Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss

Syria and Lebanon

According to all the official sources the Arab problems are due to Colonialism or Imperialism and Zionism. One could claim that the glue that holds the diverse Arab countries together is the claim that all their problems arose as a result of American (combined with earlier British and French) Imperialism and Israeli Zionism. It reminded me of the fat lady who claimed her eating problem was caused by McDonalds.

This will not doubt be attested, once again at the Annual Arab Summit on March 22.

Let us take one geographic area of the Arab world and try to understand how these well defined causes have created a particular outcome; the four neighboring countries Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. Yes we are aware that Iran is not an Arab country, it is Persian and its people speak a non-Semitic language called Farsi. It is confusing to me, an English speaker and an American to distinguish between Iraq and Iran (note the first three of the four letter name are the same). I simply do not understand why the Iranians can not use their ancient name Persia, a respected name. (Jews who are world renown as linguists – my family excluding myself, included, are excellent exemplars – do not understand my confusion between the names Iraq and Iran. I am concerned that since I identity myself as Jewish and American (or vice versa) and Americans are known as being particularly poor in languages my being, my identity may be more American than Jewish. That as you can imagine is very concerning to a Rabbi.)

Persia’s history goes back to Biblical times. One of its hero’s is Cyrus whom the prophet Isaiah called a Messiah’ (Is. 45:1). (The American hero David Korush also a Messianic – used the Hebrew name of Cyrus  - of Waco, Texas fame, would not have helped Cyrus’ reputation except among White Aryan believers, if anyone understood that Korush was Cyrus.) For a long time the Persians held off the Greek/Romans and was thus favored by the ancient Hebrews due to the latter being desecrators of Jerusalem.

Islam in its advance to world conquering status moved to Baghdad from Damascus in its early history. The Arabs defeated the Persian ruling from Baghdad in 684 and by 750 had moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad. These were the new Arabs, the Abbasid dynasty who ruled for 500 years. By moving the capital of the Islam from Damascus to Baghdad they developed a mixed a Persian culture with the Shi’a sect, a nontraditional form of Islam with Arabic influence. These had an enormous impact of Islam. For several hundred years there were two intellectual Islamic centers; the Farsi speaking Baghdad and the Arabic speaking Andalusia with its North African roots. It is interesting that these Islamic Europeans represented what some would consider real Arabia while the Arabs close to Arabia spoke Persian. (At a later time we will discus Andalusia who suffered from the Christian Inquisition exactly as the Jews, their expulsion was ten tears later than the Jews. We will write of our support of the Muslim world seeking an apology by Juan Carlos I, for this expulsion exactly as the Jews were granted in 1992. Unfortunately the 500 hundred year commemoration, the perfect time to arrange such an apology, has already passed.)

In 1258 the Mongols led by Genghis Khan’s grandson invaded and destroyed the Abbasid’s Empire and the greatest Arabic and Persian library in the world.  (This can be compared to the Christian’s destroying the great Greek, Latin and Hebrew library in the then world, Alexandria.) The Mongols massacred hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed perhaps, the most civilized city in the world. Teheran did not even exist in these olden of days.

Coming back to current events; Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Teheran can be considered a large neighborhood (in the Texas sense). Beirut is close enough to Damascus to be considered a suburb (perhaps 75 kilometers) if they did not speak different languages, a French version of Arabic versus a Syriac Arabic. Damascus is 600 kilometers directly west from Baghdad, both speak a similar Arabic, although as noted above in the olden of days the latter spoke Farsi. From Baghdad in a west and northerly route another 500 kilometers to Teheran.

I have previously in my article on Anti-Semitism and Anti-Americanism discussed ‘strange coalitions’, this four countries strike me as another ‘strange coalition’. I accept that this may be my own obsession. But I will attempt to clarify this dilemma before the end of this essay.

Lebanon is a truly ‘confessional state’ where Shia, Druze, Sunnis and Christians (both Catholic and Greek Orthodox) live in a state constitutionally guaranteeing Freedom of Religion and an agreement that all of these religious groups share in political power. But underlying these constitutional guarantees lied intense religious animosity. It is cerain that the Muslims have not forgotten that some of the Christian groups combined with the Israeli’s to fight some of the Muslims.

