Iran, Russia, and Syria Anxious to Reap Their Rewards, as Hezbollah Faces New Choices

Thursday, January 31, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

The announcement of the US withdrawal from Syria, albeit still lacking details, has, as mentioned previously, raised the specter of a country divided among the winners: Syria, Iran, Russia, and even Turkey, anxious to protect its flanks from the Kurds. While there is no agreement on how Syria’s massive reconstruction, estimated in excess of $400 billion, will be funded, it will be hard for the GCC to bear part of the burden, as hinted by the Trump administration, if Iran is seen to benefit from its presence in Syria.

That hasn’t prevented deals from being struck. Russia has already inked contracts for major infrastructure projects around Tartus naval port and the Khomeini Air Base it uses; and is rumored to be ready to build a nuclear power plant. It has also signed a 20-year contract with the Ministry of Energy and Water in Lebanon to rebuild and operate a 90 year old oil storage facility in Tripoli to upgrade and triple its capacity from 450,000 to 1.5 million metric tons.

Not to be late to the trough, reports from several sources indicate that Tehran has recently signed agreements in banking cooperation, the repair of power stations, a new power plant in Latakia, and long-term economic agreements in industry, trade, and agriculture. Memorandums of understanding were also signed to cover railways, investment, education, housing, public works, and other fields.

They were signed during a visit to Damascus by Iran’s First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis, who noted that they contained legal and administrative facilities to benefit “Iranian companies wishing to invest in Syria that contribute effectively to reconstruction.”

“The new agreements come against the backdrop of fresh US sanctions against Iran, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and several Syrian business people and companies are already on US and European blacklists.” These sanctions will affect access to equipment, finances, international funding and exports from Syria. In addition, the inevitable role of Syrian business oligarchs anxious for rewards for supporting President Assad may cause issues after an initial honeymoon, à la Iraq, where the old guard played a role in increasing the costs of doing business with Baghdad.

And always in the background is how Israel will respond as it is committed to denying Iran a long-term military presence in Syria. The war has already claimed more than 360,000 lives and displaced several million people to neighboring countries, internally, and overseas.

Iran has invested economically in Syria and provided boots on the ground through its proxies, militias, and military, and it expects to gain from its efforts. Russia has provided air cover, weapons, missiles, air defense systems, and advisors, and is taking a more long-term and global view of its investments in Syria. According to an article on the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy (WINEP) blog, “Putin has multiple goals in the Middle East, but fundamentally, his Syria intervention was about upending the US-led global order. Kremlin activities across the region share the same aim: to undermine the US and bolster Moscow’s position in the region by deterring the West and maintaining low-level conflict… Despite Moscow’s many difficulties, it has staying power in the region and its influence will not wither away on its own any time soon.”

It goes on to detail Putin’s pragmatic approach showing flexibility and adaptability, building relations with all major actors in the region, as far afield as Morocco. The author notes that “Moscow’s partnership with Iran shows no signs of abating, as their joint interest in opposition to the US continues to override the differences between them. Indeed, Moscow’s entire Syria strategy is predicated on a partnership with the Islamic Republic, which bears the bulk of the costs in Syria.”

Recognizing that Russia lacks resources to lead Syria’s reconstruction, Putin is using the refugees to leverage funding from the EU, which is unwilling to play Russia’s game. This is forcing Russia to engage a broader set of potential funders, including China, without losing its role as primary power in Syria and the region. The article concludes, “On balance, he has achieved many key objectives, largely due to the West’s limited engagement and his own commitment. Putin’s Syria adventure has yet to play itself out. But to date, Putin has managed to largely outmaneuver the United States.”

As the Syrian civil war winds down, there is increasing concern regarding returning foreign fighters. Imagine the disquiet in Lebanon where they are part and parcel of the domestic scene. Hezbollah will soon be at a crossroads, whether to continue to act as Iran’s proxy and a state-within-a-state in destabilizing Lebanon, or will it rely less on it arms and more on its political role to contribute to Lebanon’s recovery?

As an article in Haaretz put it, “Hezbollah is now caught between its desire to strengthen the status of Iran and Syria and the need to reinforce its domestic political power, which allows it to dictate the government’s position as it sees fit. But in the absence of a government, Hezbollah has no real leverage, and its insistence on dictating the government’s makeup also places it in the way of Lebanon overcoming its severe economic crisis.

In the last election, Hezbollah was challenged in several of its traditional strongholds, and its current blocking of the government formation is straining its ties with its Maronite and Shia constituents. The recent controversy over its tunnels into Israel brought little response from Hezbollah aside from the usual tit-for-tat speeches. The author believes that “It is clear that Hezbollah will have to restrain its response in order to avoid further complicating the formation of the government and the damage that an Israeli strike could cause Lebanon. It must also be very careful not to move Israeli military action from Syria to Lebanon.”

So the question continues: Will Hezbollah recognize that it can play a constructive role in rebuilding and reforming Lebanon, or will it bring down that fragile state through its undermining of the political balance in Lebanon?