Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

Fragmentation in Lebanon and Iraq gives uprisings a chance

Iran’s clients in Beirut and Baghdad applauded Bashar Al Assad’s crackdown on the Syrian revolt, but might not be able to replicate the mass violence he inflicted

A protester near the Lebanese parliament in Beirut 19 November 2019. EPA
A protester near the Lebanese parliament in Beirut 19 November 2019. EPA

The fragmentation of the power structures in Lebanon and Iraq could be a blessing in disguise for the uprisings seeking to bring them down.

The lack of cohesion in both countries’ political systems has so far helped avoid the blanket violence the Syrian regime dealt the 2011 protest movement against Assad family rule.

In the two countries, unlike Syria, the army has remained largely on the sidelines, partly out of internal concern that it would fracture if its military units shed mass blood.

This was an overriding reason when the Lebanese army opted to resist the wish of politicians loyal to the Syrian regime and not crack down on the 2005 Cedar Revolution, which significantly curbed three decades of Assad family tutelage over Lebanon.

In Iraq, the army had forged renewed ties with the US since the campaign against ISIS, although Iran retains influence. Iran also has clients among the police and it de facto supervises the so-called Hashd Al Shaabi (popular mobalisation) militia, which is nominally integrated into the Iraqi state.

In the view of these regimes if they start compromising the demonstrators will continue to raise the ceiling

Political analyst Ahmad Abdel Nour

According to a major leak of Iranian intelligence cables, an Iranian agent reported to his bosses in Tehran in 2014 that the commander of Iraqi Military Intelligence at the time told him that that the unit was “at the service” of Iran, with the commander emphasising that Shiism bonded him to Iran.

The former commander, Hatem Al Maksusi, disputed the account, according to the New York Times, which had obtained the documents, together with The Intercept.

But the security apparatus in Iraq, and in Lebanon, is mostly fragmented. Hezbollah has strong allegiances in the intelligence and secret police branches but anti-Iranian Sunni and Christian politicians have some sway. These politicians are highly sceptical of Hezbollah’s so-called resistance strategy and are also opposed to President Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s main Christian ally.

In Iraq the secret police branches owe loyalties to different politicians, unlike the Alawite dominated security apparatus in Syria, which for decades has been a brutal enforcer for the Assad family.

The protests in Lebanon and Iraq, demanding the removal of the entire political class, broke out two weeks apart last month.

The authorities and associated militias in Iraq killed more than 300 protesters across the country.

In Lebanon, two killings of demonstrators were recorded, in and around Beirut, although the protest movement has not been subjected to an organised crackdown.

Lebanese protesters near the parliament in Beirut 19 November 2019. EPA
Lebanese protesters near the parliament in Beirut 19 November 2019. EPA

If Iraq and Lebanon were dominated by a sectarian minority like Syria, with praetorian guards and integrated secret police, violence on the streets of Beirut and Baghdad would be far worse, according to veteran political analyst Ahmad Adel Nour.

Mr Abdel Nour, a Syrian who lives in exile in the US, told The National that the authorities in Lebanon and Iraq fundamentally share the Syrian regime’s unwillingness to compromise. He said way the authorities and Iran-backed militias in the two countries respond has been framed by societal limitations.

“The general principle is no compromise. In the view of these regimes if they start compromising the demonstrators will continue to raise the ceiling,” Mr Abdel Nour told The National on a visit to Abu Dhabi.

“Their natural reaction is to crack down. In Lebanon they might not be able to do it on a big scale because the society is mixed.”

Even if they wanted, the authorities in Iraq and Lebanon may not be able to replicate the industrialised killings of the Syrian regime.

This does not mean Lebanon’s unrest would not be eventually met by violence, albeit more subtle than the Syrian regime’s variety.

In Iraq, the number of victims who fell to security forces and Iran-backed militias shows no signs of lessening.

Non-intervention by the Iraqi army so far spared Iraqi demonstrators the kind of firepower the Syrian regime had no qualms about deploying.

Still, abductions of Iraqi activists emerging as prominent civil figures are rising.

The latest among them is Amer Al Naimi, a 44-year educator who was abducted in Baghdad last week from a restaurant, where he was with his wife and daughter, according to Hiwa Osman, an established Kurdish journalist chronicling the demonstrations.

Syrian defectors from the military and intelligence say the Assad regime used similar tactics, with backing from Iran’s Quds Force, whose head Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani, met with Iraqi security chiefs last month.

Mr Suleimani demanded the security chiefs in Baghdad to crack down hard, pointing the efficacy of Iranian ways in destroying dissent. This was before the current protests broke out in Iran.

