Thursday, 31 May 2007

Will Iran and Syria finally divorce?

Just as Iran has its nuclear issue causing the international community to stand on edge, its pal Syria has the Rafik Hariri assassination case, which has also kept news-watchers like myself on the edge of our seats. How long will Iran and Syria's little friendship last? Lebanon and isolation by (in Syria's case) and dislike of (in Iran's case) the United States are two of the common threads. As a result both have been known to harbor or support extremists. Contrary to what the White House says every day, there is no pure evil, no clear enemy, in world politics, or most other things.

But neither Damascus or Tehran should take their alliance for granted.

On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council voted to establish a special court to try those who participated in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria is the prime suspect in the crime. Its allies blocked passage of the tribunal through the Lebanese Parliament, which is why the Security Council decided to approve it unilaterally. However, an increasingly pertinent question, albeit one only now beginning to provoke interest, is what the tribunal might mean for Syrian-Iranian collaboration in Lebanon.
Lebanon, thanks to a series of Security Council resolutions designed to bolster its independence from Syria, investigate the Hariri murder, and reinforce a U.N. peacekeeping force along the border with Israel, finds itself under de facto international trusteeship. For Hezbollah to find the Americans at their doorstep again must have been galling. The United States, France, the United Nations, and leading Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, have attempted to firm up the country against two parallel developments: Syria's persistent efforts to destabilize Lebanon, mainly to undermine a Hariri tribunal that threatens the Syrian regime; and Iran's desire to use Lebanon as an outpost in the Levant from where it might derail American, Israeli, or Western initiatives with which it is unhappy; but also from where it can deter, through Hezbollah, an Israeli or U.S. strike against its nuclear facilities.

But will Syria and Iran remain on the same wavelength in Lebanon now that the regime of President Bashar Assad is more vulnerable than ever? The two countries have cooperated closely, and according to a diplomat who travels to Damascus, Iran is manning listening posts in Syrian territory from which even Russian experts are denied entry. The notion of a sudden Iranian-Syrian split seems, for the moment, naive.

However, with a green light for the Hariri tribunal, things may become more complicated.

So the Mid-East chapter of the "axis of evil" might soon be no more. But don't count on it happening anytime soon.

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