In war, and life too I suppose, spillover is sometimes inevitable. For example, it seems like there is no way to keep turmoil in Syria from eventually and unfortunately making its way to Lebanon. The world got a stark reminder of that truism on Friday, when a car bomb killed Mohammad Chatah, a leading Lebanese Sunni politician, a former Lebanese ambassador the the United States, and a staunch critic of Hezbollah, the Assads, and ultimately Iran (the patron of both), along with four other people. Chatah was involved in the March 14 Alliance, a coalition of Lebanese political parties and activists opposed to Syria’s interference in Lebanese politics. It’s named after the date in 2005 when the so-called “Cedar Revolution” began; this was a weeks-long anti-Syrian protest movement, set off by the Assad-Hezbollah assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, that ended with the toppling of Lebanon’s pro-Syria government and the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanese territory.
This attack comes a little over a month after a sucide bombing struck the Iranian embassy in Beirut. That attack was claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which is a Sunni militant network affiliated with Al-Qaeda, having begun as an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. That bombing killed the Iranian cultural attache and maybe a top Hezbollah military commander. It would be too simplistic to say that Chatah’s assassination was retaliation for the embassy bombing; Chatah, as a respected Sunni leader and an outspoken opponent of Hezbollah and the Assads, was probably on Hezbollah’s hit list before the embassy was bombed, and anyway killing a secularist Lebanese politician isn’t really doing anything to hit back at an extremist group like the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. But both attacks are symptomatic of the fact that the violence from Syria’s civil war has engulfed Lebanon; contrary to the headline of that Sydney Morning Herald piece, Syria’s war isn’t “threatening to” spread to Lebanon, it already has.
Lebanon has its own terrible history of sectarian conflict, although even that history can’t really be disentangled from Syria’s ever-present influence over Lebanese internal affairs, but there is no denying the reality that Syria’s civil war has bled into Lebanon. Today the Lebanese army fired on Syrian helicopters that had passed into Lebanese air space, and this may be the first sign of a much harder-line Lebanese stance on border security (Syrian forces have crossed and/or fired over the border in the past without drawing a response from Lebanon). Lebanon’s Sunni community clearly seems to be blaming Hezbollah for Chatah’s murder (with good reason), and by extension Lebanon’s Shi community as well as Hezbollah’s Iranian backers, who you may have heard are kind of on Assad’s side in Syria. The Saudis, who haven’t been shy about involving themselves in Syria either, pledged over the weekend to send $3 billion to help the Lebanese military
take down Hezbollah “confront terrorism.” If Syria can be seen as a proxy fight between Iran and KSA, then that proxy fight has sucked Lebanon in as well. Oh, and about the same time the Saudis were announcing their obviously anti-Hezbollah military assistance, Hezbollah, basically on cue, lobbed a few rockets into northern Israel to provoke the inevitable Israeli military response and maybe take a little internal heat off of them. Spillover.
Then there’s the kind of spillover that isn’t inevitable, but results from bad policy decisions. For some time now Iraq has been under constant assault from Sunni extremists, specifically the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (al-Sham if you prefer). As the name of that group might suggest, it is active on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, fighting in the civil war in Syria while also engaging in a sustained campaign of terrorism in Iraq against the government, Kurds, Iraqi (Arab) Shiʿites, and insufficiently extremist Iraqi (Arab) Sunnis alike. The United States has decided to send Hellfire missiles and recon drones to Nouri al-Maliki’s government to help it fight back against ISIS, meaning that we’re effectively aiding ISIS in Syria while helping Maliki to go after them in Iraq. Oh, I know, for a while now we’ve been insisting that we can help just the “good” rebels in Syria, but that’s always been a ridiculous idea, and you know how I know it’s ridiculous? Because a couple of weeks ago we stopped sending aid to any Syrian rebels because we couldn’t be sure it was going to the rebels we like and not to the rebels we don’t like, assuming we even have any idea which is which to begin with (SPOILER ALERT: we don’t).
