US embassy cable - 86DAMASCUS3747

SYRIA AND IRAN ON LEBANON: WHO THREATENS WHOM?

Identifier: 86DAMASCUS3747
Wikileaks: View 86DAMASCUS3747 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Damascus
Created: 1986-06-20 11:02:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL
Tags: PREL PTER ECON SY IR LE IZ IS
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
O 201102Z JUN 86
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5703
INFO AMEMBASSY ANKARA PRIORITY
ARAB-ISRAELI COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
AMEMBASSY BEIRUT PRIORITY
AMCONSUL JEDDAH
AMEMBASSY KUWAIT
AMEMBASSY MOSCOW PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 DAMASCUS 03747 
 
SIPDIS 
E.O. 12356:  DECL: OADR 
TAGS:  PREL, PTER, ECON, SY, IR, LE, IZ, IS 
SUBJECT:  SYRIA AND IRAN ON LEBANON:  WHO THREATENS WHOM? 
 
REF:  DAMASCUS 3628 
 
1.  CONFIDENTIAL - ENTIRE TEXT. 
 
2.  SUMMARY:  IN ITS PRESENT SPARRING WITH IRAN, SYRIA 
PROBABLY DOES NOT HOLD A STRONG LEBANON CARD.  IRAN 
NOW VIES WITH ISRAEL AS THE SECOND-MOST INFLUENTIAL 
FOREIGN POWER IN LEBANON, WHERE SHI'A FUNDAMENTALISM, 
NATURALLY ASSOCIATED WITH IRAN, HAS BECOME WELL-INGRAINED. 
SYRIA COULD CAUSE IRAN SHORT-TERM DIFFICULTIES BY 
TERMINATING THE IRANIAN PRESENCE IN BA'LBAKK, AND IT 
COULD AT GREAT COST ATTACK HIZBALLAH (JUST AS IT COULD 
THEORETICALLY ATTACK THE MARONITES).  HOWEVER, TO DO SO 
WOULD NOT ONLY BE A DEPARTURE FROM SYRIA'S POST-1978 
POLICY OF KEEPING COSTS DOWN IN LEBANON, IT WOULD RISK 
CHANGING THE SHI'A INTO ACTIVE ANTAGONISTS AGAINST SYRIA. 
THIS POTENTIALLY WOULD BE A NIGHTMARE FOR SYRIA, BOTH IN 
LEBANON AND WITHIN SYRIA ITSELF.  END SUMMARY. 
 
3.  EVENTS SURROUNDING THE FAILURE OF THE IRAQI-SYRIA 
BORDER MEETING SUGGEST THAT THE IRAN-SYRIA RELATIONSHIP 
HAS SURVIVED A ROCKY PERIOD.  THE PRINCIPAL IRRITANTS 
WERE SYRIA'S ECONOMIC NEED AND THE TWO COUNTRIES' SHARPLY 
DIVERGENT GOALS IN LEBANON.  IF THE RELATIONSHIP SEEMS 
FOR THE MOMENT TO HAVE GONE BACK TO "NORMAL," IT IS 
EVIDENTLY BECAUSE THE IRANIANS HAVE GIVEN THE SYRIANS TO 
BELIEVE THAT OIL SUPPLY WILL RESUME WITHOUT SERIOUS 
DEMAND FOR PAYMENT EITHER FOR PRESENT OR PAST SHIPMENTS. 
BUT WHERE DOES LEBANON FIT INTO THE EQUATION?  IT SEEMS 
AXIOMATIC THAT FUNDAMENTALIST IRAN AND SECULAR SYRIA ARE 
ON A LONG-TERM COLLISION COURSE IN LEBANON AND THAT THEY 
HAVE NOT ALTERED THEIR GOALS IN LEBANON, AND WILL NOT DO 
SO.  IN THE MOST RECENT SPARRING, THE QUESTION ARISES 
WHETHER IRAN FELT CONSTRAINED BY THE PROSPECT OF A SYRIAN 
CLAMPDOWN AGAINST HIZBALLAH, OR--TO THE CONTRARY, AS SOME 
PRESS REPORTS HAVE SUGGESTED--WHETHER SYRIA FELT ALARMED 
OVER POSSIBLE IRAN/HIZBALLAH ACTIONS AGAINST SYRIAN 
INTERESTS.  WHO THREATENS  WHOM OVER LEBANON? 
 