A key in identifying and tracing activists were Iranian technical personnel deployed in Damascus in 2011 to help Syrian intelligence in the surveillance of the Internet.

Iranian intelligence helped plug a gap left by the departure from Syria of Area SpA, an Italian company that was developing a monitoring system for the regime.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has Iranian-supplied capabilities to monitor the country’s internet, according to a senior communications specialist who worked in Lebanon and declined to be named.

Indeed attempts by the Lebanese government to dismantle a communications network operated solely by Hezbollah, together with surveillance cameras, resulted in an armed Hezbollah takeover of Beirut in 2008.

Mr Abdel Nour said assassinations and disappearances proved effective for the Syrian regime in liquidating the civil leaders, a tactic now followed in Iraq and a possible template for Lebanon.

“At the start of the Syrian revolt the regime was disposing of 15 to 30 top tier activists a day until no civil leaders were left,” he said.

But targeted action was not enough in Syria. Bashar Al Assad sent tanks into city centres to pacify the protest hubs of Deraa, Hama, Homs and Deir Ezzor. Despite Iranian support, only the Russian intervention in late 2015 saved him after the revolt turned armed.

The Fourth Mechanized Division, led by Bashar’s brother Maher, and the Republican Guards, overseen by Military Intelligence and Airforce intelligence, killed, tortured and disappeared thousands of Syrians from all walks of life. The regime dismissed them as terrorists and untrustworthy elements.

The regime focused on squeezing the middle ground - the thousands of blue and white collar Syrians whom former US President Barack Obama once said stood no chance against the regime, and against the militants the regime helped insert on the scene.

“When you get farmers, dentists and folks who have never fought before going up against a ruthless opposition in Assad, the notion that they were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy,” Mr Obama told CBS in June 2014.

The regime released top militants out of its jails in the middle of 2011, three months after the non-violent revolt broke out. They became commanders in ISIS and Al Qaeda-linked groups, feeding the regime’s narrative that it was facing terrorism, not a movement of people demanding dignity after nearly five decades of Assad family rule.

Iraqi demonstrators near Khor Al Zubair port in southern Iraq November 19, 2019. Reuters
Iraqi demonstrators near Khor Al Zubair port in southern Iraq November 19, 2019. Reuters

In Baghdad, Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi last month deployed the country’s elite counter-terrorism brigade, not to fight ISIS but as shock troops to pacify mostly Shiite demonstrators.

Lebanese military affairs analyst Nizar Abdel Kader said in Iraq the non-intervention posture of the army might not last long, given the degree of Iranian influence in the country.

“All the possibilities are open in Iraq. In Lebanon, the army has a history of resisting taking part of crackdowns,” Mr Abdel Kader said.

Mr Abdel Kader pointed to upheavals in Lebanon during the 1950s, and in 2005, when the army refused orders by the then President Emile Lahoud to crack down on protests demanding Syrian troop withdrawal after the assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafiq Hariri.

Four Hezbollah operatives are being tried in absentia in The Hague for the assassination. But Hezbollah’s presence in the government has increased since the Hariri assassination.

Although Hezbollah coordinates with the Lebanese army, particularly military intelligence, the group has no sway over the military to order it to assault the demonstrators, Mr Abdel Kader said.

But the group might not need to attempt that.

Mr Abdel Kader painted a more clandestine scenario in which bombs could be planted at protest grounds if Hezbollah “feels it is on the verge of losing the cover of legitimacy the Lebanese state provides it”.

“What would one or two bombs going off at the mass rallies, where dozens of protesters would be killed, do to the uprising?,” said Mr Abdel Kader, adding that in this case Hezbollah would blame the bombings on ISIS.

“If Hezbollah goes that route it means that they are with no vision and that they do not understand that the Lebanon before and after October 17 is a fundamentally different place,” said Mr Abdel Kader, referring to the outbreak of the Lebanese protests.

Iran’s clerical rulers are again under domestic pressure. Their response to the protests at home and in Iraq has been hard line.

In Lebanon Hezbollah, seeing that a large sections of its Shiite constituencies are taking part, has softened its rhetoric. That could put the group it at odds with the default response of their backers in Tehran.

At one point Hezbollah may have to choose between its loyalties to the “Shiite international” overseen by Tehran and its understanding of how to respond to the Lebanese street scene.

If Hezbollah takes a different path to Iran, the group would be taking a step toward behaving like a Lebanese political actor, not as an Iranian client, something it has rarely done in the nearly four decades of its existence.

Updated: November 20, 2019 09:26 PM

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