How Do You Say 'Quagmire' in Farsi?

Why Syria could turn out to be Iran's Vietnam -- not America's.

ARSAL, Lebanon  — For more than a year, leaders in Lebanon have anxiously eyed the murderous civil war in Syria, wondering whether it would leap across the border and engulf the small, fractious country. And yet, it is Lebanon that now has jumped decisively into the fray, with Hezbollah's help apparently crucial to the Syrian regime's strategy and survival.

Uniformed Hezbollah fighters openly patrol the northern reaches of Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, fighting on either side of the increasingly porous border with Syria. Rocket and mortar teams target Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters a few miles away, and Lebanese Hezbollah infantry fighters crisscross the "Shiite villages" surrounding the city of Qusayr just across the border in Syria, which now forms one of the pivot points of the conflict.

The fighting around Qusayr has brought into the open the parlor game over whether Iran and Hezbollah are active combatants in Syria's war. In an April 30 speech, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah hinted at greater involvement from the Lebanese paramilitary group in Syria, warning that the regime had "real friends" who would prevent Syria from "fall[ing] into the hands" of the United States and Israel.

The thunder of artillery fire in the mountains flanking the Beqaa Valley, like the spate of no-longer-hidden Hezbollah funerals, make clear that Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors have crossed a Rubicon. They are now fully vested factions in the Syrian civil war, and they're committed to an open and escalating fight.

Not 20 miles from Hezbollah's position as the crow flies, FSA fighters flee across the border to the Sunni village of Arsal, nestled north in the Beqaa Valley in the mountains separating Lebanon and Syria. They make no distinction between the Syrian army, Hezbollah, and Iran -- because, they say, they get shot at by all three.

"We could have common interests with Hezbollah, but they're attacking us. Now there are grudges, which we will have to settle after the war," said Shehadeh Ahmed Sheikh, 24, a self-described mortar man in the FSA. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of an unfinished home in Arsal. Sheikh had brought with him 16 members of his extended family after their house in Qusayr had been destroyed earlier that week; as we talked, they squatted around him in the dwelling, which they had been assigned to by Arsal's mayor.

Like many Sunnis in the area, he referred to Hezbollah, whose name means "the Party of God" in Arabic, as Hezb al-Shaitan -- "the Party of Satan."

By supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the hilt, Hezbollah and Iran are risking their hard-won reputation as stewards of an anti-Israel and anti-U.S. alliance that transcends sect and nationality. Syrian combatants increasingly understand the war in sectarian terms: On one side there is the Sunni majority; on the other side, other sects and a small group of Sunnis that have made common cause with the Alawite regime.

Western diplomats estimate that a few thousand Hezbollah fighters are involved in the Syrian fighting. Close observers of the group, which carefully guards its operational structure, say that they mistrust any precise numbers. But if Hezbollah has sent hundreds, or even a few thousand, of its best-trained fighters to Syria, that deployment certainly represents a significant percentage of its fighting force. During its 2006 war with Israel, the highest estimate of Hezbollah fighters killed was about 700, with the group's own official death toll closer to 300.

Sunnis are increasingly framing the conflict as a sectarian jihad. The influential Lebanese Salafi cleric Ahmad Al-Assir has set up his own militia, suggesting his fighters would be just as willing to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon as they already are to travel to Syria to fight alongside the rebels there. Supporters of the regime and Hezbollah point out that the rebellion tolerates Sunni fundamentalist extremists whereas Assad and Hezbollah rely on a time-tested alliance of minorities, including Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shiite Muslims. The propaganda of both sides has sharpened a narrative of the Syrian conflict as a struggle between Sunni extremists and old-style authoritarians, who at least protect the minorities they exploit. Deadly identity politics have taken root, and people on both sides of the conflict see it more and more as a matter of survival. Sheikh, the young Sunni fighter, planned to return to battle as soon as he settled his family: "We cannot go back to the way things were before."

* * *

On the eve of the uprisings just three short years ago, many Arab analysts observed half-jokingly that the most influential state in the Arab world wasn't Arab at all -- it was Iran, awash in oil revenues and ready to lavish cash on a region in the throes of an increasingly hot Sunni-Shiite cold war. Sunni monarchs and dictators fretted about a "Shiite Crescent" linking Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah. Tehran, for its part, strutted triumphantly across the Arab stage, bragging about an unstoppable "Axis of Resistance" oiled with ideological fervor and the supreme leader's bank account.

What a difference a few uprisings can make. Today, Iran's involvement in Syria has all the makings of a quagmire, and certainly represents the Islamic Republic's biggest strategic setback in the region since its war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ended in 1988. Syria's conflict has begun to attract so much attention and resources that it threatens to end the era when Iran could nimbly outmaneuver the slow-moving American behemoth in the Middle East.