4.  WE DOUBT THAT IRANIAN DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER 
BESHARATI DELIVERED BALD THREATS TO THE SYRIANS WHEN HE 
MADE HIS JUNE 5-15 TRIP TO SYRIA AND LEBANON.  BUT WE 
ARE STRUCK BY THE BOLDNESS OF HIS PUBLIC STATEMENTS AND 
ACTIONS; THE HIGH LEVEL AT WHICH HE WAS RECEIVED IN 
DAMASCUS BEFORE AND AFTER GOING TO LEBANON--WHERE HE 
ENGAGED IN A NEGOTIATING TRACK ON THE CAMPS WAR SEPARATE 
FROM KHADDAM'S--; SYRIA'S POSITIVE PUBLIC STATEMENTS ON 
IRAN SIMULTANEOUS WITH THE FAILURE OF THE IRAQ-SYRIA 
BORDER MEETING; AND INDICATORS OF SYRIAN TIMIDITY TOWARD 
IRAN VIS-A-VIS LEBANON. 
 
5.  OF THESE INDICATORS, WE NOTE ESPECIALLY LEBANON 
BA'TH PARTY CHIEF 'ASIM QANSUH'S REMARKS JUNE 12 (REFTEL). 
QANSUH WAS PROVEN WRONG ABOUT SYRIAN MILITARY 
INTERVENTION AT MASHGHARA--THE SYRIANS DID EVENTUALLY AND 
TARDILY INTERVENE--AND ONE FACTOR IN SYRIAN HESITANCY 
MAY HAVE BEEN CONCERN ABOUT ISRAELI REACTION. 
NEVERTHELESS, IT IS CLEAR FROM WHAT QANSUH SAID THAT THE 
SYRIANS WERE RELUCTANT TO TAKE ON HIZBALLAH AND OFFEND 
IRAN. 
 
6.  IN OUR VIEW, NEITHER SYRIA NOR IRAN IS IN A POSITION 
IN LEBANON TO BE ABLE TO DELIVER THREATS.  EACH HAS 
REASON TO BE ALARMED AT THE OTHER'S ACTIVITIES AND 
AMBITIONS IN LEBANON, BUT THE STAKES ARE TOO HIGH 
ELSEWHERE--FOR SYRIA, THE PROSPECT OF VIRTUALLY FREE OIL 
IN LARGE QUANTITY--TO ALLOW LEBANON TO SOUR THE OVERALL 
RELATIONSHIP. 
 
7.  SYRIA HAS GIVEN IRAN A FEW KNOCKS IN LEBANON, BUT 
NONE OF THESE HAS BEEN LARGE ENOUGH TO HARM THE RELATION- 
SHIP.  SYRIA CLAMPED DOWN ON IRAN'S SUNNI ALLIES IN 
TRIPOLI, IT HAS ENGAGED IN OCCASIONAL ALTERCATIONS WITH 
HIZBALLAH, AND NOW IT HAS INTERVENED IN MASHGHARA BECAUSE 
OF HIZBALLAH'S ATTACKS AGAINST ITS SSNP ALLY.  BUT WHAT 
SYRIA HAS FAILED TO DO IS MUCH MORE IMPRESSIVE.  THE 
IRANIAN GUARD PRESENCE IN SYRIAN-"CONTROLLED" LEBANON 
CONTINUES AS BEFORE; IRAN CONTINUES TO MOVE SUPPLIES TO 
HIZBALLAH VIA SYRIA, VIRTUALLY UNIMPEDED; AND THE SYRIANS 
HAVE BEEN LIMP AND INEFFECTUAL IN PUSHING IRAN ON THE 
HOSTAGES.  MEANWHILE, AS HIZBALLAH HAS GAINED IN STRENGTH 
IN RECENT YEARS, SO HAS IRANIAN INFLUENCE IN LEBANON 
INCREASED MARKEDLY.  IRAN NOW, WE WOULD JUDGE, VIES WITH 
ISRAEL AS THE SECOND-MOST INFLUENTIAL FOREIGN POWER IN 
LEBANON. 
 
8.  BY ALLOWING A REVOLUTIONARY GUARD PRESENCE AND GIVING 
THE IRANIANS EASY ACCESS SINCE 1982, SYRIA MAY HAVE 
ACCELERATED THE PACE OF GROWTH OF HIZBALLAH AND IRANIAN 
INFLUENCE.  HOWEVER, THE IRANIAN REVOLUTION IS THE SINGLE 
MOST DYNAMIC AND ALLURING MOVEMENT IN THE MIDDLE EAST OVER 
THE PAST DECADE; IT WAS BOUND TO HAVE AN EXTRAORDINARY 
IMPACT ON THE LEBANESE SHI'A COMMUNITY.  IT IS OPEN TO 
QUESTION HOW MUCH SYRIA COULD HAVE DONE TO STEM THE TIDE. 
THERE ALWAYS WERE, AND STILL ARE, OTHER ROUTES--THAN 
THROUGH SYRIA--FOR IRAN TO REACH AND INFLUENCE THE HIGHLY 
RECEPTIVE LEBANESE SHI'A.  THE SYRIANS HAVE ACTIVELY 
ATTEMPTED TO COUNTERBALANCE THE IRANIANS BY GIVING SUPPORT 
TO NABIH BARRI, BUT WITH WHAT LONG-TERM EFFECT REMAINS 
TO BE SEEN. 
 
