Iran,  Iraq,  Lebanon,  Syria

In the shadow of his father

Guest post by DaveM

Lebanese journalist Hussein Abdul Hussein has written an excellent article in Asharq Alawsat. It’s about how most of us have misunderstood how totalitarian regimes work. The assumption has been that as they’re based on secure institutions and powerful security and intelligence networks, it doesn’t really matter who the leader is; the system will remain as it is.

Abdul Hussein argues that this assumption is wrong; these systems are far from secure and– as they are totally dependent on the individual at the top– he’d better to be up to the task. That means, in addition to being utterly ruthless, he also has to be intelligent, patient and even (for want of a better word) brave.

If he happens to be incompetent, frightened or stupid, this can have devastating consequences, not just for him but also for the people and country he rules and the entire region.

Hafez Al Assad’s successes and his son Bashar’s failures

Most of the talk about the biggest events which have changed things in Lebanon and Syria tends to focus on the Iranian revolution, the end of the Cold War, 9/11 and the war in Iraq. However the most prominent one, and it’s one which is least talked about, is the passing of Syrian President Hafez Al Assad. Perhaps the continuation of his regime after his death under the care of his son Bashar is why the 10th June 2000, the date of his death, isn’t considered a historical turning point.

However the truth is that Assad the father was the only person who took Syria out of the vortex of successive coups and succeeded in stabilising both it and Lebanon. [Under Hafez Al Assad] the regional Sunni-Shia struggle was kept away from both countries. As for Assad the son, it was he who thrust Syria into a bloody sectarian war and a level of destruction which hadn’t been seen there since the time of the Mongol invasion.

However now, 14 years after the death of Hafez Al Assad and 11 since the collapse of Saddam Hussein and his regime, we’re starting to know that repressive regimes aren’t just institutions or apparatuses but are in fact systems which exclusively revolve around a single individual. They revolve around his personality, his virtues and his nature. So when the person dies his entire system goes with him. When his son took his place, as was the case in Syria, a new system replaced the old one, one which pivoted around a new personality and a different style.

There are many stories about Hafez Al Assad. Here in Washington defence minister Chuck Hagel repeats the story that when he was a senator he decided to meet Hafez Al Assad. He asked for some advice from the former foreign minister James Baker who had previously met with Hafez Al Assad a number of times. Baker’s advice to Hagel was, “Don’t drink any liquids when you’re having breakfast, or any time prior to meeting him. No coffee, no tea and no orange juice.” This was because meetings with Assad the father tended to last for hours. It was only just before the meeting ended that Hafez Al Assad would say what he really wanted, and would do so concisely. However at this point the guest would be in a rush to leave [to use the bathroom].

In Lebanon the story goes that Hafez Al Assad said to Walid Jumblatt who visited him after the death of his father Kamal, “Your father sat here”. This is considered by some as an implicit threat to Jumblatt to abandon the path his father took or meet the same fate. Another story says that in the last meeting Hafez Al Assad gave to former minister and head of the Lebanese branch of the Baath Party, Abdullah Al Amin, Assad said to him “Abdullah, you’re putting on weight”. (Meaning that he wasn’t sharing his gains with Damascus. Al-Amin subsequently fell off the political radar and was replaced as secretary general.)

And in all the years in which the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al Hariri met with Hafez Al Assad nobody had ever reported that Hariri had come out of these meetings frightened or had been threatened. Hafez Al Assad ran Lebanon through Hariri, Jumblatt, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and others. It was only the Christians who hadn’t got used to the idea of no longer being the East’s masters and devils, [This is a reference to Bashir Gemayel’s speech here, as under Damascus’s rule they had been sidelined] as it was the ruler of Damascus who ran the affairs of Syria and Lebanon.

Sometimes historians tend to underestimate Hafez Al Assad. They say that America awarded him full control over Lebanon for his participation in the First Gulf War. However that didn’t just happen by chance. It took Assad many years, in some of which he was more successful than others, before he was able to gain full control over Syria and Lebanon.

For example Hafez Al Assad was concerned about the Iranian revolution, which was Shia, spreading to Lebanon. This is because since the beginning of the 70s he had worked with Imam Mousa Sadr on setting up a Shia powerbase loyal to him. Then Iran entered the Lebanese sphere and did so by relying on Yasser Arafat’s power and relationships. Arafat was Assad’s enemy, yet Assad was astute enough not to immediately confront the Iranians. Instead he kept in pace with them and then chose a suitable time to subdue them.