Iran -- already reeling from sanctions -- is spending hundreds of millions of dollars propping up Bashar al-Assad's regime. In the murky arena of sub rosa foreign intervention, it's impossible to keep a detailed count of the dollars, guns, and operatives the Islamic Republic has dispatched to Syria. Westerners and Arab officials who have met in recent months with Syrian government ministers say that Iranian advisers are retooling key ministries to provide copious military training, including to the newly established citizen militias in regime-controlled areas of Syria. "We back Syria," Iranian General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan reiterated on May 5. "If there is need for training we will provide them with the training."

In private meetings, Iranian diplomats in the region project insouciance, suggesting that the Islamic Republic can indefinitely sustain its military and financial aid to the Assad regime. To be sure, its burden today is probably bearable. But as sanctions squeeze Iran and it comes under increasing pressure over its nuclear program, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) might find the investment harder to sustain. The conflict shows no signs of ending, and as foreign aid to the rebels escalates, Iran will have to pour in more and more resources simply to maintain a stalemate. If this is Iran's Vietnam, we're only beginning year three.

The cost of Tehran's support of Assad can't entirely be measured in dollars. Iran has had to sacrifice most of its other Arab allies on the Syrian altar. As the violence worsened, Hamas gave up its home in Damascus and its warm relationship with Tehran. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government has also adopted a scolding tone toward Iran on Syria. On Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy's first visit to Tehran, he took the opportunity to blast the "oppressive regime" in Damascus, saying it was an "ethical duty" to support the opposition.

Gone are the days when Iran held the mantle of popular resistance. Popular Arab movements, including Syria's own rebels, now have the momentum and air of authenticity. Iran's mullahs finally look to the Arab near-abroad as they long have appeared at home -- repressive, authoritarian, and fierce defenders of the status quo.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Iran's commitment to Assad has put the crown jewel of its assets in the Arab world, Hezbollah, in danger. Just a few years ago, a survey found that Nasrallah was the most popular leader in the Arab world. Along with other members of the "resistance axis," Hezbollah mocked the rest of the Arab world's political movements as toadies and collaborators, happy to submit to American-Israeli hegemony. Today, however, it has sacrificed this popular support and enraged Sunnis across the Arab world by siding with a merciless dictator.

Hezbollah used to try to cultivate allies from all sects, so that it wouldn't seem to be pursuing a purely Shiite agenda, but it now appears in the eyes of the Arab world to have cast its lot -- hook, line, and sinker -- with a brutal minority regime in Syria over a popular, largely Islamist movement. A Pew survey last year found that the group's popularity was declining in predominantly Sunni countries such as Egypt and Jordan, while Lebanese Sunnis and Christians also increasingly soured on the party.

In the border town of Hermel, usually secretive Hezbollah fighters have openly mobilized. They fight on both sides of the border, protecting a ring of Shiite villages in Syria that connect Damascus to the Alawite heartland. An untold number of Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria -- so many that the movement has stopped keeping the funerals secret and has even released videos of some of the martyrs. "We bury our martyrs in the open," Nasrallah said in his recent speech. "We are not ashamed of them."

Hezbollah positions in Hermel were shelled on May 12, and the Sunni jihadist Nusra Front reportedly claimed responsibility. In their rhetoric, Lebanese politicians have sought to downplay the sectarian nature of the fight in Syria, and there are plenty of individuals who say they have chosen sides out of interest or ideology, rather than sect. Yet to most of its participants, the conflict has taken on an undeniably sectarian hue: an almost entirely Sunni rebellion, against a regime supported by the majority of Syria's other sects.

"There's no difference between Hezbollah, the army, and the Syrian regime," scoffed Mustafa Ezzedine, a driver in Arsal who was recently dragged into the conflict as a literal hostage, kidnapped because he was a Sunni Muslim by a Shiite clan that wanted one of its own kidnapped members released. It doesn't matter that among his guests at a recent, lazy hashish-fueled afternoon tea was a member of that same rival clan: sectarian politics have little regard for personal views. For residents of the Beqaa Valley, the war in Syria has already drifted across the border, and they fear it could get worse quickly.

The regional stakes are high as well. On at least one occasion, the Syrian conflict has cost an Iranian military commander his life. In mid-February, a shadowy IRGC officer responsible for overseeing Iranian reconstruction projects in Lebanon who went by the names Hessam Khoshnevis and Hassan Shateri was killed on the road from Damascus to Beirut. Iran put out the story that Israel assassinated their man, but Western and Arab officials told me they had seen reliable intelligence reports that it was a Syrian rebel ambush.