Syria has a secular government, in fact the only remaining Baathist state and is partnered with Iran the only real Islamic State in the world. Despite this seeming religious antipathy the two countries have very cordial relations. They are both using Hizbollah in an attempt to control Lebanon and fight the ‘little Satan’ – Israel. Hizbollah is Shi’ite as is Iran, but not like Syria which is Sunni.

Prior to the America invasion of Iraq, the latter was an enemy of Iran – they fought an almost decade long war with over a million dead. Iraq was the only other secular Baathist state in the world  All three of these countries considered America the ‘Big’ Satan and Israel the ‘Little’ Satan and thus perhaps American Imperialism and Israeli Zionism are the cause.

Iraq may be (with God’s help) on the way to becoming an independent democratic run by its Shi’ite majority. They have an insurgency supported by among others Syria. The insurgency is primarily Sunni. Iran with its Shi’ite clerical control may be supporting the insurgency but does make an effort to oppose it. Its position is ambiguous.

Most recently after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Valentines Day 2005, the Lebanese people with the help of an international coalition of the ‘willing’ including Arab support, even Russia and a unanimous United nations Security Council resolution (1559) have asked Syria to leave and return liberty to this very fractured country. Hizbollah led by its clerical leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah led the largest demonstration in Lebanon’s history into the center of Beirut (perhaps one half of a million Shi’ites) supporting the secular government of Syria and against Lebanese liberty. And it was peaceful – no guns were shown. The Shi’ites entering and taking control of the ‘center’ of Beirut is significant, they own Southern Beirut. (A similar peaceful demonstration of hundred of thousands of pro-Syrian opposition was held one week later – larger than the Hizbollah demonstration.) It is estimated that Shi’ites are 40-50% of the Lebanese population. Does this suggest that Nasrallah will seek control of Lebanon electorally? The Sheik in his speech noted repeatedly how America and Israel had caused the current problems between Lebanon and Syria. In fact the Sheik claimed the Israeli Mossad assassinated Hariri. And then (on Al Manar TV) that ‘Lebanon is not like Somalia, Lebanon is not Ukraine. Lebanon is not Georgia. [Your] naval fleets have come in the past, and were defeated, and if they come again, they will be defeated again. . . .    ‘To Syria we say: Long live Assad's Syria! [repeated five times] The den of the lion [Assad] in Damascus will remain a den’.

Does Hizbollah fear the ‘Cedar’ revolution? Does liberty antagonize the Cleric, another Sheik? Or alternatively will Nasrallah whose party has the largest seats in the Lebanese parliament put himself forward in the mid May new elections and become Speaker of the House?  

Baathism is the ideological basis of the government of Syria and of the former government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  It was founded by Michel Aflaq (a Christian) and Salah al Din Bitar (a Muslim) as a Arab Socialist Party having rejected Stalinist Communism and adopted the Pan-Arabism of Nasser. In the 1950’s a military coup took over Syria and in the 1960’s a similar event in Iraq. In each of the two countries minor tribes using military power took over, adopted this Baathist ideology and made each country a family business and dynasty. It does not appear that either family – the Assad’s in Syria and the Hussein’s in Iraq – were that concerned with of the two tenets of Baathism, Pan Arabism and Socialism. They became irrelevant, if they were ever relevant, after the Israeli defeat of the combined Arab military in 1967. Thereafter everyone (included not just the countries being discussed but the neighboring states of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt) considered their ideology to be family. It is difficult as a Jew and as an American to argue against loyalty to family values. That is after the key to George Bush and Ariel Sharon’s success. The one carried forward his father’s dynasty and the other has two famous and politically (and perhaps corrupt) powerful sons.

The Assad dynasty may have stumbled into a fatal diplomatic vortex leading perhaps to the implosion of the last Baathist regime in the world.

Aside from the nationalist problem Lebanon employs hundred of thousands Syrians for menial jobs that Lebanese (like their European compatriots using Muslim labor) do not want to do. Will Bashar lose his father’s dynasty? The Assad’s are part of the Alawite tribe may chose to sacrifice Bashar of the sake of the tribe. What Tom Friedman once called the ‘Hama’ rules may apply to Bashar. Attempting the ‘Hama’ rules in Lebanon (aside from the question of Bashar’s staying power) would likely open Syria up for an immediate American intervention – being in the neighborhood is an advantage. Syria certainly has not forgotten America’s previous interventions: President Dwight David Eisenhower prevented Syria from absorbing Lebanon in the 1950’s. President Regan intervened during the Lebanese civil war and like the wolf in the Irish tale left his tail behind.  But this time Lebanon will not be the target, Syria will. (Nasrallah has recently stated that we hoped America would invade Lebanon – he would teach the wolf another lesson.)