It was no coincidence that Assad chose the beginning of 1987 to send his forces to liquidate Hizbullah’s HQ in the Fatah Allah barracks. At that time [during the Iran-Iraq war] the Iranian forces were launching the Karbala campaigns to capture the Iraqi city of Basra. The Arab states were asking for Assad to support Iraq yet Iran also needed Arab allies. With Assad knowing that all sides were trying to court him, his forces overran Hizbullah’s HQ. He then wouldn’t receive any Iranian delegates who immediately rushed to raise complaints and were looking for answers.

By doing this he forced the Iranians to accept him as the real ruler of Lebanon. And that’s how the state of affairs remained up until 2005.

They fell, one Lebanese region after another, one sect after another, one regional capital one after another, until by the end of 1990 and with the collapse of Saddam Hussein who was the last sponsor of some of Lebanese forces hostile to Syria, Hafez Al Assad was the last man standing in Lebanon. He won. His allies won. Yet despite that he didn’t get rid of his enemies but let them remain on condition that he got to have the last word. It’s what he told them, albeit in an indirect way, in the meetings which he had with them.

Bashar Al Assad is a different person altogether. Ever since he received the “Lebanon file” in 1998 he took upon himself to make new alliances from within the ranks of the military and intelligence services and he attempted to replicate the Syrian security regime in Lebanon. Hafez Al Assad’s two allies, Rafiq Al Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, tried in vain to secure the current arrangement which gave every Lebanese leader the right to run things internally while giving Syria the right of custodianship. Bashar Al Assad didn’t care much for the previous arrangement, and nor was he subtle in his discussions with them. It got to the point where, if the story is correct, he threatened to “break Lebanon over the head of Hariri and Jacques Chirac”.

So Bashar undid Hafez’s achievements, first in Lebanon and then in Syria. After 29 years Bashar’s army left Lebanon and the Assad family’s power and influence in Lebanon became reliant on Hizbullah and Iran. Bashar had thrown himself into their arms without being astute enough to realise that it was the very equilibrium between Iran and the Arab states which was the secret of Hafez Al Assad’s dominance over Lebanon, just as it was in Syria.

Just as he erred in Lebanon he did the same thing in Syria. If this story about the delegation from Daraa visiting him is correct, after their children had been tortured by the intelligence services they went to see Assad and got humiliated by him. It’s through this story that we can begin to understand that the difference in the personalities between the two Assads is what lies at the heart of the massive change which had hit Lebanon and then Syria.

Perhaps if the delegation had visited Hafez Al Assad he would have said to them, “Whatever you want, I’d be glad to help”. He would then attempt to sort out the dominant personalities from among them. Those who couldn’t be befriended would a couple of months later die in mysterious “accidents”. A few years later the head of the group would take a look at his delegation and find himself on his own. Then he’d be left with the following choices – total compliance with Hafez Al Assad,prison or exile.

So now, even if Assad the son were to prevail over the opposition it’ll be very difficult for him to free Syria from Iranian custodianship. After all in Lebanon Assad lost all of his influence to Hizbullah. In Syria he’s now a ruler who rules in the name of Iran. It wasn’t the circumstances alone which forced Assad into the position he’s now found himself in. Rather it’s the massive difference in personalities between the adroit and patient father and the inexperienced and reckless son which have landed him here.

This 2008 report from the May Chidiac-fronted LBC programme “With Audacity” gives a brief history of Syria’s role in Lebanon– though it conveniently leaves out the fact that in 1976 Syria entered Lebanon to quell the PLO and the Lebanese National Movement headed by Kamal Jumblatt. This stopped the Christians from being totally routed by the leftists and their Palestinian allies. It was in Hafez Al Assad’s interests to prevent Lebanon falling to the PLO and to bring the country under his control.

26 April 2005 wasn’t an ordinary day in Lebanon’s history. For when the farewell ceremony was taking place in the Lebanese Army’s barracks in Riyaq, the last units in Syria’s Army were preparing to leave Lebanon via the Masna’ border crossing. Thus closing the door on 30 years of difficult relations.

Anjar fell from the Lebanese equation when the last of Syria’s officers left it. Prior to that it was a destination for those asking for (Syrian) custodianship and patronage, as well as being a prison.

