Wikistrat’s Facebook and Twitter followers recently engaged in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A session with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts, Carl Wege. Questions and Prof. Wege’s answers are transcribed below.
Carl Wege is a Professor of Political Science at the College of Coastal Georgia. He has traveled in Asia, Latin America, Africa and Israel and published a variety of articles discussing terrorism and security relationships involving Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.
Etah Ewane: Historically, relations between Iran and Arab countries have been hostile and Syria has always been used as a tool through which Teheran has supplied weapons to various Islamist groups. To what extent would the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria affect Iran’s geostrategic influence in the region?
Answer: The collapse of the Assad regime would be devastating to everything Iran has accrued in regional influence since the 1979 revolution. The Syrian state has been shattered and Bashar Assad is now little more than the local face of an Iranian occupation that has shed rivers of Sunni blood in his attempt to maintain power. Therefore any successor Sunni government would be hostile to Iran.
Since the Islamic State has now spit Iraq in two, Iran’s Resistance Axis (Jabhat al-Muqawama) has been shattered from the Levant to the Persian Gulf. The collapse of the Assad government has effectively left a Russian-supported and Iranian-dependent canton of internally-displaced minorities including most Alawite, Christians and some clans of neutralist Druze encompassing the space in western Syria. Essentially Iran, primarily through the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard, is managing a constellation of militias ranging from Alawite Jaysh al-Sha’bi and Ba’ath Battalions to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Iraqi Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib al-Haq militias.
In the end, though, it is likely that the militias defending this western Syrian rump state will essentially control a series of cantons united primarily by allegiance to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard through the figure head of Bashar Assad. “Saving Syria” therefore is second only to the acquisition of nuclear weapons in Tehran’s hierarchy of needs.
Matt R. Batten-Carew: The Huffington Post recently wrote an article entitled “Lebanon: The Forgotten Front” discussing Lebanon’s increasingly precarious situation caught between the Syrian civil war and its own history of civil and sectarian violence. Do you believe that the pressures placed on Lebanon by the Syrian conflict will lead to a new civil war in the country, particularly if Hezbollah emerges strengthened rather than degraded from the conflict?
Lebanon has nearly a million Syrian refugees destabilizing the country and Sunni Salafi jihadists are now operating against Hezbollah in Lebanese territory. While historically there has not been a tradition of Sunni militancy, the potential for Lebanese Sunni radicalization is increasing. That radicalization is most pronounced in the rural areas of Lebanon, particularly the northern Bekka, although it is happening to a lesser degree in urban settings as well. Tripoli, for example has seen the Lebanese army barely able to contain a shooting war between various Salafist supporters of the Syrian rebels in Tripoli’s Bab al-Tabbaneh quarter and their Alawite neighbors abutting Jabal Mohsen. Lebanese Salafi preachers like Sheikh Ammad al-Assir have personally mobilized a militia he called the Kata’ib al-Muqawama al-Hurr to fight in Syria. Likewise in Sidon, along Lebanon’s southern coast, there is regular fighting between Sunni Salafists and Hezbollah supporters. Beirut itself has also been drawn into the conflict with Sunni bombings at the Hezbollah facilities in Haret Hreik in south Beirut and the Sunni Salafi Abdullah Azzam Brigades’ direct attack against the Iranian embassy in the Jnah area of Beirut.
In rural Lebanon the northern Bekka Valley Sunni town of Arsal has seen its population surge with Syrian refugees from 40,000 to nearly 100,000. Despite repeated incursions by the Lebanese Army, effectively allied with Hezbollah and Syria, Arsal is now a focal point of operational support for the anti-Assad rebels opposite Arsal in the Qalamoun region of Syria.
Hezbollah’s resistance narrative has been shattered and the organization has been fundamentally changed by this war. Hezbollah is now a hybrid proto-army directly engaged in an alliance with the Lebanese Army’s 2nd and 6th mechanized infantry brigades and 1st and 2nd border regiments and Syrian Armies as well as multiple Iraqi Shia militias, essentially forming an element of an Alawite rump state controlled by Iran with Russian support running from Latakia along the northern Syrian coast abutting the eastern Lebanese spaces down to Damascus.