How does our chasing-our-own-tail Syria-Iraq policy have anything to do with spillover? Because all of a sudden, maybe emboldened by this American aid he’s now getting, Maliki has made the interesting decision to escalate the violence in Iraq (go read the whole thing, please) from “isolated extremists committing terrorist acts” to “full-on civil war”:
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki just turned a military tragedy, which rallied much of the country behind the government, into a campaign against the Anbar protest movement. In the middle of December 2013 Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) set up an elaborate trap, which resulted in the death of much of the leadership of the Army’s 7th Division. Baghdad then launched a massive military campaign in Anbar that almost all parties and much of the public supported. In the midst of this offensive however, the prime minister decided to go after the Anbar demonstrators by claiming that they were behind the terrorists, and then ordered the detention of Parliamentarian Ahmed Alwani of the Iraqi Islamic Party who was one of their leaders. The lawmaker was captured, but not before a shoot out that resulted in several deaths and brought out hundreds of people into the streets in Anbar in support of him. Now the government is demanding that the protest sites close. In doing so, Maliki turned a national moment into a personal vendetta against his opponents.
ISIS trapped and massacred an entire Iraqi army division a little over a week ago. In response, several of the Sunni tribes in Anbar who have been protesting the Maliki government’s systematic marginalization of Sunnis in Iraqi politics and society announced that they would join the government in fighting extremists like ISIS who have been using those protests as thin cover for their attacks against Maliki and their efforts to reignite a sectarian civil war. Maliki, astonishingly, decided to use this crisitunity to advance his own anti-Sunni agenda rather than to try to bring the Anbar tribes back into the fold and heal the rift. He’s sending in soldiers to forcibly shut down Sunni protests, issuing orders for the arrest of Sunni politicians, and behaving very much like somebody who wants to force a war rather than someone who wants to prevent one, all under the excuse that these Sunni protesters are covering for ISIS, which is complete garbage; ISIS has been attacking Sunni Arabs as much as it’s been attacking everybody else since its wave of terror started. Now, instead of uniting those Sunnis with the government against a common enemy, Maliki’s forces are killing protesters as they break up camps in places like Ramadi, causing Sunni religious leaders there to call for jihad against the government. Several elected Sunni MPs have withdrawn from Iraq’s Parliament in protest, and the legitimacy of the entire Iraqi government is now threatened. Iraq, which had already been dealing with spillover from Syria in the form of the ISIS terror campaign, looks set to widen that spillover into a real sectarian slugfest, which by the way is exactly what ISIS has been trying to achieve.
While I applaud the Obama administration’s efforts to achieve a real accord with Iran (though there are still major hurdles to get over even to see the 6 month interim agreement implemented, both from the Iranian side and thanks to the best efforts of the “Bomb, Bomb Iran” Caucus in the Senate), I think it’s fair to question whether or not they have any clue what they’re doing in the rest of the Middle East at this point. When you’re literally arming one government to fight the same terrorist group you’re working with in a neighboring country (yeah, I know, we’re only helping “the good guys,” and everybody gets a pony too), then it really does start to seem like you’ve lost the plot. We still, as far as I can tell, have no coherent policy as far as Egypt is concerned, other than to insist that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi restore democratic governance, but, you know, that’s not happening, not at all, so we’re left with either supporting Sisi on realpolitik grounds, as we did with Mubarak, or standing up for our principles and cutting all support to his military government, and we’re doing…neither.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of talks with Iran, the mess in Syria and Lebanon points to the fact that, even if we manage the impossible and reach a permanent nuclear accord, there’s a hell of a lot more that Iran has to do before relations can be normalized. The Iranians can’t continue to field a terrorist militia in another country that carries out political assassinations and attacks civilians, as Hezbollah does, and not pay some price for that. But one problem at a time, I guess, or at least no more than, say, a dozen at a time.