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Jewish World Review
Feb. 17, 2005
/ 8 Adar I, 5765
Hezbollah: The terrorist threat on the horizon
As the maneuvering over Iraq continues, the Iranians and the Syrians made an interesting move. They have renewed an old alliance, which dates back to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref met with Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otariand on Feb. 16 and declared a "common front" against the United States.
What this united front actually means is unclear, to say the least. On the surface, it appears to be the Coalition of the Trapped. The Syrians are surrounded by three enemies: Israel, Turkey and the United States. The Iranians are in a better position, but they also are fairly isolated militarily. What the two, taken together, can achieve is unclear.
The concern of the Syrians is obvious. Their number one interest is to maintain their enormous influence in Lebanon. This is a financial as well as strategic issue. The Syrians make a load of money doing business in Lebanon and they don't want to be replaced by foreign businessmen. On Feb. 14, a suicide bombing killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri. The universal suspicion is that the Syrians were behind it. The Syrians were afraid that Hariri, whose wealth made him one of the most powerful men in Lebanon, was trying to pry loose of Syrian control. The thinking is that the Syrians took him out, possibly using the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah.
Iran is also facing a fundamental challenge to its interests in Iraq. A neutral Iraq is important to Iran. It hates the Sunnis, but is becoming uneasy about the relationship of the Iraqi Shiites and the Americans. Iran has tried to pull Iraq into its orbit. As with Syria in Lebanon, it is starting to wonder whether it will happen. Quite apart from the issue of nuclear facilities, the Iranians are beginning to feel that the outcome of the Iraq war is going to leave them in worse shape than they might have imagined two years ago. Even though the likely new prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, is quite close to Teheran, the Iranians are little closer than they were before to exercising certain control over Iraq's future.
Syria and Iran therefore are feeling the same force coming at them. As the U.S. starts getting traction in Iraq, it is moving in various ways to contract the power of other regimes it distrusts. The means here isn't military. It is covert and political. It is using its influence to wean Lebanon from Syria. It is doing the same to split the Iraqi and Iranian Shiites. As a result, Syria and Iran are seeing their national interests start to evaporate.
Now, seeing and doing something about it are two very different things. The killing of Hariri is a signal to the Lebanese that Syrian patience has its limits. Iran has not yet made a definitive move in Iraq, but they are going to have to do something pretty soon or throw in the towel. Both countries are under pressure to preserve core interests in the face of pressure from a common threat, the United States.
Militarily, there is little they can do. The Iranian nuclear threat is hollow. They are not only believed to be six months or more away from having a nuclear capability, they can expect that capability to be destroyed before it becomes operational, by the Americans or the Israelis. They are not going nuclear unless they get very lucky, and in that case, they will have just enough weapons to get into very deep trouble.
The American weak spot is not nuclear weapons. It is terrorism. The U.S. is simply not good at coping with sparse, global, covert networks. It has focused its attention on al-Qaida and has gotten somewhere, but this has been a long, hard, uncertain road. Terrorism is the weak spot.
Al-Qaida is not the only competent covert force in the world. The other is Hezbollah, which is the Shiite equivalent of al-Qaida, a Sunni force. Hezbollah became prominent in the 1980s as an Iranian-sponsored, Syrian-supported force operating out of Lebanon. It took part in Lebanon's civil war and against Israel. Hezbollah has been relatively quiet on a global scale, but it continues to exist and continues to operate in Lebanon. And interestingly, CIA director Porter Goss told Congress on Feb. 16 shortly after Syria and Iran announced their "common front" that Hezbollah is capable of attacking the United States if it so desires. Though Hezbollah has not been active beyond the Middle East for a decade, it is significant that Goss would make this statement so publicly. Clearly, Washington perceives a risk to its interests in some regards, and Goss' statements are turning up the heat on Teheran and Damascus.
The killing of Hariri and the resurrection of the Syrian-Iranian alliance has meaning only if they are planning to unleash Hezbollah. At the very least, they are threatening to do so, in the hope of using it as a bargaining chip with the United States. However, if the U.S. bargains on that basis, the Syrians and Iranians will roll the United States on a range of issues. The United States can't give on this threat and Hezbollah is the only card Syrian and Iran can play effectively.
In other words, it may well be that another trained, experienced and dedicated organization is now being ramped upand it isn't al-Qaida. Hezbollah is a capable and deadly force. It is to be taken very seriously.
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George Friedman is chairman of Strategic Forecasting, Inc., dubbed by Barron's as "The Shadow CIA," it's one of the world's leading global intelligence firms, providing clients with geopolitical analysis and industry and country forecasts to mitigate risk and identify opportunities. Stratfor's clients include Fortune 500 companies and major governments.
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