Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Hezbollah’s deadly role in an imminent, region-wide Sunni-Shiite war

From NOW magazine, February 22, 2013, by Hanin Ghaddar*:
Recent developments in Syria indicate that Iran has increased its support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad on more than one level. As Iran seems to have taken over military and logistical decisions, Hezbollah’s involvement has also expanded and intensified.
This is very bad news for Lebanon, and unless the Lebanese government and the Shia community take drastic measures to dissociate themselves from Hezbollah, Lebanon will not be spared from an imminent, region-wide sectarian war.
Last month, in a significant prisoner exchange between the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime, forty eight Iranians were hand-picked by the regime for release by the rebels, and not a single Syrian. This caused a wave of discontent among Assad supporters and fighters, who felt betrayed. Assad no doubt realizes that ill will among his already-shrinking popular base will not help his cause. This questionable decision indicates that Assad had no real say in the matter, and probably doesn’t on other issues either.
Then last week, Iranian official Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Taeb, head of the Ammar Strategic Base and a former Basij commander said that “Syria is [Iran’s] 35th [district] and a strategic province… If the enemy attacks us and intends to occupy either Syria or Khuzestan, the priority is that we keep Syria.” He also added that Iran suggested the Syrians establish their own Basij. “Syria then [must] set up its own Basij with an initial force of 60,000 Hezbollah forces and they [could] replace the regular army in dealing with the urban warfare."
If this statement had come out a month ago, no one would have believed Taeb. However, it has become obvious today that Hezbollah is involved in the bloodshed in Syria up to its neck, whether under a “Basij” or in a different form.
This dangerous reality has been acknowledged by Hezbollah officials who claim they are defending Shiite residents of Syria. This reality has put Lebanon and the Lebanese at a new crossroads that can only lead to bad scenarios. Hezbollah in Syria versus Jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra is a story that will not have a happy ending. Both are sectarian armed groups that will do anything and kill anyone to protect their presence and the power of their founders and funders. A Sunni-Shiite war is now no longer a scenario. It started when Hezbollah sent its fighter into Syria.
Hezbollah’s sending militants to Syria to fight against the rebels has a number of dangerous implications.
Hezbollah is not, as it claims to its supporters, a Lebanese party whose mission is to protect Lebanese people and territories. It is a militia which uses Lebanon as a geographical base from which to launch attacks against Iran’s enemies no matter where or who they are.
This means that Hezbollah will probably fight Iran’s war on other fronts as well. If Iran gets attacked by Israel or others, Hezbollah could retaliate.
Many Lebanese believed that the Party of God would never confront Israel if Iran was attacked because its leaders do not want to lose their arms or credibility among their supporters. Iran also prefers this scenario. However, becoming militarily involved in Syria raises this concern again, especially that this involvement will probably expand and increase.
The involvement so far is probably limited to the Shiite villages along the Lebanese-Syria border, and could have been stretched to Homs in order to link the Syrian coast to Damascus and Lebanon. This means that the Syrian regime, with major Iranian support, could be planning an Alawite/Shiite enclave that will be connected to Lebanon. However, this enclave can only hold up if it is protected militarily for years to come, to avoid possible ethnic cleansing. Hezbollah, in this scenario, could be asked to stay around to protect and defend this area to preserve the linkage to Lebanon, mainly to Shiite areas.
Their involvement in terms of presence and use of arms could develop and grow as the crisis does. The Party of God could find itself managing a war against Sunni Jihadists for a very long time, mainly because these jihadists can no longer see the difference between Assad’s regime and Hezbollah.
So Hezbollah has decided to be part of an upcoming regional war, and to drag Lebanon into it. The war between Alawite/Shiite fighters and Sunni jihadists will not stay within the parameters of Qusayr along the Lebanese-Syrian borders. The spillover of the Syrian crisis to Lebanon will possibly take the form of increased military clashes in more than one area in Lebanon. Jihadists from both groups will not limit their clashes to Syrian territories and become friends back at home.
The problem is that entire Sunni and Shiite communities in Lebanon will be dragged into this war. Al-Nusra and other Jihadists groups in Syria have already defined themselves along sharp sectarian lines. And Hezbollah entered the sectarian game the moment they claimed they are defending the Shia in Syria.
By ‘defending Shiites in Syria’ Hezbollah is exposing the Shiites in Lebanon, as usual, to a very dangerous front. This time the price is going to be very high, as no Shiite will ever be trusted, and no Shiite will be spared.
It is convenient to blame Hezbollah for the dark days to come, but if we look inside, it is unsettling to see that the Lebanese government is not doing anything about it. The Shiites are not really doing anything about it either. Some actually believe that Hezbollah needs to protect this bridge in Syria to secure the passage of arms, while others are just afraid to look the other way. They do not want to see the reality, or do anything about it.
If the Shiites in Lebanon don’t do anything now, in the context of a strong condemnation of Hezbollah’s behavior, they will have only themselves to blame when things get bloody.

*Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW. She tweets @haningdr

Iran Celebrates Limited Victory After Latest P5+1 Talks

From Al-Monitor, February 27, by Meir Javedanfar*:
Some Iranian conservatives seem to view the latest round of talks with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) in Kazakhstan as a victory.
According to an article published today in the Iranian conservative site Mashregh news:
After eight months of resistance by the people of Iran against excessive Western demands, finally the P5+1 agreed to negotiate within the framework of Iran’s recommendation in Moscow. This development is a major step in the negotiation process and a victory for the people of Iran.

