the blending of the two nations.

These refugees are not going home anytime soon; the reconstruction of cities and towns for them to do so will be neither available nor affordable. The inevitable ethnic cleansing of war also means they may no longer be welcome in the areas where they once came from.

Of course, officially, there will still be a Lebanon and a Syria. There will be no official integration as Gaddafi called for in Isratine, but there will an unnamed, unofficial controller in this space, and that is Iran now stretching its might from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

On the level of political froth, Saad al-Hariri’s nomination of Michel Aoun, effectively Hezbollah’s candidate, as president of Lebanon puts the stamp on that reality.

Why not the Russians? Russia does have power and influence but it does not have the vast and detailed presence, nor wield the numerous militias – a kind of Shia “internationale” – networks of intelligence, land purchases and cultural influence that Tehran does have.

In Lebanon today, Hezbollah is calling the shots. Whether through clever manipulation, veiled or less-veiled threat, its considerable military might and the more considerable disorganisation of its opponents, the political future of the country has fallen into its hands.

Implicit division

Assad’s current campaign in Aleppo will permit him to declare a kind of victory and reclaim his status as an unmovable reality.

Meanwhile, the reality in Syria is of an implicit division, “useful Syria”, Kurdish Syria and the disaggregated remainder. The relationship between these parts is likely to be a disorganised and shifting array of conflict, talks, deals and infrequent humanitarian assistance.

Iran stands like a shadow behind both, Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon and the Assad-controlled part of Syria. It is likely to be clever and play this zone with deftness, maintaining the minorities’ sense of security, and even Beirut’s multicultural and financial glitz and glitter.

There is no reason to become oppressive as long as what matters, security control and the material benefits that come with it, is maintained.

However, with all that will also come cultural change. As Lebanese Shias have already taken on greater cultural dimensions of Iran via Hezbollah, so Lebanon will morph.

It will slowly become less Levantine, more desert than sea. Some will see in this a return to a natural hinterland, but the political obstacles remain considerable.

The large majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are Sunnis, ironically displacing the sectarian problems arising out of the war of Syria into Lebanon.

Ticking time bomb

When combined with the existing Sunni-Shia rift in Lebanon, this can spell trouble over time for the effective Iranian control. This is a ticking time bomb in the north of Lebanon, in Tripoli, Akkar, and possibly in other areas of the country.

As Gaddafi argued, the merger of states and populations can, in theory, be salutory, even necessary. However, the intermediate realities may also be quite harsh.

If it does not soon let go soon of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel will be staring a Palestinian majority in the face over the coming decades. This will be the one state that Gaddafi called for, but with Jewish Israeli rule over an angry population. So also in Lebanon and useful Syria, effective Shia control over Sunnis will remain a difficult and problematic concept.

As much as the dissolution of borders may ultimately herald a more organic Middle East, healed from the amputations of its colonial borders, such political entities won’t function well as long as any hegemony imposes its will on a recalcitrant population, whether that is Israel over the Palestinians or Iran/Hezbollah and Assad over Sunnis. That’s a lesson that still seems far away in almost every single part of the Middle East.

John Bell – Al Jazeera

John Bell is director of the Middle East program at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid.

The article resembles the author’s own views and doesn’t necessarily reflect MEO’s policy