(The ‘Hama’ rules are based on the city where Assad pere killed thousand of his own citizens to preserve his dynasty. Some in Syria consider giving up Lebanon as the equivalent of the original loss in the Treaty of Versailles.

An earlier example of ‘Hama’ rules was during the civil war: Kamal umblatt, the leader of the Druze in 1977 was murdered;  then the Maronite leader, Bashir Gemayel in 1982 and in 1990 another Christian leader Danny Chamoun, son of Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, was murdered along with his wife and children; and then the Shi’a leader, the Imam Musa al-Sadr disappeared in 1978 while on a visit to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya – on whose orders is still a matter of dispute. (Ayatollah Musa al-Sadr is apparently unrelated to the Iraqi shi’ite young leader Muqtada al Sadr.) Thus the leadership of all three of the indigenous Lebanese populations were beheaded. This was the beginning of Hizbollah and its Islamic terrorism, a perhaps unintended result.)

Iran has been the main support of the Shi’ite Hizbollah in collaboration with Syria. Both has also supported the insurgents in Iraq. Despite the Iranian support of Bashar they would almost certainly withdraw from this fray leaving him hanging in the wind. What impact will that have on the Zarqawi insurgency?

A Lebanese military officer made a prayer many years ago as follows: ‘We ask Almighty God to divide Syria into hundreds of pieces so that the world at large may rest in peace’ (July 30, 1980).  Twenty-five years later, it appears that officer’s prayer may yet become true.

In the year 2000 an opposition newspaper to Prime Minister Hariri wrote a column suggesting that Syria ought to leave Lebanon. Another newspaper Al-Mustaqbal owned by Prime Minister Hariri wrote as follows ‘Raising the issue of Syria’s stay in Lebanon serves no purpose to Lebanese national interests or to Arab interests. Because at this time everyone should be standing at Syria’s side as it approaches the negotiations, not only Syria but also for all Arab interests’. This was three months before the death of Assad pere. For this column Hariri was a hero in Syria. Four years later while Hariri was still Prime Minister and shortly before his resignation in October 2004, he repudiately had a political conflict with General Rustum Ghazeleh, Syrian Chief of Intelligence. He told associates that his ‘life may be almost over’. His reputation in Syria had changed.

Hariri’s, a known as a patriot who resigned in October 2004 as a result of Syria using its power to change the constitution of Lebanon.  The change allowed Emile Lahoud to be reappointed President of Lebanon after his term was over and he was constitutionally banned from re-appointment (note his French name) Lahoud was a supporter of Syrian intervention in Lebanon. (This was the second time Syria required a change in the Lebanese constitution for Lahoud. Lahoud was an Admiral and then General when Syria decided to appoint him president. However there was a two year waiting period to enter ‘civilian’ public life. So the constitution was changed and Lahoud was appointed President. The opposition to the Syrians are reportedly planning to re-change the constitution to shorten Lahoud’s term. ) That was the basis of Hariri’s resignation.

In addition Hariri, a billionaire from business dealings in Saudi Arabia, used some of his money to reconstruct Lebanon from the destruction of its long civil war. He was attempting to rebuild what was once known as the Paris of the Middle East. (It is not known whether he spoke French, but it is certain he was making money on the reconstruction.)  Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, who lives in the mountain stronghold of Chouf, is a Druse, a secretive religion related to Islam.  He and Hariri in combination with other anti-Syrian political groups including the Maronite Christians were planning to form a new, more potent parliamentary opposition to the Syrian puppet regime. (The French connection stems from the early twentieth century when France owned this neighborhood and separated Lebanon from Greater Syria to create a Christian enclave.)

