JERUSALEM – As Syria prepares to withdraw some of its troops from positions in Lebanon, Iran has been fortifying Hezbollah bases and positioning itself to become the dominant force on the ground in Lebanon, senior opposition sources say.
“Iran sees the mounting pressure on its partner Syria to withdraw and is using it as an opportunity to become the next power broker in Lebanon,” a spokesman for the Druze opposition Progressive Socialist Party told WND. “The world is focused on Syria getting out, but must recognize Iran is poised to take its place.”
Syria has been under intense international pressure to withdraw its nearly 20,000 troops from Lebanon after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri last month sparked a general uprising demanding an end to Syrian occupation. Damascus was widely blamed for the assassination.
Syrian president Bashar Assad yesterday offered the United Nations a timetable for what he said would be a full withdrawal of his military and intelligence agencies from Lebanese territory, pledging to move all Syrian military assets into Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley and shut down Syria’s intelligence headquarters in Beirut by April 1.
But opposition sources say that as Syria plans an exit next month, Iran is taking action on the ground to fill the resulting void. Iran has been using Revolutionary Guard units to fortify key early warning stations and Hezbollah bases that Syria has pledged to vacate, sources said. They report Iran has made preparations to supply Hezbollah bases with tanks, rockets and missiles, and is conducting high-level talks about using Hezbollah to create a larger pro-Iranian Shiite force in Lebanon.
Iran has also reportedly stepped up its financial assistance to Hezbollah, to which it currently pays over $40 million a year.
Hezbollah commands a large following among Lebanon’s 1.5 million strong Shiite community, and boasts 12 parliamentary seats – the largest Shia party in the country.
Hezbollah provides the Shiite population with social welfare services ranging from education to medical care, and was able to produce large numbers at a pro-Syrian rally last week where Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah called for Damascus to keep its troops in the country.
“Iran’s presence in Lebanon is as old as the Iranian revolution,” Dr. Walid Phares, secretary general of the World Lebanese Culture Union, told WND. “As early as 1980, Revolutionary Guards, with Syria’s approval, established bases in the Bekaa Valley, and helped in the forming of Hezbollah. Iran maintains about 1,000 or more of these guards who are military assistants to Hezbollah.”
In a major boost for Syria and Iran, ousted Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami, considered pro-Damascus, was reinstated after a majority of the parliament voted to have him head a new government. Analysts say Karami’s reappointment is seen as an attempt by Syria to continue its dominance of Lebanese politics.
The political dynamics in Lebanon are such that the parliament is almost evenly split between the pro-Syrian camp and the opposition, with Syria backed Hezbollah holding the deciding votes.
Earlier in the week, Hezbollah staged a mass protest in which hundreds of thousands packed into a central Beirut meeting square, chanting support for Syrian troops to maintain positions in Lebanon and denouncing America in what has been called a massive show of strength by pro-Syrian elements.
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Michel Aoun discounted the Hezbollah rally in a WND exclusive interview, explaining it included non-Lebanese citizens, Syrian workers, students and municipal employees coerced into joining.
“This was not a Lebanese showing,” said Aoun. “Many of those who actually were Lebanese were not there because they support Syria. We know that at least three Palestinian camps were present. And there are 700,000 Syrian workers inside Lebanon, many of whom are not even supposed to be there. They were urged by Syria to attend so it looks like many Lebanese are protesting. Plus Syria bused in their own citizens from Syria through the border into Lebanon to join the rally.”