So has Syria withdrawn from Lebanon? Or has it just moved (the HQ from from Anjar to Damascus)?

It was difficult for Syria to carry out this step, especially after UN Resolution 1559 and the beginning of a series of assassinations. It closed the Intelligence headquarters which controlled the authorities and the people. The farewell picture in Anjar didn’t reflect the picture of the celebrations of hope being regained (which were taking place in other parts of the country).

When Syria entered Lebanon in 1975 it didn’t ask for permission from anybody.

Hafez Al Assad: “We tried to shrink the problem area in Lebanon as best we could… Despite our military efforts presenting weapons and ammunition in large quantities and of different types…. In spite of this the front of the parties collapsed in Lebanon and they were unable to stand on their feet”.

So since Lebanon’s independence Syria toppled all the border checkpoints in a country which was unable to protect its borders.

In May 1974 when Syria got back Quneitra in the Golan Heights after it signed an armistice agreement with Israel under the leadership of President Hafez Al Assad, it was preparing to play a role in Lebanon. The Syrian army had a new assignment and the regime had a new mission. Syria stopped its wars with Israel to begin a series of wars in Lebanon.

Syria’s role in Lebanon was renewed more than once such as when it was given cover by the Arab Deterrent Force and American consent and again in 1990 in the post-Taif Agreement stage after the end of the Lebanese War.

Syria controlled Lebanon by force throughout the 15 years of the war, and in the 15 years after the Taif Agreement it attempted to consolidate this hegemony to make Lebanon subordinate to it.

Hussein al Husseini, Lebanese Parliamentary Speaker: “…. cooperation between the two countries and the formation of agreements between them, in all the various fields which serve the interests of both fraternal countries”.

However this attempt at consolidation ended because not only did the world change after 9/11, but the region also entered a new stage after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

After the assassination of the martyr Prime Minister Rafiq Al Hariri on 14th February 2005 the voice of the Lebanese street was stronger than Syria’s ability to remain in Lebanon. So Bashar Al Assad stood in parliament and announced the decision to withdraw the troops.

Bashar Al Assad: “In completion of the steps which previously were carried out in the framework of the Taif Agreement, and in accordance with decision 1559 we will completely withdraw our forces from Lebanon”.

The ‘Thank you Syria’ rally held on the 8th March was unable to change the decision.

Hassan Nasrallah: “Nobody is able to remove Syria from Lebanon! Not from its mind! Not from its heart and not from its future!”

The response to that came on in the 14th March in the ‘No thank you’ rally.

After 30 years the Syrian Army left Lebanon; however Syria itself didn’t leave. It remained in some of the military political sites which formed corridors into Lebanon inasmuch as it didn’t announce the end of its Lebanese dream.

So was the Syrian withdrawal merely just moving the decision-making centre from Anjar to Damascus? Can the Lebanese-Syrian relationships be put right and can political and geographical borders be demarcated between the two countries? Or will the relationships remain in the domain of the struggle over Lebanon so that the country will not get out of this custody?

Right now the man in charge of military operations in Syria is not the Commander and Chief of the Armed Forces Bashar al Assad, but rather the head of Iran’s Al Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani. The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins illustrates that Syria is too important for Iran for it to be left in the hands of Bashar.

Kneeling in the second row on the mosque’s carpeted floor was Major General Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force’s leader: a small man of fifty-six, with silver hair, a close-cropped beard, and a look of intense self-containment. It was Suleimani who had sent Shateri, an old and trusted friend, to his death. As Revolutionary Guard commanders, he and Shateri belonged to a small fraternity formed during the Sacred Defense, the name given to the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988 and left as many as a million people dead. It was a catastrophic fight, but for Iran it was the beginning of a three-decade project to build a Shiite sphere of influence, stretching across Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. Along with its allies in Syria and Lebanon, Iran forms an Axis of Resistance, arrayed against the region’s dominant Sunni powers and the West. In Syria, the project hung in the balance, and Suleimani was mounting a desperate fight, even if the price of victory was a sectarian conflict that engulfed the region for years.

