The last few days have been a difficult period for the Middle East and its partner states. The attacks by Hamas and then Hizbollah on Israel were unexpected but, unfortunately, predictable. They derive from the needs of Iran to take pressure off its program of nuclear military capabilities and the internal Iranian debate which threatens Ahmedinejad's ability to dictate Iranian military direction without reference to the ayatollahs and the moderates. The question of what one does to Iran in the light of this is not immediately obvious. What is clear is that the best response is to promote regime change in Syria.
The key to this is in the nature of Syrian politics. The Assad clique which runs Syria is Alawis; a minority group within the Syrian state. They are followers of an Ismaili belief system that incorporates aspects of both Shi'a and Sunni Islam and some Christian beliefs; Alawis celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Epiphany. In fact the Turkish Alevi (a Turkish variant) maintain that they are not Muslims as all. The majority Sunni communities agree and view the Alawi as largely a cultural group rather than a heterodox Muslim sect. The Sunni ordered them to build mosques, but no one worshipped there so they were abandoned. Because many of the tenets of the faith are secret, Alawis have refused to discuss their faith with outsiders. Only an elect few learn the religion after a lengthy process of initiation; youths are initiated into the secrets of the faith in stages. Their prayer book, the source of religious instruction, is the Kitab al Majmu, believed to be derived from Ismaili writings. The Alawis, of whom there are about 1,350,000 in Syria and Lebanon, constitute Syria's largest religious minority. They are often called by other names as well - they have been called Nusayris, Nusairis, Namiriya or Ansariyya. They live chiefly along the coast in Al Ladhiqiyah Province, where they form over 60 percent of the rural population.
For several centuries, the Alawis enjoyed autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, but, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Ottomans imposed direct rule. Regarding the Alawis as infidels, the Ottomans consistently persecuted them and imposed heavy taxation. During the French Mandate, the Alawis briefly gained territorial autonomy, but direct rule was reimposed in 1936. For centuries, the Alawis constituted Syria's most repressed and exploited minority. Most were indentured servants and tenant farmers or sharecroppers working for Sunni landowners. Because of their outcast status, many government jobs were off-limits to them and they never prospered in business. They mobilised out of their rural setting by joining the Army. They rose in the ranks and were the key elements n the Syrian Baath Party.
The other Baath Party was in Iraq and the two main branches of the Baath Party have controlled both Iraq and Syria for nearly forty years. The Arabic word baath means "resurrection" or "renaissance." The party had its origins in the desire of Syrian secular Arab nationalists to break with their feudal past and to create a new form of government for Arab countries. The Baath Party was officially founded in 1947 and sought to create a secular and socialist culture in Arab countries. The Baath Party was able to establish itself in Syria in 1954. The Baath Party established itself in Iraq in 1963. In Syria, Hafez Assad originally led the party which was dominated by the Alawi (about 12% of the Syrian nation) and supported by the network of Alawi in the army and the national intelligence establishment. In Iraq, Baath had trouble holding on to power; but by the late 1960s, the Baath was in full control, and Saddam Hussein was running the party. That created a problem, however, as both Assad and Hussein insisted that their branch of the party was running the international Baath movement. The two men could not agree on who was in charge, and became bitter enemies. The Iraqi Baathists were almost exclusively Sunni while Syrian Baathists were primarily Alawi.
When Saddam was deposed in 2003, many senior Iraqi Baath Party members fled to Syria, and made peace with the Syrian branch of the party. This put the Syrian Baath Party in a tough position. Bashar Assad had taken over in Syria when his father died in 2000. Bashar was not groomed to run the country, but instead trained as a doctor. However, his older brother, the heir apparent, died in an accident, and it was up to Bashar to keep things together. Even worse, Al Qaeda considers Alawites just as heretical, and worthy of death, as the Shiites. To further complicate this situation, Syria has long been an ally of Shia Iran, mainly because Iran was a long-time enemy of Iraq.
The Syrian Baathists, after its founding, soon gave up any notion of Arab socialism and became a corrupt police state. In 1982 Hafez Assad banned all other political parties except the Baath. He had them ruthlessly dissolved; their leaders killed or subject to involuntary exile. The free press of Syria was outlawed. The only newspapers that were allowed into circulation were official Baath papers.
The people of Syria eventually grew unhappy with these turns of events. A new political party was formed; the Muslim Brotherhood. This Muslim Brotherhood attracted a lot of support from unhappy Syrians, most Sunni (and with some support from Egypt). The Muslim Brotherhood embarked upon a program to overthrow Assad. They made their presence known with demonstrations and protest marches and soon gathered a lot of support. In response, Hafez Assad deployed his army to make such an example of the Muslim Brotherhood that no man would ever dare challenge his rule again. One centre of opposition was the city of Hama. Hafez Assad decided that Hama would be the staging point of the example he was to make to the Syrian people. In the twilight hours of February the 2nd, 1982, the city of Hama was awakened by loud explosions. The Syrian air force began to drop their bombs on the city. The initial bombing run cost the city only a few casualties. Its main purpose had been to disable the roads so that no-one could escape. Earlier in the night, Syrian tanks and artillery systems had surrounded Hama. With the conclusion of the air bombing run, the tanks and artillery began their relentless shelling of the town. Thousands died. As homes crumbled upon their living occupants and the smell of charred skin filled the streets, a few residents managed to escape the shelling and started to flee. They were met by the Syrian army under Rifaat Assad (Hafez's brother) which had surrounded the city; they were all shot dead. The artillery barrage was followed by waves of Syrian soldiers. They quickly converged onto the town killing anything that moved. Groups of soldiers rounded up men, women, and children only to shoot them in the back of the head. After the majority of the people in Hama were dead, the soldiers began looting. They took all that they could from the now empty homes. Some were seen picking through the dead civilians looking for money, watches, and rings. Finally the soldiers withdrew. The final horror was yet to come. To make sure that no person was left alive in the rubble and buildings, the Syrian army brought in poison gas generators. Cyanide gas filled the air of Hama. Bulldozers were later used to turn the city into a giant flat area. The lessons of the Hama Massacre were not lost on the Syrian population and an already deep dissatisfaction with the Alawi grew deeper.
