No good news in the Middle East
The Islamic State (IS) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (an al-Qaeda affiliate, known earlier as the Nusra Front) have effectively been ejected from Lebanese territory by the army there. The latest twist in Middle East politics is the recent Lebanese experience.
The Lebanese are having to deal with the presence of the Hezbollah and Israeli and Saudi wariness about the Shia group and its principal ally, Iran. The Lebanese do not have any particular love for the State of Israel which had invaded the country in 1982 in the midst of a civil war that was fought along sectarian lines and ended up with the emergence of the Hezbollah as a dominant force in Lebanese politics.
All this is history of course. Today, a fragile coalition government is in place and the recent attempts to interfere with local politics have shown that Lebanon could once again become the centrepiece of yet another proxy war among Sunni and Shia players in the region. As the Syrian conflict draws to a close, Lebanon sits with the Hezbollah in government—a militia that was at the forefront of all Shia groups which fought alongside the Assad regime against not just the IS, but other, more moderate Sunni opposition groups that had the blessings of major Sunni powers including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).
Today, there is talk of Iran's militias making bases in Syria. Although this is more hearsay than fact at this point, it would be premature to rule anything out at present. That country is a mess. Years of war have left Syria bereft of infrastructure, which will take billions of dollars and years to rebuild. Millions of people have been displaced and hundreds of thousands killed. The peace that is sought by most Syrians may be some way off as former coalition partners differ greatly as to what a post-conflict Syria should look like. It would be futile to think that the thousands of Shia fighters who fought against Sunni extremists like the IS and other like-minded groups would pack up and leave without having some sort of guarantees at the negotiating table.
Yet, Lebanon, a country that managed to stay largely insulated from the war in neighbouring Syria, finds itself embroiled in rising tensions between KSA and Iran and the fears of becoming a proxy battleground are not far-fetched. The Hariri incident has left a mark in the collective Lebanese psyche—Shia and Sunni alike.
For Israel, Hezbollah is an entity that has no right to exist. Of all the opposition to Israel, Hezbollah represents a threat which has survived Israeli onslaught and, in light of the Syrian conflict, this group has found itself thrown into the limelight. That the group now has a president in Lebanon must make Israeli policymakers squirm. But to decapitate Hezbollah, one would have to take on Iran. Iran is also the arch-nemesis of KSA and other Sunni-dominated ruling houses of Arab nations. A setback for Hezbollah in Lebanon could be the first step against a war with Iran.
With President Trump painting crosshairs on Iran and its proxies, we have divergent interests coming together on the Hezbollah question. If we look at the group's capabilities today, a recent report by janes.com outlines the situation as follows: "Hizbullah has greatly expanded its capabilities since 2006 in terms of force strength, weaponry, equipment, training, and experience. All of this, plus more than four years of battlefield experience in Syria, led the Israeli think tank, the Institute for National Security Studies, to conclude in January that Hizbullah was the 'most determined and best trained' force threatening Israel and therefore the 'gravest military threat' the country faced....Since 2006, Hizbullah has built its capabilities in readiness for another conflict with Israel. Jane's assesses that recruitment soared from around 3,000 full-time and part-time fighters in 2006 to more than 25,000 fully trained and active combatants in 2017, with perhaps another 20,000–30,000 reservists."
On the other end of the spectrum, the investigative report by BBC titled "Raqqa's Dirty Secret" blows wide open the West's collusion with SDF and some Kurdish factions that allowed hundreds of hardened IS fighters to leave the city with their families and heavy weaponry. When the news hit, there was denial at first and then damage control mechanisms deployed in an effort to first downplay the whole incident. The news was, in fact, largely ignored by major international outlets.
It would be naïve to think that the US game plan in Syria will allow it to go for reconstruction under Assad. It would be safe to assume that a large contingent of Raqqa fighters have reached the safe haven of territory still controlled by the IS. Assad remains a thorn on the side of the West and certain Arab nations—and one shouldn't be surprised at the continuation of a low-intensity war kept alive in Syria to bleed Assad's forces and irritate Russia. Should such a scenario emerge, the Hezbollah forces presently engaged in Syria will remain bogged down there indefinitely.
Despite all the bluster coming out of Tel Aviv, there is no major reason to think another war is imminent in the Middle East. Wars are both expensive to fight and impossible to control from faraway capitals. Given the possibility that the Syrian conflict is now going to evolve into a proxy war, Hezbollah will probably think many times over before engaging into an open warfare with its arch enemy Israel.
Similarly, there is little to indicate that the US will get into any serious military confrontation with Iran, because that would inevitably draw in Russia and China which have serious strategic and economic reasons to do so. What will in all probability happen of course is what has been stated earlier. We will be seeing the emergence of low-intensity insurgency through a series of proxy wars all across the Middle East that will involve hiring of mercenaries to do the bidding of foreign powers. Keeping the entire region disturbed indefinitely is an excellent way to keep orders for military hardware rolling in while making it very expensive for Russia to maintain a regional presence.
Syed Mansur Hashim is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.