The Syrian-installed puppet government headed by Omar Karami submitted its resignation on February 28 to the extra-constitutional  President Emile Lahoud whose term has constitutionally expired. Karami stated that ‘the government does not become an obstacle to the good of the country.’ This may be first time in Arab recent history that a government was overthrown peacefully by popular demand. Ten of thousands of Lebanese celebrated in the streets at Karami’s resignation.

The assassination of Hariri along with sixteen of his bodyguards and innocent civilians has created a problem for Assad fil. We, of course, do not know if he was involved in the murder. While one of my governments claim to have ‘solid’ evidence of his involvement and the other confirms it, both have been known to shade the truth. That does not mean the Bashar is innocent. Bashar in his defining speech compared the murder of Hariri with the ‘murder’ of Arafat, blaming both of the Mossad.

Either he knew and approved his people assassinating Hariri or they operated without his knowledge. In the first case if there were an honest government he would be tried for conspiracy to murder; in the latter case he needs to resign. His position may be compared to ‘Baby doc’ Duvalier of the Haitian French speaking dynasty.

Assad fil has three problems: A Lebanese problem, an Iraqi problem with his support of the insurgents and an Israeli problem with his support of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  Bashar’ speech was very popular with the Damascus Street.

The official reaction is from Muhammad Kheir Al-Jamali, columnist in the Syrian daily Al-Thawra. He stated that ‘President al-Assad in his renowned acumen, his well founded wisdom, and his penetrating insight into veiled matters surprised the forces ambushing Lebanon and Syria and those that feed on them within Lebanon, when he explained that throughout all his meetings with international envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, with his fellow Arabs, and with senior officials visiting Syria, he emphasized that Syria related positively to Resolution 1559, despite our reservations concerning it. [Likewise, he emphasized] that the problem is with the article [dealing with] the resistance [disarming Hezbollah] and with the secret article [dealing with] naturalization [of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon]. . . [Since] the only party to benefit from this crime, and whose goals turn it into the only suspect in the perpetration of this crime, is Israel.’

But one suspects the Streets strategic solution to all three problems is ‘Syria First’. Will Bashar accept that or play King Canute trying to stop the waves to America, France and the International community?

The Lebanese Problem:

If the ‘Cedar’ revolution succeeds what will happen to Lebanon? Despite the Hizbollah support Syria is likely to withdraw. Bashad speech to the Syrian Parliament (an unusual event in itself) stated that the Syrian would withdraw to ‘the borders of Lebanon and Syria’. Arab speaking and English speakers (using translations) spend more that a day trying to determine what the ‘borders’ meant? Will he withdraw from the internationally recognized border or create a new border in the Bekaa Valley? In that speech Bashad referred to 1982 when Israeli troops invaded Lebanon entered the Bekaa Valley and threatened Damascus. Israel demanded and has an international radar system in Sinai and demanded one if it ever withdraws from the Syrian Golan Heights; will Syria demand one in the Bekaa Valley?

The likelihood of a civil war in Lebanon is a real possibility. The rules in that fractured country are that President is a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni, the Speaker of the Parliament is a Shi’ite and the Deputy Speaker a Druse. The president chooses the Prime Minister who must be approved by the Parliament. Given Hariri’s death and at Karami’s resignation, according to Joseph Samaha, Editor in Chief of the Al Safir newspaper ‘there are few people left’ who can qualify. Does that explain why Karami has been reappointed acting Prime Minister by President Lahoud? Can he create a government with the approval of Parliament? Bush has established a date for Syria’s withdrawal – May 2005. Can he also establish the date Israel will begin and end stage II of the Road Map? Who elected George as the new Caesar?

How will the Lebanese ‘confessional’ political system react to Syria’s withdrawal? If a civil war breaks out one of the likely potential winners is the Shi’ites and Hizbollah. Will an independent Lebanon with its own army replace Hizbollah is guarding the border between Israel and Lebanon?  What effect would that have on its major backer Iran and on the Shi’ite majority government in Iraq? How will the Sunni minority in Lebanon and its allies the Sunni Saudi Arabia and Jordan react? King Abdallah II of Jordan, has already expressed his concern about the appearance of the Shi’ite Crescent stretching from Iran to Lebanon will tilt the balance of power in the region and is likely to threaten the Gulf countries which have a Shiite population including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is clear that Nasrallah’s ultimate objective is a Lebanon modeled after the Iranian theocracy. Attempting that would create a civil war, but Nasrallah is a very clever man and there are many ways to skin the cat.

