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.

Jamal Saidi/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

Yet such initiatives were previously tested through British and French intermediaries, and they have consistently failed. Hezbollah and Iran believe that their real source of power is their military might, not the Beirut ballot box. No amount of engagement will change that. In fact, the pro-Hezbollah daily newspaper Al-Akhbar recently floated the idea of Hezbollah giving up politics altogether and focusing strictly on military activities.

There is thus no shortcut to stemming, let alone rolling back, Hezbollah’s – and Iran’s – influence over Lebanon, especially as Tehran continues its progress toward acquiring nuclear capability. The United States, together with European and Arab allies, must develop a long-term strategy to loosen Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon’s Shiite community. This could be achieved through initiatives that help defuse Sunni-Shia tensions, foster a more robust civil society, and support outspoken leaders who are uneasy about Hezbollah’s hold over their community.

Yet instead of doing so, Washington appears to have dropped Lebanon altogether. Democracy and development aid has come to a grinding halt, despite the monumental change shaping the region and Beirut’s historic role as a center for Arab moderation. Organizations operating in Lebanon such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) – US-backed nonprofits working to strengthen democracy – have been forced to close their office and end all major operations due to Washington’s shifting priorities and lack of funding.

Meanwhile, even under mounting international sanctions, Iran continues to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to its Lebanese allies.

Unless President Obama has written off Lebanon, and is willing to come to terms with an Iranian satellite state in the Levant, a drastic new approach is required – one that does not tacitly accept the current Hezbollah dominated government as the necessary price for short-term stability.

In the months ahead, once the battle for a free Syria subsides, and as Lebanon approaches its 2013 parliamentary elections, Washington should be prepared for a new round in its confrontation with Tehran. Unless Washington works to counter Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon, the Obama administration's next exchange with Iran will be one in which the Iranians already have the upper hand.

Firas Maksad is a consultant on the Middle East and director of New Policy Advisors, a Washington D.C. advisory group. You can follow him on Twitter @FirasMaksad.

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