May 7, 2014
The War in Syria – A Mutual Chokehold
By Avi Melamed
Pay attention to the Syrian town of Tfail.
Tfail is a Lebanese enclave located in the Al-Kalmun mountain range in Syria about a mile away from the Lebanese border. It is a town of about 5,000 people – all Lebanese citizens (though the town is located inside Syria) – the majority of whom are Sunnis.
Reportedly, following the recent battles in the region, dozens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the war in Syria found refuge on the outskirts of Tfail. Hezbollah argues that these refugees are not civilians, but rather Syrian rebels who fled following the recent fighting in the area of the Al-Kalmun.
Reportedly, Hezbollah is imposing a siege on Tfail, blocking the road leading to the remote town and – according to one source – spreading mines around its perimeter. As an outcome, the Syrian refugees are totally cut off – they can’t get any provisions, food, medicine, etc. and they are suffering under extremely severe conditions.
Top Lebanese Senior Security Officials are conducting urgent discussions regarding the situation in Tfail. According to information evaluated as reliable, a senior Hezbollah official named Wafiq Safa (read more about him in Did A Senior Hezbollah Commander Escape an Assassination Plot published in February 2013) is also participating in the discussions.
The urgency the Lebanese authorities feel is entirely justified.
Tfail is the tip of the iceberg of an evolving mutual chokehold in Syria and Lebanon between the Sunni axis and the Iranian-Assad axis.
What is the mutual chokehold? How and why it is evolving? How does it exhibit itself? What are its implications?
Let’s first look first at Syria. In the northwestern part of Syria the Iran-Assad axis is trying to create a strategic stronghold built upon the Alawite population, which will maintain and ensure the rule of the Assad regime, and thereby maintain the Iranian regime’s influence. Apparently, that stronghold will be bolstered from the south by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Some describe that entity as “Alawitestan.”
However, that stronghold may become the Achilles Heel of the Iranian-Assad axis because it could be taken hostage by the Syrian and the non-Syrian rebel groupsand their supporting Sunni states primarily: Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar
In March 2014, Syrian rebels launched rocket attacks on Alawite cities located in the northwestern part of Syria. That attack reflected a strategic shift. We should pay attention to what that joint operation implies. There are good reasons to believe that these attacks reflect a meeting of interests of the major Sunni states mentioned (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar) AND a joint strategy in their indirect war on the Iran-Assad axis.
On a tactical level, the attacks on the Alawite cities aimed to counter the recent military achievements of the Iran-Assad axis in the Kalmun mountain range. On a strategic level, the attacks convey a message that “Alawitestan” is vulnerable; it is the soft belly of the Iran-Assad axis and if the Sunni axis wants to, it can expand the attacks on “Alawitestan.”
In that scenario a mutual chokehold is created. Assad attacks Syrian cities (which are predominately Sunni) and rockets are fired on the Alawite cities.
The meeting of interests of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar is not an easy one. The three states have a very complex relationship:
Saudi Arabia and Turkey are historical rivals struggling over the leadership of the Sunni world. In addition, the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood are also at oddswith one another and the current Turkish government is influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood and strongly identifies itself with the Muslim Brotherhood – this adds to the existing tensions between the bitter rivals.
Qatar strives to position itself as a leading factor – thus challenging the Saudi supremacy. That aspiration puts Qatar on a collision course with the Saudis which most recently resulted in a diplomatic boycott of Qatar by the Saudis, Egypt and some Arab Gulf Monarchies. That crisis ended with a Qatari submission to Saudi demands – at least for now.
A number of events that took place shortly after the attacks on the Alawite cities provide indirect evidence of the meeting of interests and the joint strategy of the major Sunni states:
First, Saudi Arabia announced the inauguration of a new direct commercial flight route from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.
Second, Qatar signed a contract with a Turkish company to supply 17 speed boats to the Qatari coast guard.
Third, Turkey sent an armed force of 300 soldiers to secure the tomb of Suleiman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Turkish Ottoman Empire which is located inside Syria some twenty miles away from the Turkish border. The Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan said that the tomb is a “symbol of utmost emotional significance for Turkey.” That description has a subtext – it is a message to Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah who argues that Hezbollah is involved in the war in Syria to “protect Shiite sacred symbols located in Syria.”