How will the United States react? When the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1559 it ordered its special Envoy Terje Roed Larson to not only to press for Syrian withdrawal but also Hezbollah’s disarmament. It is likely that Sheik Hassan Nasrallah will follow the U.N.? Larson met on March 12 in Aleppo, Syria. Aleppo is an ancient city of Jews where St. Paul conflicted with them. It is also where the oldest Torah scroll (12th century) was held, partially burnt when the Jews escaped in 1948; the burnt remainder is in the Hebrew University Library in Jerusalem.

Hizbollah believes that the United Nations resolution is based on a deal between the United States and France; The U.S. will forgive France its transgression in Iraq in exchange for Lebanon.  Will Hizbollah celebrate the 20th commemoration of their beheading of William Buckley, the CIA chief on June 3, 2005?

How would Israel react? Are they likely to forgive Sheik Nasrallah repeated statement that Hizbollah created ‘the first Arab victory in the history of Arab-Israeli conflict’. What of Sharon’s statement that ‘Hizbollah is responsible for ‘80% of attacks on Israel’. It will be a awhile until Israel considers Hizbollah a political party rather than a terrorist organization.

The Iraqi Problem:

Syria given the pressures by the United States and now the rest of the International community may shore up its porous border and disallow the Iraqi insurgents to leak through.  They have already begun; In January Syria welcomed Prime Minister Allawi for an official visit, arrested 15 clerics advocating Jihad against the American troops in Iraq and then allowed Iraqi citizens to vote in Syria during the January 30 election. Iraq is not obsessed with Israel and may even elect the first non-Arab Head of State  in the ASrab world, the Kurd leader Jalal Talabani. (In the Bekaa Valley Iran trains its elite Revolutionary guards. It has placed thousands of missiles trained to Israel. Will Iran withdraw?)

The Israeli Problem:

Israel has made peaceful arrangements with Egypt, Jordan and Palestine; the only party left from the 1967 war that remains technically at war is Syria. In addition Israel has had long term problems with Syria regarding its support of Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as Hizbollah although the latter has with few exceptions refrained from direct involvement with Israel since Israel withdrew from the Southern Lebanon in May 2000. Hizbollah’s justification for its armed status is Israel. Given Muhmoud Abbas’ beginning to control the Palestinian armed forces and the Hudna will Hizbollah join? What if Hizbollah takes control of Lebanon, they are the largest political organization in Lebanon and they are armed. They have already accused the anti-Syrian opposition of collaborating with the Israeli’s. If the anti-Syrian opposition control a new government can they negotiate with Israel? Not likely. Israel signed a peace treaty with Lebanon in 1983 during the civil war and Israeli occupation, Syria canceled it.


After a suicide bombing in August 2003 Israel blamed Syria and bombed an evacuated training center in Syria. That was clearly a warning. More recently both the Israeli’s and the Palestinian leadership condemned the Suicide bombing by a West Bank youth in late February and blamed the Syrian branch of Islamic Jihad. They stated their responsibility while the Palestinian branch denied any involvement. Israel as a result of its ongoing developing relationship with Abbas chose not to react against the Palestinians. The question is why did Israel not bomb Syria? The Israel political leadership (with possible assistance of the U.S.) realized that bombing Syria during Assad fil’s conflict with the International community would relief him of his problems and place the blame on Israel. But however the Lebanese-Syrian problem is resolved at some point if these occurs again and at Israel ‘s choice it will react. Will the ‘Syria first’ policy allow Assad fils to reject the Hamas and Islamic Jihad offices in Damascus? If that were to occur will that create an atmosphere for Israel and Syria to begin, again, a Syrian track in the peace process?

What have we learnt from these interrelationships about the Arab world and Iran? A ‘Berlin Wall’ (one of many) seems about to fall; Nawaf Salam, a Lebanese correspondent called ‘our Boston Tea Party’.  However Beirut (and Damascus, Baghdad and Teheran) are not Boston (who won everything, both the Super Bowl and the World Series in the same year). This is the Levant, we should not believe that George Bush’s version of democracy is coming, Continuing with the baseball analogy, Yogi Berra said ‘it is not over until it is over’ and we have learnt hardly enough about this ‘strange coalition’.