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Washington, get ready for more Iranian influence after Bashar al-Assad falls in Syria

After the fall of Bashar-al Assad in Syria, Iran will compensate for its lost ally by strengthening its influence in Lebanon alongside its affiliate Hezbollah – the Shiite militant group that now dominates the country. To prevent this, Washington must take a leadership role in the Lebanon.

By Firas Maksad / August 2, 2012

Lebanese Hezbollah supporters carry a picture of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad celebrating Mr. Ahmadinejad's arrival in Beirut October 13, 2010. Op-ed contributor Firas Maksad says: 'Unless deterred by reinvigorated international attention to Lebanon, Iran will gain rather than lose influence in the eastern Mediterranean' after the fall of Mr. Assad in Syria.

Jamal Saidi/Reuters

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Many Lebanese have understandably adopted the Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Assad as their own. During Syria’s 15-year occupation of their country, they experienced firsthand the suffering of living in the shadows of a brutal police state. Mr. Assad’s security chiefs (some recently killed) ran Lebanon with an iron fist, and are believed to be largely responsible for a string of assassinations targeting that country’s political leaders.

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But once the euphoria of toppling the dictator of Damascus subsides, Lebanon is in for a rude awakening. For all his brutality, Assad is not Lebanon’s foremost curse, nor will his departure be that country’s salvation. The real threat to Lebanon’s body politic, as with most Arab societies, is the sectarian mindset that permeates all aspects of life and allows for foreign meddling in its affairs.

Over the years, the Assad regime learned how to manipulate Lebanon’s sectarian divisions to maintain its dominion over a fractured nation. But so did Iran and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that now dominates Lebanon’s political scene. In the absence of Beirut’s Damascene master, Iran will work to fill the void left behind.

In fact, this process of growing Iranian influence is already underway and will likely accelerate after Assad’s fall. Lebanon is largely an Iranian dominion, governed by a Hezbollah dominated coalition government since the toppling of the Western leaning parliamentary majority in 2010. Key state security posts are securely within the militant group’s sphere of influence.

Tehran will likely try to make up for its loss of Assad in Damascus by tightening its grip on Beirut. And while a post-Assad majority Sunni government in Syria could help counterbalance Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, this is unlikely in the near-term, as a new and fragile government struggles to find its footing.

Unless deterred by reinvigorated international attention to Lebanon, Iran will gain rather than lose influence in the eastern Mediterranean. To prevent such an outcome, Washington must take a leadership role in Lebanon to counter Hezbollah and Iran. The US can do this by working through existing, but underutilized, international mechanisms such as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and various Security Council resolutions calling for Hezbollah disarmament.

More robust international enforcement will be key since Hezbollah will depend on sea and airports for arms transfers after the loss of overland routes through Syria. And while UNIFIL currently has a deployed force of about 12,000 soldiers in Lebanon, including a naval contingent, its ability to intercept such shipments relies on the cooperation of Lebanese authorities. Hence Beirut must be put on notice, with clear consequences, especially as a new governing coalition is set to take form after Lebanon’s 2013 parliamentary elections, with a possible reshuffling before then.

Some pundits will argue that such a reinvigorated approach will fail, and that the West needs to engage rather than isolate Hezbollah. They argue it is the de facto political and military force in Lebanon. Therefore a more realistic objective is to reach a mutual understanding whereby the group agrees to disarm in return for a greater share of power within state institutions.

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