It was this same group of unrestrained and vicious military leaders who marched into Lebanon with the Syrian Army and occupied the Lebanon as a protectorate in 1976. Assad wanted to prevent Lebanese sectarian warfare from spilling over into Syria and had to be certain that Lebanon maintained a unified front with Syria in any negotiations with Israel, especially after 1979. As Syria has very little resources, Lebanon provided a free trade zone and a place to extort money. They did not want to leave the Lebanon. This is why no one had any doubts that it was the Syrians who assassinated Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese prime Minister, or blew up several journalists.
The withdrawal of Syrian troops was confirmed by the UN Security Council and enshrined in Resolution 1559 of 2 September 2004. In it are four key points:
1 Reaffirms its call for the strict respect of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity, and political independence of Lebanon under the sole and exclusive authority of the Government of Lebanon throughout Lebanon;
2 Calls upon all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon;
3 Calls for the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias;
4 Supports the extension of the control of the Government of Lebanon over all Lebanese territory.
Despite the withdrawal of the Syrian troops there was still a well-organised Lebanese militia force operating in Lebanon in defiance of Resolution 1559 — the Hezbollah (God's Party). The Hezbollah were funded, guided and supplied from Iran with the direct help of the Syrians.
Iran created the Hizbollah after Israeli troops stormed into Beirut in 1982. Initially trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the group continues to receive extensive funding and weapons from Tehran, including the arsenal of more than 13,000 short- and medium-range rockets and missiles now being used to attack Israel. The traditional Alawi-Iranian ties were maintained during the Syrian Occupation, primarily as a safeguard against Saddam Hussein's Sunni Baathists. The Bashar Assad Government was weak and in need of any help it could get. Bashar lives in dread of his uncles, especially Rifaat, returning to the country and claiming his Presidency; especially since the Alawi elite in the army and intelligence services had long and profitable, alliances with Rifaat. The Syrian occupiers of Lebanon had no interest in enforcing Resolution 1559 (except for their own departure) and the Lebanese Government, weak and initially pro-Syrian, had no interest or capability to curb Hezbollah. The Hezbollah are essentially Shia, living in the southern suburbs of Beirut and as militia soldiers in South Lebanon from which the Israelis withdrew after an 18 year occupation.
There are less than 60% of the Lebanese who are Muslims of any kind (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Isma'ilite, Alawite or Nusayri), and almost 40% Christian (Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Copt, or Protestants). The Shia are less than 20% of the population and less than 8% are active in Hezbollah. However, having fought a long civil war, based on the Lebanese religious divide, no one wanted to resume the civil struggle.
There is a considerable body of evidence which shows that the recent attack by Hezbollah on Israel which precipitated this crisis was at the instigation of Iran and was supported by Syria. Iran has many reasons for its actions. It is divided at home by the resistance of substantial sections of the Iranian body politic, especially the bazaaris, the students and the unions to the primitive policies of Ahmedinejad; it fears the international community's resistance to its nuclear technology program; and it is trying to secure regional hegemony through its Iraqi Shia allies and with Syria. The attack by Hezbollah on Israel moved forward this agenda.
Israel has responded by attacking Hezbollah strongholds in the Lebanon and destroying a substantial proportion of the Lebanese infrastructure. This was certainly inevitable after the first Hezbollah rocket attack into Northern Israel. Iran is wary of a long and protracted conflict. They don't want to have to replenish Hezbollah's armoury and to provoke an even greater Israeli offensive. Right now Hezbollah are using fairly primitive missiles made in Iran and Syria but the Iranians are withholding the use of its long range missiles already in the country, most notable the Zelzal (an Iranian manufactured missile), which has a range of 270 KM. This enables Hezbollah to target all of Israel's major urban centres (including Tel Aviv, Rishon Letzion, Ashkelon and Be'ersheba). This would escalate the Israeli response to a point at which Iran itself might suffer military action
Before this happens there is a solution which will put a severe brake on the Iranians and will help resolve many of the problems resulting from Iran's efforts at regional destabilisation; the immediate effort towards regime change in Syria. The Syrian government is the key to the ability of Iran to effect its policies in the Lebanon. First, if there was regime change in Syria it might well replace the Alawi with secular Sunni (with Baath support from Iraq and Iraqi exiles). This would have a serendipitous effect in Iraq as well in the efforts to control the Shia domination of the government. The non-Shia Muslims, and certainly the Christians in the Lebanon would be encouraged to isolate the Hezbollah and start to enforce 1559. The Israelis would end up with a hostile but not lunatic enemy on its Northern border. There is no sense in trying regime change in the Lebanon; it's been tried and the Gemayels have paid the price.
If the UN is going to intervene with peacemakers it is important that regime change in Syria precedes the intervention; otherwise the disequilibrium will be frozen in aspic and unchangeable without further conflict. This is the Malach Ha-Mavis moment and it should be embraced as soon as possible.