A similar mutual stranglehold is evolving in Lebanon.
Lebanon has been “on the edge” for a long time. Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria is causing the situation in Lebanon to further deteriorate for a couple of reasons:
First, so far, more than one million Syrians have fled to Lebanon. That wave is changing the demographic balance in Lebanon – a country of about 4.5 million people (not including the million refugees). Until recently, the Shiites were the biggest sect in Lebanon (statistics vary but it is believed that roughly forty-percent of the entire population of Lebanon is Shiite). The influx of the Syrian refugees – most of whom are Sunnis – changes that balance. In addition, the growing number of Syrian refugees puts increasing pressure on the already weak Lebanese economy – which is resulting in growing and deepening unrest.
Second, due to Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria, Syrian rebels – and mostly Militant Islamic groups – are retaliating by attacking Hezbollah, Shiite, and Iranian targets in Lebanon through rocket attacks, suicide bombers, explosive cars, IED’s, etc. These attacks have resulted in the death of dozens of Lebanese (mostly civilians), causing panic and growing fear in Lebanon. More and more Lebanese – including Shiites – openly criticize Hezbollah for dragging Lebanon into the war and demand they pull out of Syria.
Third, the Sunnis in Lebanon are furious with Hezbollah and their rage is approaching the boiling point. Up until now, their anger has been exhibited by limited, sporadic clashes, mostly in the city of Tripoli – the biggest city in northern Lebanon which is predominately Sunni. Dozens of people have been killed in clashes between Sunnis and the Alawite minority in the city, the Lebanese army tries to impose order, but the city is in a constant state of tension.
The situation in Tfail and the mutual chokehold I have described above should be viewed in the context of an interesting incident that happened only a few weeks ago in a town called Arsal.
Arsal is a Lebanese Sunni town also located next to the Syrian border. Like Tfail, Arsal was put under siege by Hezbollah. Hezbollah argued that the town was a base from which terror attacks were being launched on the Hezbollah stronghold Al-Dahya, located in the southern quarter of Beirut. The Lebanese army imposed a siege on the town and Hezbollah militants formed an external ring further cutting off the town.
In response, Sunnis in Tripoli threatened to renew the attacks on the Alawites. The Supreme Leader of the Salafi movement in Lebanon hinted that “Arsal and Al-Dahya should enjoy the same rights.” That was a clear hint to Hezbollah and the Lebanese government. If Arsal’s people cannot enjoy a normal life then the people in Al-Dahya will not enjoy normal life. The siege was lifted.
(Please go to my blog – A New Middle East Requires a New Understanding to read previous articles I have written about the ramifications of the war in Syria on Lebanon).
The story of Arsal provides an interesting observation. The war in Syria has resulted in a reality characterized by a “mutual chokehold” both in Syria as well as in Lebanon.
Hezbollah, sinking in the Syrian mud, is disturbed with the possibility of facing a military confrontation in Lebanon that will include Sunnis, and very likely Palestinian militant Islamic groups as well, that are deployed in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Hezbollah hopes that its military might is enough to deter and prevent the realization of that scenario.
The Sunnis are aware of Hezbollah’s concern and they are taking advantage of that to gain political achievements at Hezbollah’s expense. Hezbollah had to make some considerable concessions in the process of assembling the new Lebanese government. Furthermore, for the first time after many years, the Sunnis in Lebanon have created a deterrence in the relationship with Hezbollah – Arsal is an example.
Will Arsal repeat itself in Tfail? If Hezbollah decides not to back down this time will it lead to a rapid escalation and generate a quick deterioration leading to a massive eruption in Lebanon?
It is likely that a solution similar to the Arsal case will be made. All sides involved do not have an interest in escalation – for now.
However, given the fragile, flammable reality in Lebanon, situation in Tfail could spin out of control and ignite a huge fire.
The situation in Tfail should be monitored very closely.
Avi Melamed is an Israeli Middle East Strategic Intelligence Analyst, and lecturer specializing in the current affairs of the Arab and Muslim world and their impact on Israel and the region.
Former Israeli Senior Official on Arab Affairs, former intelligence official and educator is today an Independent Middle East Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Regional Expert and lecturer specializing in the current affairs of the Arab and Muslim world and their impact on Israel and the region. Avi has just been nominated the Fellow of Middle East Security and Affairs for the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, DC and Gettysburg Pennsylvania.