9.  SYRIANS OCCASIONALLY TELL US THAT THEY WILL BE ABLE 
TO CONTAIN THE LEBANESE SHI'A "WHEN THE NEED ARISES." 
HOWEVER, WE THINK THAT THEIR BOAST IS HOLLOW AND THAT 
THE SYRIANS WELL KNOW IT.  THEY HAVE MADE THE BEST OF THE 
SITUATION BY MILKING THE IRANIANS--KEEPING THAT 
RELATIONSHIP BOTH CORDIAL AND LUCRATIVE--WHILE ATTEMPTING 
TO BOLSTER BARRI.  THE FUTURE MUST BE WORRISOME. 
 
10.  THE REAL TEST OF WHETHER SYRIA CAN OR WILL ACT 
AGAINST IRAN/HIZBALLAH WILL COME IF IRAN'S PROMISES OF 
CONTINUED OIL DELIVERIES PROVE FALSE.  EVEN THEN, HOWEVER, 
WE WOULD PREDICT THAT THE SYRIANS WILL MOVE IN A 
GINGERLY FASHION.  THE ULTIMATE PROSPECT IS OF A 
LEBANESE SHI'A COMMUNITY ALIENATED FROM SYRIA AND, 
POSSIBLY, WITH IRANIAN SUPPORT ENERGIZED TO COMBAT SYRIA. 
IF SYRIA WENT TOO FAR IN ALIENATING IRAN/HIZBALLAH, IT 
MIGHT EVEN FACE AN ACTIVE IRANIAN/HIZBALLAH EMBRACE OF 
THE SYRIAN MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD.  THE MOST RADICAL (ALSO 
THE MOST DANGEROUS) ELEMENTS OF THE BROTHERHOOD ARE 
ANTAGONISTIC TO IRAN BECAUSE OF IRANIAN SUPPORT FOR THE 
HERETICAL ALAWI BA'THI REGIME; IF THAT SUPPORT WERE 
REMOVED, THE NATURAL AFFINITY THAT IRAN HAS FOR THIS 
GROUP WOULD PRESUMABLY COME TO THE FORE.  THE PRECEDENT 
FOR FUNDAMENTALIST SUNNI-SHI'A COOPERATION HAS ALREADY 
BEEN ESTABLISHED IN TRIPOLI. 
 
11.  IN ANY CASE, A STRONG SYRIAN MOVE AGAINST HIZBALLAH 
WOULD RUN AGAINST THE GRAIN OF SYRIAN POLICY IN LEBANON 
AS ESTABLISHED OVER THE PAST EIGHT YEARS.  AT THE 
BEGINNING OF THE CIVIL WAR (1976-78) SYRIA INTERVENED 
DIRECTLY IN MAJOR FIGHTING, AT GREAT COST; SINCE THEN IT 
HAS PURSUED A LOW-COST POLICY, TRYING TO BALANCE PARTIES 
AGAINST EACH OTHER AND USING PROXIES IN LIMITED 
ENGAGEMENTS.  DESPITE PREDICTIONS TO THE CONTRARY AND 
DESPITE THE EMBARRASSING FAILURE OF THE TRIPARTITE ACCORD, 
THE SYRIANS HAVE BACKED OFF FROM ATTACKING THE MARONITES. 
THE PROSPECT OF A FULL-SCALE ATTACK AGAINST HIZBALLAH IS 
EVEN MORE REMOTE. 
 
12.  HOWEVER, LIMITED ENGAGEMENTS ARE BOUND TO CONTINUE. 
MASHGHARA IS A CASE IN POINT.  THE SYRIANS ARE ESPECIALLY 
NERVOUS ABOUT SOUTHERN LEBANON, BECAUSE OF THE POTENTIAL 
THERE FOR ROUSING THE ISRAELIS.  THE SHI'A OF SOUTHERN 
LEBANON HAVE ALSO, THUS FAR, BEEN THE LEAST RECEPTIVE TO 
HIZBALLAH.  WITH MASHGHARA THE SYRIANS MAY BE NERVOUSLY 
DRAWING A LINE WHICH THEY HOPE HIZBALLAH AND IRAN WILL 
ACCEPT, FOR THE TIME BEING. 
 
13.  BEIRUT MINIMIZE CONSIDERED. 
 
RANSOM 

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