Syria, Iraq and Lebanon: the new Af-Pak

This post was first published on Syria Comment and The National Interest

Developments in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are so deeply intertwined that we might start speaking about these countries in similar terms as we talk about Af-Pak.

In less than a decade, pro-Iranian forces have entrenched themselves in Damascus and seized near absolute power in neighbouring Baghdad and Beirut

In less than a decade, pro-Iranian forces have entrenched themselves in Damascus and seized near absolute power in neighbouring Baghdad and Beirut. The structural marginalisation of the Sunnis in Iraq and Lebanon is splitting these communities as evident from the rise of Jihadi groups. This is the context of Syrian conflict.

Three years after the Arab uprising the “Syrian revolution” is dead and to label it the “Syrian conflict” would not entirely be right either. Due to its entanglement with existing political and sectarian divisions in Iraq and Lebanon the war is no longer strictly confined to Syria: the region is witnessing the emergence of a single theatre of war in what we could call the SIL region.

Some would argue this is solely the consequence of a spill-over of the Syrian conflict into neighbouring states but that is too simplistic. After all, the consequences of the war are totally different to its other neighbours Turkey, Jordan and Israel. They too feel the burden (notably Jordan, in terms of refugees) but their fate is far less dependent on developments in Aleppo and Damascus.

The social fabric of society and the political alignments in Iraq and Lebanon, however, follow very similar fault lines as is the case in Syria. The SIL region faces a shared predicament: fragile state institutions, growing Sunni marginalisation and, consequently, the rise of al Qaeda affiliated (or originated) groups that increasingly operate irrespective of national borders. As a result, domestic politics in all three countries is no isolated affair.

The Iranian belt of influence stretches from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea. But this hegemonic position is increasingly under threat by Jihadi groups such as Jabhat al Nusra (JN), Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB) and Jabhat al Nusra in Lebanon (JNL).

The majority of Sunnis still support moderate political parties, such as Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the Iraqi Islamic Party, which operate within the democratic system but with little success. The longer those parties are shunned from the centres of power the more attractive the Jihadi alternative will become.  

The old adage is at play here: if one cannot achieve participation through non-violent means, violence becomes a credible and legitimate alternative to some. It should therefore come as no surprise that the opposition is becoming increasingly militarised.

The violent response to the power grab of pro-Iranian forces over the state apparatus and its security forces is twofold: Shiite neighbourhoods and state institutions have become a legitimate target for the various Jihadi groups. In addition to the surge in anti-Shia terrorism, the region is witnessing an increase in attacks on the Iraqi and Lebanese Armed Forces, which are perceived to be tools of Iran.

In Lebanon, the radicalisation of the Sunni citizenry (over a quarter of the population) can be traced back to Hezbollah’s gradual take-over of the Lebanese state. Through its omnipresent threat of violence and assassination of top Sunni figures, it has manoeuvred itself as the most powerful political party in Lebanese politics.

Meanwhile opposition leader and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has not set foot in Lebanon in two years over fears of facing the same fate as his late father. With Hariri out of touch with his constituency, local hardliners, such as sheikh Assir in Sidon and Sheikh Houssam al-Sabbagh in Tripoli, seized the opportunity to present themselves as alternative resistance figures against Hezbollah.

Hassan Nasrallah has de facto pushed Hariri out of politics and is now finding himself having to deal with al Qaeda instead

Hassan Nasrallah has de facto pushed Hariri out of politics and is now finding himself having to deal with al Qaeda instead, as evident from the regular car bomb attacks in the Hezbollah strongholds South Beirut and Hermel. Like their “brothers” in Baghdad, Lebanese Shiites have now become one of the main victims of Jihadi terrorism.

Iraq’s political mess is strikingly similar. Nouri al-Maliki has championed Shia politics within the Iraqi political system and has increasingly marginalised the Sunni population whilst not shying away from sectarianism. Al-Maliki framed the battle with ISIS “a fierce confrontation between the supporters of Hussain and the supporters of Yazid”, a reference to the battle of Karbala in 680 which is a key event in Shia identity and tradition. Meanwhile, numerous pictures emerged on social media of Iraqi soldiers carrying Shia flags and symbols.

Similar to Lebanese Sunni dilemma, Iraqi Sunnis are also forced to choose between mainstream political parties that have little influence and radical groups that offer violent resistance against the Shia-dominated state apparatus. For groups such as ISIS this provides fertile ground for mobilisation of new recruits. Al Maliki’s sectarianism reinforces their message that the Shiites have taken over the country.

2014 was not even a week old and ISIS has already engaged in heavy fighting with rebels in Syria, detonated a deadly car bomb in Beirut and attacked Iraqi-government troops in Ramadi and Falluja. ISIS is more active and controls more land than al Qaeda Central in over two decades. ISIS’ cross-border activities, and the emergence of a Jabhat al Nusra faction in Lebanon, are clear indicators of the rise of Jihadi networks in the SIL region.