Fluent in Arabic and Israeli- Jew with a unique understanding of Arab society and culture, Avi spent many years operating in Arab cities and communities, often in high-risk positions at sensitive times.
He held various Intelligence and field positions on behalf of the Israeli Defense Forces, Israeli government agencies working with Israel’s intelligence agencies. During the first Intifada he was appointed the youngest-ever Deputy Advisor on Arab affairs to the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, and later he served in the Ehud Olmert administration as Senior Advisor. He was instrumental in developing Israeli policy, conducting delicate missions in and around Jerusalem and represented the city in local and international forums.
After retiring from the Intelligence and Public sector, Avi went to teach High School and was an educator for seven years.
Avi’s unique experience, outstanding analytical abilities, profound understanding of the Arab world and the Arabic language – coupled with direct access to sources, resources and networks throughout the Arab world and intimate connections with local and regional intelligence resources has allowed him to keep his finger on the pulse on the Arab world that has resulted in a proven record of foreseeing the evolution of events as well as their impact on a local and regional level.
In his work as an analyst Avi provides intelligence analysis, briefings and tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policy makers, international media outlets, academic institutions as well as a wide variety of organizations and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East affairs. His expertise includes: The Arab awakening; Arab perspectives on Israel; Emerging challenges and opportunities in the Middle East; Evolving forces in the region and their current and future impact on Israel’s strategic environment, etc.
Avi is also the founder and creator of Feenjan – Israel speaks Arabic, a non-profit initiative which presents contemporary Israeli society and culture to the Arab world in Arabic, and serves as an online platform for Israelis and Arabs to discover and discuss issues of common interest.
In the private sector Avi facilitates relationships between Israeli and international firms and potential partners in the Arab world.
Through all of Avi’s efforts, as a speaker, an analyst, a writer, and an entrepreneur, he is a bridge builder. He dedicates himself to enhancing the Arabic, English and Hebrew speaking audience’s comprehensive understanding of the Middle East and of each other.
Avi’s unique experience, outstanding analytical abilities, profound understanding of the Arab world and the Arabic language coupled with direct access to sources, resources and networks throughout the Arab world and intimate connections with local and regional intelligence resources has allowed him to keep his finger on the pulse on the Arab world that has resulted in a proven record of foreseeing the evolution of events as well as their impact on a local and regional level.
Separate and Unequal – Israel’s rule in East Jerusalem, Harvard University Press, 1999;
Ubrusi – (Novel), Israel, 2010
Original Articles and Videos:
Avi’s videos in Arabic can be seen at www.feenjan.com
Sample Media Appearances:
ABC News, Al-Jazeera Arabic, Al-Jazeera English, Al-Hurra, BBC, BBC Arabic, Bloomberg, Elaph, Ha’aretz Israel, I-24 News, Israel Radio, Los Angeles Times; NBC, The New Yorker, The Sydney Morning Herald; Toronto Star, TVE Spain, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Yediot Aharonot Israel, and a variety of European newspapers and news agencies.
Fluent in Hebrew, Arabic and English
Sample Client List:
AIPAC; American Israel Joint Distribution Committee; American Jewish Committee; American University; Birthright; Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs; Eisenhower Institute; Foreign Diplomats and Embassies; Friends of the IDF; Georgetown University; Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation; Herzeliya Interdisciplinary Center; Hillel; Israel Border Police Senior Command ; Israel Embassy; Israel Defense Forces; Israel Ministry of Defense; Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Israel Police; Israel Prison Authority; Israeli Colleges: Jewish Agency For Israel; Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Jewish Community Relations Council; Jerusalem Foundation; Jewish Federations of North America; Jewish National Fund; Hillel; Katedra – Network of Israeli Colleges; Kenes Tours; Machon Avshalom; Keren Hayesod; MASA; Ophir Tours; Peres Center for Peace; Phillips Academy – Andover; Princeton University; The Sydney Morning Herald; The Israel Project; Tufts University; University of California, Berkeley; the United States Army; Wikistrat; World Bank; World Presidents Organization, and Young Presidents Organization, etc.
To Contact Avi: