August 2, 2006 | National Review Online

Tehran & Damascus Move to Lebanon

Lebanon-born Walid Phares is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Author of the recent book Future Jihad, he was also one of the architects of 2004's United Nations resolution 1559, which called for the disarming of Hezbollah. NRO editor Kathryn Lopez recently talked to Phares about what's going on in the Mideast, what happened to the Cedar Revolution, and this war we're all in.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What is “Future Jihad”? Are we seeing it in the Mideast now?

Walid Phares: “Future Jihad,” which has already begun, refers to a new and potent form of Islamic terrorism, characterized by a Khumeinist-Baathist axis. These are the two trees of jihadism, so to speak — the Salafism and Wahabism embodied in al Qaeda and the sort of jihadism led by Iran and also including Syria, Hezbollah, and their allies in Lebanon.

The alliance has not been in entire agreement as to strategy. The al Qaeda branch began its “Future Jihad” in the 1990s; its efforts culminated on 9/11 and have continued explosively since then. The international “Salafists” aimed at the U.S. in the past decade in order to strengthen their jihads on various battlefields (Chechnya, India, Sudan, Algeria, Indonesia, Palestine, etc.). “Weaken the resolve of America,” their ideologues said, “and the jihadists would overwhelm all the regional battlefields.”

As I argue in Future Jihad, bin Laden and his colleagues miscalculated on the timing of the massive attack against the U.S. in 2001. While they wounded America, they didn't kill its will to fight (as was the case, for instance, in the Madrid 3/11 attacks). I have heard many jihadi cadres online, and have seen al Jazeera commentators on television, offering hints of criticism about the timing. They were blaming al Qaeda for shooting its imagined “silver bullet” before insuring a strategic follow up. But bin Laden and Zawahiri believe 9/11 served them well, and has put a global mobilization into motion. Perhaps it has, but the U.S. counter strategy in the Middle East, chaotic as the region currently appears, has unleashed counter jihadi forces. The jury is still out as to the time factor: when these forces will begin to weaken the jihadists depends on our perseverance and the public understanding of the whole conflict.

The other “tree” of jihadism, with its roots in Iran, withheld fire after 9/11. They were content to watch the Salafists fight it out with the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention within the West, as terror cells were hunted down. Ahmedinejad, Assad, and Nasrallah were analyzing how far the US would go, and how far the Sunnis and Salafis would go as well.

The fall of the Taliban and of the Baath in Iraq, however, changed Iran and Syria's patient plans. The political changes in the neighborhood, regardless of their immediate instability, were strongly felt in Tehran and Damascus (but unfortunately not in the U.S., judging from the political debate here), and pushed the Khumeinists and the Syrian Baathists to enter the dance, but carefully. Assad opened his borders to the jihadists in an attempt to crumble the U.S. role in Iraq, while Iran articulated al Sadr's ideology for Iraq's Shiia majority.

A U.S.-led response came swiftly in 2004 with the voting of UNSCR 1559, smashing Syria's role in Lebanon and forcing Assad to withdraw his troops by April 2005. In response, the “axis” prepared for a counter attack on the Lebanese battlefield by assassinating a number of the Cedar Revolution leaders, including MP Jebran Tueni. In short, the attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah and the kidnappings of soldiers were the tip of an offensive aimed at drawing attention away from Iran's nuclear weapons programs and Syria's assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. Hezbollah was awaiting its moment for revenge against the Cedar Revolution too.

What we see now is 1) a Syro-Iranian sponsored offensive aimed at all democracies in the region and fought in Lebanon; 2) Israel's counter offensive (which it seems to have prepared earlier); and 3) an attempt by Hezbollah to take over or crumble the Lebanese government.

Lopez: So…did the Cedar Revolution fail?

Phares: Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the Cedar Revolution was failed. The masses in Lebanon responded courageously in March 2005 by putting 1.5 million people on the streets of Beirut. They did it without “no-fly-zones,” expeditionary forces, or any weapons at all, for that matter, and against the power of three regimes, Iran, Syria, and pro-Syrian Lebanon, in addition to Hezbollah terror. The “revolution” was for a time astoundingly successful; since then it has been horribly failed, and first of all by Lebanon's politicians themselves. One of their leaders, General Michel Aoun, shifted his allegiances to Syria and signed a document with Hezbollah. Other politicians from the “March 14 Movement” then stopped the demonstrations, leaving them with the support of God knows what. They failed in removing the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud and brought back a pro-Syrian politician to serve as a speaker of the house, Nabih Berri. Meanwhile, even as they were elected by the faithful Cedar Revolution masses, they engaged in a round table dialogue with Hezbollah, a clear trap set by Hassan Nasrallah: “Let's talk about the future,” he said — with the implication, of course, that they forget about the Cedar Revolution and the militia's disarming. While political leaders sat for months, enjoying the photo ops with Hassan Nasrallah, he was preparing his counter offensive, which he unleashed just a few days before the Security Council would discuss the future of Iran's nuclear programs.

The Lebanese government of Prime Minister Seniora also abandoned the Cedar Revolution. His cabinet neither disarmed Hezbollah nor called on the U.N. to help in implementing UNSCR 1559. This omission is baffling. The government was given so much support by the international community and, more importantly, overwhelming popular support inside Lebanon: 80 percent of the people were hoping the Cedar Revolution-backed government would be the one to resume the liberation of the country. Now Hezbollah has an upper hand and the government is on the defensive.

The U.S. and its allies can be accused of certain shortcomings as well. While the speeches by the U.S. president, congressional leaders from both parties, Tony Blair, and Jacques Chirac were right on target regarding Lebanon, and while the U.S. and its counterparts on the Security Council were diligent in their follow up on the Hariri assassination and on implementing UNSCR 1559, there was no policy or plan to support the popular movement in Lebanon. Incredibly, while billions were spent on the war of ideas in the region, Lebanese NGOs that wanted to resume the struggle of the Cedar Revolution and fighting alone for this purpose were not taken seriously at various levels. Policy planners thought they were dealing with the “Cedar Revolution” when they were meeting Lebanon's government and Lebanese politicians. The difference between the high level speeches on Lebanon and the laissez-faire approach from lower levels is amazing. Simply put, there was no policy on supporting the Cedar Revolution against the three regimes opposing it and the $400 million received by Hezbollah from Iran.

The Cedar Revolution was basically betrayed by its own politicians and is now essentially without a head. Nevertheless, as long as the international support remains, the Revolution will find its way and will face the dangers. The one and a half million ordinary citizens who braved all the dangers didn't change their minds about Hezbollah's terror. The resistance and counter-attack was to be expected. Unfortunately, thus far Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah have outmaneuvered the West and are at the throats of the Cedar Revolution. The international community must revise its plans, and, if it is strongly backed by the U.S. and its allies, including France, the situation can be salvaged. The good seeds are still inside the country.

Lopez: Is Israeli bombing in Lebanon getting Israel anywhere?

Phares: I would ask the larger question: What is Israel's plan in Lebanon? If its plan is mainly to bomb the infrastructure until a major political change occurs, it is unlikely to succeed. Analysts do not assume that this is the Israeli plan, since Hezbollah's strategic ability to reemerge won't be eliminated from the skies. Besides, all competent experts on Lebanon know that bombing until the Lebanese government does something also won't work. This government, which failed to request international intervention when the conditions were favorable and has included Hezbollah and pro-Syrian ministers in its cabinet, is completely paralyzed.

A continuous “bombing-only” approach would hugely degrade Hezbollah's infrastructure, but would also lead to the collapse of this government and the formation of a radical pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian government in Beirut. There would be a cease fire then, and Israel would get a year of respite, maybe less, before the Iranians and the Syrians would re-arm the new Hezbollah-led government in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Cedar Revolution would be massacred and regional pressures would revert to Iraq.

Israel's war with Hezbollah is not about the kidnapped soldiers or Katiushas. It is about Hezbollah's attempt to remain a state within a state, and, along with Syria, to threaten Israel with missiles while Iran completes its nuclear armament. The rest can be easily imagined. And as long as there is no strategic change in Lebanon, starting with Hezbollah's disarming and having international forces taking the control of the Lebanese-Syrian and Lebanese-Israeli borders, the bombings may give Israel some time, but will eventually transform Lebanon into an extension of Iran.

Israel is stating that its war with Hezbollah is part of the war on terror, and it has many convincing arguments for the American public that support this. But many Lebanese can't see this, especially when they see bombings and destruction and can hear only the propaganda machine of Hezbollah. It is simple: if there is no voice to explain this to the Lebanese, if there is no radio station and no TV station to reach out to them on a daily basis, they will hear only what al Manar, al Jazeera, and local pro-Syrian TVs are saying. The Lebanese People need to hear strong words from the international community about the reasons and hopes for which these forces have been dispatched and Hezbollah is being disarmed.

Lopez: Is there really any hope that the Lebanese, in the long run, will understand why Israel had to bomb?

Phares: First, consider what the Lebanese want. They are under tremendous pressures today, and they have multiple opinions about what has been happening to their country over the past decades. Last year the demonstrations revealed that a popular majority of Lebanese — mostly Sunnis, Druses, and Christians — opposed for a variety of reasons the Syrian occupation of their country and the arms of Hezbollah. The signs in support of UNSCR 1559 are clear evidence of what Lebanon's majority — which massed 1.5 million people on the streets — wanted and still wants. But keep in mind that Hezbollah and the pro-Syrian groups have direct militia control over the large Shiia community. With the support of Iran, Syria, and the Lebanese regime of Lahoud, Hezbollah put about 300,000 people on the streets of the capital. Thousands of Syrian and Palestinian persons were part of the pro-Syria demonstration.

Nevertheless, the majority of the Lebanese people have spoken, and they were seen and heard by the world in 2005. In short, free Lebanon is not with Hezbollah but is a hostage to it. The Lebanese would have preferred to see their government and army disarm Hezbollah with the support of an international coalition. Indeed, there was no other option. Had this been implemented in 2005-2006, the Israel-Hezbollah war wouldn't have happened, and the Lebanese wouldn't have needed to understand these Israeli air raids.

As far as what the Lebanese feel about these strikes, here is the simple answer: Those in support of Hezbollah and Syria and their respective ideologies haven't changed their view of Israel and will consider it an enemy whether there are bombings or not. The strikes only increase the hatred, especially since Hezbollah controls the media.

However, with regards to those who marched in the Cedar Revolution on March 14 and who constitute the majority in Lebanon, it is a more complex issue. There are a variety of related positions. Unfortunately, the world cannot see every nuance through the lenses of international media, especially while Hezbollah security is around. Generally speaking, the popular majority still wants Hezbollah disarmed and is concerned that what they see so far is not an indication that this will be done. Simply put, they don't see the link between the air strikes and their being able to get rid of Hezbollah once a cease fire takes effect. Many Lebanese we speak to, including politicians, social and spiritual leaders, NGOs, etc., tell us that they don't understand what the relation is between taking out bridges in northern Lebanon or blowing up a manufacturing plant in Mount Lebanon and the disarming of Hezbollah.

Most Lebanese aren't naïve; they try to understand the process, but no one is explaining it to them. Their basic sentiment is this: If these bombings — which were provoked initially by Hezbollah's action — will lead to the implementation of 1559, and an international intervention in this sense, so be it; but Lebanon was destroyed several times by the Syrians, the PLO, and in several confrontations since 1975, including fighting among the Lebanese themselves, and 185,000 people have been killed without Lebanon obtaining real freedom; striking Hezbollah and pushing it to the north of the Israeli-Lebanese borders without disarming it will leave the country to Syria and Iran; but if this war — initiated by Iran and Syria — is the one to end the wars in Lebanon, we need to hear it from the international community today — this is what all the Lebanese leaders I've spoken with are telling me.

Lopez: Will the Lebanese people reject Hezbollah, realizing it puts them on the wrong side of the good guys in the war against terrorism?