 If the Sunnis continue to be excluded from decision-making, more and more young men will opt for the black flag of al Qaeda instead

The take-over of the Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese state by pro-Iranian forces paints a complex and dark picture for the future. If the Sunnis continue to be excluded from decision-making, more and more young men will opt for the black flag of al Qaeda instead. This is the shared predicament that Syria, Iraq and Lebanon face.


  1. I do not share your opinion about Sunnis being excluded from decision- making in Syria. My 11 years in Syria, showed to me that the majority of successful business people were Sunnis. I also saw a country that made incredible leaps in what now is called “modernisation” (whatever that means, but it was done under the guidance and the full approval of the EU and other international organisations) and, despite the difficulties -world recession, massive influx of refugees from Iraq, repercussions of the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon etc. -the country maintained a healthy economic growth. Sure, things were far from perfect in many areas, but people had aspirations and, above all, people had HOPE.

    Then, the so called “democratic” revolution started with the help of the USA, EU and the “democratic regimes” of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and look at what we have today – and probably worse to come. Please do not talk to me about “corruption” when I see the “democratic” world sinking in corruption, and do not tell me that if Sunnis do not get a larger share of the decision-making, young people will go to Al Qaeda. I do not know who finances you or where you get your arguments from, but you are probably living quite comfortably outside Syria and you have sufficient time to elaborate policies and recipes for a country without thinking to much about the thousands that have to spend hours queuing for a few litres of diesel to be able to cook – if they have something to cook – and heat themselves in the winter or the children that are blown apart while they travel by bus to school and so on. Bombs kill, even “democratic bombs” kill – on both sides – but, of course, who cares about the people that die or simply lose their future for the rest of their lives. Rather than clamouring for “democratic bombing” you should be actively demanding dialogue and reconciliation between the government – by the way, the present government and president were the result of a fair election – and the so called “opposition” (I must admit it it is difficult for me to see who the Syrian opposition is and Geneva 2 is showing this fact clearly).

    I can conclude my argument with the following facts that I know well from direct experience:

    1. The present regime in Syria, and in particular its president, were elected by Syrians with an ample majority.
    2. The regime was accommodating great changes in the economic and social fields under the guidance of the EU, USA and other leading international institutions representing the “democratic International Community”. It is not true that the regime cannot change. In fact, I can assure you that Syria made more changes during my years of involvement in Syria than any other country I know – and I know a few.
    3. The regime in Syria was and probably is far from perfect, but by no means everything was bad. In fact, I look around me in Europe, and I can see the same things – only the PR and the spinning in the “democratic West” is better.
    4. The great majority of business persons and companies in Syria are controlled by Sunnis, as are some of the most important institutions. It can be said that the Syrian economy is dominated by Sunnis.
    5. If you refer to political decision-making, not just Sunnis but every other component of the Syrian people -Sunnis or non- Sunnis – have their chance to participate. I can only point to Riad Seif who became a member of parliament when he was a declared enemy of the regime.
    6. I know some Syrian opposition figures that were great takers from the regime and suddenly I find them asking for a dose of “democratic bombing” for their own countries.
    7. I found the article a dangerous one for the future of the region: alerting that Sunnis may become more extreme -the ignorant and indoctrinated ones most probably will – if they do not get a larger share. Should we exclude from that share the minorities (Christians of different origins, Druze, Ismaelis, Alawites and Circasians)?

    Who is behind the call for the new style of democracy of imposing the majority over the minority other than Saudi Arabia and Qatar? Who is financing you? Can you disclose it?
    8. The people of Syria are suffering a great deal, people on both sides, because after three years of war with its associated violence, loss of life and incredible crimes affecting every family of the country, the divisions in Syrian society are simply too deep. Of course, for the ones that go to international conferences – invited by willing governments and enjoying the best hotels and limousines – representing only themselves, this is not a consideration: only a new regime will put things right.

    What plans does the new regime emanating from an international horde of extremist mercenaries have for the future of Syria? Will the Syrian people enjoy true freedom and economic prosperity after the “democratic” opposition take over? Or will Syrian society, particularly women irrespective of their religious affiliation, be subjected to Sharia law?

    9. When I left Syria, people were blaming everything that went wrong on the government, but the war has changed many things. Now things go wrong because of terrorists. This tremendous change in the mentality of many Syrians should be credited to the behaviour of terrorists and the incredible spinning of the Western media defending the interests of the “democratic International Community” that, it must be said, was happy to provide help to the regime at all levels (economic development aid, intelligence and society change by encouraging the development of “civil society”).
    10. If instead of trying to extend the conflict to neighbouring countries and encourage violence and military “democratic bombing”, love your country and care about Syrians, you should advocate dialogue leading to peace – especially in an environment in which nobody hears the other because everybody is shouting. From your article it is obvious that you have decided to simply be part of the spin – with due compensation, I imagine.
    Regarding Landis publishing your article, he may have been motivated by his democratic character, but he should know better. Publishing lies and biased opinions cannot lead to a fair and quick solution to a very grave human problem affecting Syria and the region probably for years to come if the champions of “democratic bombing” have their way.

