‘Lebanon syndrome’ afflicts Iraq

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TEL AVIV -- One month after Iraq's elections, it is becoming clear that the region is witnessing a new "Lebanon syndrome" in the making.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/04/2010 (4510 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

TEL AVIV — One month after Iraq’s elections, it is becoming clear that the region is witnessing a new “Lebanon syndrome” in the making.

As has happened in Lebanon, a pro-American Iraqi leader has won a tiny majority of seats in the new parliament but is unable to form a coalition government without Iran’s blessing.

One day after the initial results were announced, and while the American media hailed the “victory” of Ayad Alaoui, who won 91 seats of 325 in the parliament, leaders of three other lists rushed to Tehran to seek its support. While the horse-trading continues, one thing is clear: Even if Ayad Alaoui is called to form the new government, which is still uncertain, he won’t be able to do so without Iran’s consent.

This new reality became clearer even in the larger regional context. In a speech in Saudi Arabia, former Soviet prime minister and former KGB chief Yevgeny Primakov said that “it is the U.S. that transformed Iran into a regional power.”

He added that the U.S. is now being challenged “everywhere — in Europe, Asia and Latin America.”

He said that the American intervention in Iraq “shook the regional balance, strengthened al-Qaida in Iraq and shook the balance between Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad.”

This new regional reality became evident last week during U.S. Senator John Kerry’s visit to Damascus.

Kerry, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, is a supporter of U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy of “engagement” with the Arab and Muslim world.

After long talks with President Bashar Assad, Kerry said that “the U.S. and Syria share a mutual interest in having a very frank exchange on any differences that may exist.”

Kerry added that the U.S. and its Arab allies are hopeful that “re-engagement with Syria may encourage its leaders to distance themselves from Iran and from the strategic and economic alliance with Iran that Syria has fostered for decades.”

This did not happen and it is not difficult to guess why — Syria’s oil wells are running dry, its growing youth population needs jobs and Iran has been the only country to help Assad.

Even more important: Iran recognized Syria’s “special interest” in Lebanon. Despite the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon five years ago, Syria’s dominance in Beirut has never been greater. Even the pro-Western government of Rafiq Hariri was sworn in “with the Grace of Assad.”

This new reality was demonstrated again last Thursday by the fence-mending mission to Damascus of Lebanese Druze leader, Walid Jumblat, who had been among the fiercest critics of Syria’s 29-year presence in Beirut.

On Feb. 14, 2007, on the second anniversary of the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Jumblat branded Assad “the dictator of Damascus… a savage… a liar… a criminal… and an Israel product.” He also blamed Syria for the assassination of his father, Kamal Jumblat.

But now, as a goodwill gesture towards Syria, Jumblat told Al-Jazeera that “these remarks were inappropriate, unworthy and unsuited to the ethics of politics, even during a quarrel.”

Jumblat paid a heavy national price for his reconciliation with Assad. He not only accepted the renewed Syrian influence in his country, but also agreed that Hezbollah should not be disarmed. This enabled Assad to define publicly his strategy in Lebanon.

“In defining Syrian-Lebanese relations, it should be clear that Syria cannot remain neutral in the event of an armed coalition against Hezbollah,” Assad said.

This statement was read very carefully in Israel. It confirmed an earlier Israeli evaluation that, in case of a third Lebanon war, Syria, with the backing of Iran, would come to Hezbollah’s rescue.

With the earlier reconciliation with Assad of Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, and now with the defection of Jumblat, what remains of the Lebanese pro-American coalition is the constantly declining Christian community, and it is not much.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press Middle East correspondent.

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