Suleimani took command of the Quds Force fifteen years ago, and in that time he has sought to reshape the Middle East in Iran’s favor, working as a power broker and as a military force: assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned Suleimani for his role in supporting the Assad regime, and for abetting terrorism. And yet he has remained mostly invisible to the outside world, even as he runs agents and directs operations. “Suleimani is the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today,” John Maguire, a former C.I.A. officer in Iraq, told me, “and no one’s ever heard of him.”
The early months of 2013, around the time of Shateri’s death, marked a low point for the Iranian intervention in Syria. Assad was steadily losing ground to the rebels, who are dominated by Sunnis, Iran’s rivals. If Assad fell, the Iranian regime would lose its link to Hezbollah, its forward base against Israel. In a speech, one Iranian cleric said, “If we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”

Although the Iranians were severely strained by American sanctions, imposed to stop the regime from developing a nuclear weapon, they were unstinting in their efforts to save Assad. Among other things, they extended a seven-billion-dollar loan to shore up the Syrian economy. “I don’t think the Iranians are calculating this in terms of dollars,” a Middle Eastern security official told me. “They regard the loss of Assad as an existential threat.” For Suleimani, saving Assad seemed a matter of pride, especially if it meant distinguishing himself from the Americans. “Suleimani told us the Iranians would do whatever was necessary,” a former Iraqi leader told me. “He said, ‘We’re not like the Americans. We don’t abandon our friends.’”
For Suleimani, giving up Assad would mean abandoning the project of expansion that has occupied him for fifteen years. In a recent speech before the Assembly of Experts—the clerics who choose the Supreme Leader—he spoke about Syria in fiercely determined language. “We do not pay attention to the propaganda of the enemy, because Syria is the front line of the resistance and this reality is undeniable,’’ he said. “We have a duty to defend Muslims because they are under pressure and oppression.” Suleimani was fighting the same war, against the same foes, that he’d been fighting his entire life; for him, it seemed, the compromises of statecraft could not compare with the paradise of the battlefield. “We will support Syria to the end,” he said.

(These are extracts; it’s worth reading the article in full.)

More recently Filkins covered Suleimani’s achievements in Iraq. Aside from having American blood on his hands he’s also practically responsible for turning Iraq into an Iranian client state.

In September, 2010, with the Iraqi government stalled by inconclusive parliamentary elections, a group of political leaders was invited to the Iranian holy city of Qom for a celebration of the Eid al Fitr holiday. Once there, they were quietly summoned to a meeting of another sort. Their host was Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, the Iranian paramilitary corps. For nearly a decade, Suleimani had loomed over Iraq as a powerful, shadowy influence: he had flooded the country with agents, brokered political deals, and smuggled in sophisticated bombs to kill American soldiers. Iran’s goals in Iraq were twofold: to bleed the Americans and to bolster the power of its Shiite clients.
But it was the meeting with Suleimani that was ultimately decisive. According to American officials, he broke the Iraqi deadlock by leaning on Sadr to support Maliki, in exchange for control of several government ministries. Suleimani’s conditions for the new government were sweeping. Maliki agreed to make Jalal Talabani, the pro-Iranian Kurdish leader, the new President, and to neutralize the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, which was backed by the C.I.A. Most dramatic, he agreed to expel all American forces from the country by the end of 2011.

The U.S. obtained a transcript of the meeting, and knew the exact terms of the agreement. Yet it decided not to contest Iran’s interference. At a meeting of the National Security Council a month later, the White House signed off on the new regime.

Officials who had spent much of the previous decade trying to secure American interests in the country were outraged. “We lost four thousand five hundred Americans only to let the Iranians dictate the outcome of the war? To result in strategic defeat?” the former American diplomat told me. “Fuck that.” At least one U.S. diplomat in Baghdad resigned in protest.

And Ayad Allawi, the secular Iraqi leader who captured the most votes, was deeply embittered. “I needed American support,” he told me last summer. “But they wanted to leave, and they handed the country to the Iranians. Iraq is a failed state now, an Iranian colony.”

If Assad prevails, the “last castle of Arab dignity” will become yet another property in Iran’s portfolio. And just as the Lebanese rulers had to defer to his father, Bashar Al Assad, the “last Arab ruler”, will have to give the final word to Iran.

As to what’s happening in Syria now, we’re right to focus on the threat from Al Qaeda. However it’s vital not to forget that Iran too is an exporter of terrorism with the Al Quds Force spearheading it.

For the last 30 years the Iranian regime has been working on its expansionist project. If you do anything for 30 years you’re eventually going to get good at it. They already have Lebanon, Iraq is in their grip, and if Assad wins then Syria is next.