Mashregh is close to the hard-line wing of the conservative Osulgarayan faction, which is also close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Its view that the latest round of negotiations can be seen as a victory by Iran is right. It is a victory, albeit a limited one.
According to Laura Rozen’s report from the talks in Almaty, Iran was offered more than in the previous rounds in Baghdad and Moscow. For example, in the latest round of negotiations, the updated P5+1 proposal “would allow Iran to keep a certain amount of its 20%-enriched uranium needed for medical use.” This could be viewed as a victory for Iran, as the P5+1 has now backed off from its initial demands that Iran ship out its entire stock of 20%-enriched uranium.
Furthermore, the updated P5+1 proposal calls for the “suspension” of enrichment to 20%, whereas in previous rounds it called for Iran to stop enrichment at Fordow and to close down the site.
In its article, Mashregh attributes Iran’s strengthening position against the West to what it sees as Iran’s successes during the past eight months since the last round of negotiations in Moscow. These include the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran which took place last August. Mashregh also cites Iran’s progress in science and its economy, such as the value of the Tehran Stock Exchange increasing by 62%. It also goes on to include the participation of the Iranian public in pro-government demonstrations celebrating the 34th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.
Such a message is likely to be used by the supreme leader and his supporters to say that the P5+1 has acknowledged Iran's strength, and that this is why the group has improved its offer since the last time.
Furthermore, the new and seemingly improved offer from the P5+1 comes at a good time for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. With infighting increasing within the senior ranks of the regime, the latest offer could distract attention away from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s shenanigans.
What's equally important is the fact that although the new offer is better than the previous ones, it still falls short of Iran’s demands of an end to sanctions, which is very likely to make it easier for Khamenei to reject the latest compromises.
In fact, one could say that Khamenei is lucky that the P5+1 did not make a much better offer, one that would be harder for him to reject. Had that happened, it would have placed Khamenei in a serious bind. Rejecting such a deal would have made it far easier for the US to isolate Iran and for the EU to impose additional sanctions, while accepting and reaching a deal with the P5+1 would have handed Ahmadinejad a victory right before the upcoming presidential elections. Were that to occur, Ahmadinejad could use it as a tool to boost the stance and credibility of his own candidates. He would also be able to use an agreement with the P5+1 during his term as president as a tool to openly confront his opponents within the regime with more vigor, something which Iran’s supreme leader does not want.
In the long run, however, the economic and political pressure on Iran's supreme leader is unlikely to abate. Iran's economy is in the doldrums while the regime's isolation is growing daily. Khamenei seems to believe that time is on Iran's side. According to his speech on October 10, 2012, he believes that “it is the West which has economic problems. They should know that the Islamic Republic will overcome these problems and they will again regret losing to the people of Iran.” In other words, it seems as far as Iran's most powerful man is concerned, the regime will ultimately withstand the sanctions, and it is the West who will ultimately dismantle them because it can't live without Iran's oil. So it's worth Iran's while to wait for now. Once the West returns with cap in hand, Iran can then call the shots.
In reality, this is very unlikely to happen. The EU has learned to live without Iran's oil. The Chinese and the Russians are in no hurry to help Iran break out of the sanctions, as both are using them to their own advantage.y
Once the presidential elections are over, Khamenei will have to make some tough choices. What could make the situation far worse for him is that if the P5+1 does offer a better deal, such as lifting oil sanctions. In return, Iran would be asked to close down Fordow and ship out all of its 20%-enriched uranium as a first step to a larger deal. Refusal to do so could create renewed infighting within the regime, something Khamenei is hoping to see the end of once Ahmadinejad leaves office.
The P5+1's failure to produce a more enticing offer has helped Khamenei until recently. In fact, one of the reasons why the latest offer can be viewed as a limited victory for Iran is because the two previous offers by the P5+1 have been so poor, there was nowhere to go but up.
*Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst. He teaches the Contemporary Iranian Politics Course at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. He tweets as @Meirja.

Hugo Chavez dead

From Reuters,  Tue Mar 5, 2013, by Andrew Cawthorne and Daniel Wallis: 

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has died after a two-year battle with cancer, ending the socialist leader's 14-year rule of the South American country...
... millions of supporters ...adored his charismatic style, anti-U.S. rhetoric and oil-financed policies that brought subsidized food and free health clinics to long-neglected slums.
Detractors, however, saw his one-man style, gleeful nationalizations and often harsh treatment of opponents as traits of an egotistical dictator whose misplaced statist economics wasted a historic bonanza of oil revenues.
Chavez's death opens the way for a new election that will test whether his socialist "revolution" can live on without his dominant personality at the helm.

The vote should be held within 30 days and will likely pit [Vice President Nicolas] Maduro against Henrique Capriles, the centrist opposition leader and state governor who lost to Chavez in the October election.
One recent opinion poll gave Maduro a strong lead.
Maduro is Chavez's preferred successor, enjoys support among many of the working class and could benefit from an inevitable surge of emotion in the coming days.
But the president's death could also trigger in-fighting in a leftist coalition that ranges from hard-left intellectuals to army officers and businessmen.
Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves and some of the most heavily traded bonds, so investors will be highly sensitive to any signs of political instability.
A defeat for Maduro would bring major changes to Venezuela and could also upend its alliances with Latin American countries that have relied on Chavez's oil-funded largesse - most notably with communist-led Cuba, which recovered from financial ruin in the 1990s thanks largely to Chavez's aid.
Chavez was a garrulous figurehead for a global "anti-imperialist" alliance stretching as far as Belarus and Iran, and he will be sorely missed by anti-U.S. agitators.