Phares: Again, the Lebanese already rejected Hezbollah during the Cedar Revolution. They started demonstrating while they were under Syrian occupation and threatened by Hezbollah and other militias. Alone, without international support, with no military invasions and no funding, the youth, women, and elderly of Lebanon stood courageously, unarmed, with the world campaign against terrorism. Their determination was so powerful that Assad himself was shocked and vowed revenge. Hassan Nasrallah promised Assad he would double the marchers with his Iranian-dollars and lined up an army on the streets, just to be shocked again by the massive response by the people of Lebanon. The Cedar Revolution emptied every single village outside of Hezbollah's control and gathered them in front of the world cameras to send the forceful message: No to Syria's occupation and no to Hezbollah's weapons and terror.

After the Syrian withdrawal, many leaders were assassinated because of their role in the anti-Hezbollah resistance, among them Samir Qassir, George Hawi, and Jebran Tueni, the charismatic leader of the youth and liberal MP. The areas that supported the anti-Hezbollah uprising were subjected to several bombings, leaving many citizens killed and maimed. May Chidiac, the leading female anchor covering the protests, lost a leg and an arm in a car bombing. Lebanon's resistance to Hezbollah has paid a tribute in blood and tears, and one should not overlook that.

The Lebanese have been unlucky with many of their politicians, but a second generation of leaders is ready to move forward. In addition, the Lebanese Diaspora, four times the size of Lebanon's population, has not only sided with the coalition against terrorism worldwide but has provided many talents in this war on many levels. Lebanese abroad are at the forefront of the war of ideas, along with other Mideast and Arab democracy activists. And it was thanks to the actions of Lebanese-Americans that the Syria Accountability Act was passed in Congress, just as it was thanks to the lobbying efforts of world Lebanese Diaspora leaders that the idea of UNSCR 1559 was put forth.

When a U.S. official asked me in March 2004 if I thought the Lebanese people would dare reject the Syrian occupation if a U.N. resolution were passed, I told him: “You come half way and issue the resolution and the Lebanese masses will meet you half way.” And this is what happened a year later. And today again, I have the same estimate: Let the multinational force show its flags over the shores of Lebanon, and you'll see a Cedar Revolution rejecting Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. Don't ask an unarmed population to do what neither Afghans, Iraqis, or for that matter any other people have done: fight terror with bare hands.

Lopez: Is there really any way for Israel to defeat terrorism?

Phares: Terrorism is not the responsibility of one nation or one government to defeat or find a solution to. Each country has its own views on and public understanding of the problem, and its own strategies for dealing with it. Israel has its own policies; so do, for example, Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt, as well as Europe, India, Russia, and the United States. Even some Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the new Iraq, have their own struggle with the terror forces they are confronting. International terrorism, however, is fighting all these governments and nations as one global force, and it benefits from the divisions among its enemies. The Saudi wants to achieve one objective, which is to take out al Qaeda's cells from their midst, and they criticize the U.S.'s approach to the global war on terror. So does Russia, even though it would do anything to resist the Chechen Wahabis. Pakistan wants to uproot those al Qaeda who planned on assassinating its president, but would raise protests if a U.S. missile missed the same wanted terrorists. Obviously many countries, including all Arab countries, criticize Israel on its own war on terror, but would go after the same threat if it faced them. What is lacking here is an international agreement on what the war on terror is. That will only come about as progress is made in the war of ideas.

Lopez: What should/can be done about Syria and Iran?

Phares: What should have been done about these two regimes is one thing; what can be done about them now is something else. Bad advice has been given by Western and American academic elites, beginning in the 1980s, about jihadism and the regimes that supported it. In my book Future Jihad I argue that the international community and the West are paying the price of bad decisions or indecisions in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In American classrooms, instructors who were supposed to be the experts on the region praised the Assad regime and considered Hezbollah a resistance movement, not a jihadi terror group. Many businessmen and diplomats viewed Iran's leadership as realist and capable of engagement in the 1990s. A complete myopia was dominant in our international policy, with implications for our national security. This began to change after 9/11, but not without an astounding debate revealing weaknesses in our political establishment's vision of the world. Nevertheless, at this point in time the two regimes have revealed to the world that they are a real axis of menace. Two things are to be done at this point: First, defeat this axis in Lebanon at any price and with the support of the Lebanese people. That is crucial because Tehran and Damascus have decided to make their stand in Lebanon. Then, isolate these regimes and provide endless support to the reformists in their countries until change is initiated by the people.


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