    • Thank you Roberto Rodriquez for you articulate reply and for not standing idle and passive for pro-terror propaganda of the lowest lows.

  2. This article is not even worth the virtual ink it consumed. I am very familiar with this type of writers who are overtly obsessed with Iran and demonizing Shiites to justify the Sunni wahabi murderous terror. Iraq and Lebanon both has a majority of Shiites. These majorities never terrorized the rest of the sects that make up their domestic social fabrics. When Sunni ruled Iraq, they brutally oppressed Shiites and Kurds. For 20 years the Sunni elite represented by Harriri and co. have ruled over Lebanon’s politics, economy, finance and real estate, leading Lebanon into more than 50 billion dollars public debt. Since the Taef accord that was held and sponsored by Saudi, the Lebanese Sunni PM became the power broker and decision maker of Lebanon. The Christian president was turned into a protocol president, and the House Speaker (Shiite) became the second in power (legislative) after the PM.
    When Harriri junior was ousted, his “moderate” and “modern” movement embarked in the worse sectarian anti-Shiite rhetoric Lebanon has ever witnessed. They protected militias and their commanders in Tripoli, they nurtured the salafi terrorist Ahmad Assir in Sidon south Lebanon, they even built a Sunni militia with the help of Syrian and Palestinian radicals to counter the Shiite militia (Hezbollah), they threatened civil strife if the Lebanese Army storms the terror haven Arsal on the Western border with Syria.
    During the 1958 conflict, Lebanon’s sunnis sided with Egyptians and Syrians against their country. Between 1968 and 1975 they sided with the Palestinians against their country and their countrymen in a bid to eliminate the country’s Christians. After 1975 they cheered for the Syrian forces occupying Lebanon and oppressing other minorities. Since 2011, they are doing it again but this time with Nusra and ISIS also against their country. There are a lot more.
    Anyway, why is it that each time the Salafi-Wahabi sunnis loose politically somewhere, they immediately start terrorizing their counterparts and blackmail them with their recurring equation, either power or terror?
    In Egypt there are almost no Shiites, yet people are fed up with stupid stone-age religion obsessed fanatics. So many people loved Mubarak, yet when he was ousted they continued to protest peacefully. When the Islamists were overthrown, they unleashed waves of terror.
    From Afghanistan all the way to Africa, America, Europe, Caucasus, north Africa, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, China etc.. hardly any Shiites exist in these places. Yet Sunni wahabi terror is there preaching and practicing “harmony and tolerance and stability”!
    How come the Shiites of Bahrain never adopted the wahabi style head-chopping struggle? 80% of the locals are Shiites, and the Khalifa family chose to naturalize Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, sunni Indians and what not to sway the majority numbers. The khalifa regime uses Asian mercenaries to “discipline” Bahrain’s Shiites. But wait, its Iran!

    Every person who crowns himself an “expert” on ME affairs, allows himself to categorize people, sects, and parties into moderate or radical or islamist or rebel or AQ depending on which agenda and propaganda he is serving. All of the sudden ISIS are the only bad ones in Syria (of course next to Assad and HA), whereas the disgustingly murderous takfiri bloodthirsty beasts of Nusra, Ahraru Sham, Jabha Islamiyya, and co. are moderate freedom fighters. Shame on this world, where everything is altered in service of the filthy petro dollar.

    In Iran, minorities are relatively respected and represented and have total freedom to practice their beliefs and rituals. No need to mention how is the case in Saudi. In Iraq, minorities such as the Christians (I know no one gives two shits about them) are butchered daily together with Shiites on the hands of the Sunni enlightenment.

    In Syria, many minorities are being systematically targeted just because they did not voice support and loyalty to the “pro-democracy” revolutionists.
    In Egypt, targeting Copts and other minorities will earn a fancy dinner with the prophet and later a promising orgy with dozens of neatly beautiful mermaids.
    Libya, we can use the help from Crusader west to subdue Qaddafi, and then later we can destroy WW2 graveyards of fallen western soldiers, and we can bulldoze down Soufi shrines and churches and murder blacks in Sabha.

    I will stop here and entertain at the sheer stupidity uttered by the author who has no shame, dignity, or ethical integrity to tell the Lebanese that you can only choose between Harriri and AQ, same to Syrians and Iraqis.

    This person is so ignorant and hateful to say the least. His article will bode well with wahabi media and followers like al Jazeera, al Arabiya, hayat, sharqawsat, etc and with American and Israeli far right warmongers who will do anything to make people believe that Saudi is moderate and good, Iran is devil. West is good, Russia is devil, so on.
    Everyone who tries to justify the relentless terror genocide being committed by wahabis who happen to be SUNNI adherents is himself an ignorant and a terrorist. Even if god him or herself do so.
    What should be addressed and examined is the sick wahabi ideology, no the alleged marginalization of Sunnis here and there.

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