A who's who of Lebanese politicians paid condolences at the Iranian embassy, and Hezbollah's number two, Naim Qassem, delivered a long tribute to the fallen IRGC offer at a memorial service in an underground theater in Beirut's Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. It was the latest sign that Hezbollah is willing to risk everything in supporting the Syrian dictator -- and that Iran just may ask its Lebanese ally to fight to the end, or go down with the ship.

"We would be nothing without Iran!" Qassem thundered in his tribute. "Others hide the foreign funds they receive. We proudly open our hands to Iran's gifts. What the resistance needs, they provide."



Janus in Islamabad

Is Pakistan's once and likely future prime minister someone the United States can work with?

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Nearly 15 years after he was ousted in a bloodless coup, business tycoon Nawaz Sharif and his center-right party are poised to regain control over Pakistan's government, according to early returns from the historic May 11 vote -- the first transfer of power from one elected government to another in the country's history. 

Like the last two times he won the premiership, Sharif appears to have ridden to power on the back of strong support from his Punjabi heartland, a province that is home to much of the Pakistani elite, but also a patchwork of violent sectarian and Islamic groups. 

Nobody has ever accused Sharif, himself, of being an extremist, but like anywhere else, success in Pakistani politics requires playing to the base. Take Sharif’s push in 1998, during his second stint as prime minister, to pass a constitutional amendment that would have imposed sharia law across the country. “He doesn’t believe in sharia,” said William Milam, the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan at the time. “This was a totally cynical thing to do, it was obviously directed to try and keep the Islamists attached to him.”

Few, if any, in Washington or Islamabad think Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), will try to change the overall trajectory of bilateral relations between the United States and Pakistan -- on security or other priorities. But Sharif’s track record of ambivalence towards extremists could prove troubling in more nuanced ways.

Sharif's senior advisers insist he would be committed to working in close collaboration with the United States, including on security issues, the fact that PML-N governments have, as Millam put it, "played footsie," with extremist groups in the past represents exactly the sort of mixed message many in Pakistan worry the violence-wracked country simply cannot afford.

Since the end of last decade, Pakistan has faced a growing threat from the domestic insurgent group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, composed of Islamic fundamentalists intent on overthrowing the state. What once was a movement largely confined to the country's remote tribal areas now has a growing presence in major urban hubs, most worryingly Karachi, Pakistan largest city and its economic heartbeat. In a bid to disrupt the elections, they've launched terrorist attacks that have left more than 100 people dead in recent months.

Gone are the days when Pakistan's powerful military could take on foes -- both its own and Americas -- with impunity and not face popular pushback. A decade ago, President Pervez Musharraf, a general who assumed power in a 1999 military coup, enjoyed almost unfettered power to partner closely with the United States in its post-Sept. 11 "war on terror." Now he is under house arrest in his estate on the outskirts of Islamabad, facing trial for his actions during the waning days of his term. According to retired three-star Pakistani Army Gen. Talat Masood, today in Pakistan "there is a lot of confusion, especially amongst the political class" about the military campaign against extremists.

"And because of the political confusion and in the media, the people are also equally confused as to exactly what this war is all about, whom it is directed to," Masood explained in Islamabad earlier this spring -- a key reason, he said, for Pakistan's recent failures in its fight against militants.

Former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Maleeha Lodhi put it more directly. What Pakistan needs, she said, is a strong government that will tell its people, "we need to confront this threat, here's how we're going to do it, we need your support."

In the last few years, she lamented, "I have not...seen anybody stand up and make that kind of a speech."

In the waning days of this year's campaign, Sharif began to speak out publicly -- including to Western media -- against what he has characterized as a flawed U.S. "war on terror."

But Sharif's senior advisors have also taken pains to highlight the party's longstanding partnership with the United States, including their boss's close relationship with former President Bill Clinton during his time in office. The message: Sharif is a known quantity to U.S. policymakers, as opposed to, say, Pakistani cricket icon Imran Khan, who has publicly threatened to shoot down U.S. drones if elected prime minister.

Sharif's advisors said in March that should the PML-N form the next government -- which is likely to be a coalition -- the plan is to "pursue a policy of close cooperation, of intense dialogue," said Tariq Fatemi, Sharif's senior foreign policy advisor and a former ambassador to the United States, particularly in neighboring Afghanistan, whose stability is a top priority for both countries.

When it comes to actual prescriptions for reining in the patchwork of militant groups whose violence is paralyzing more and more of the country, PML-N officials emphasized a holistic approach. "Force alone will not resolve this problem," Iqbal insisted. "We have a whole comprehensive package of ... reforms that we believe will go after acts of militancy and terrorism at the root," the deputy secretary explained, launching into a presentation on the party's scheme for dividing and conquering militants' various sources of support.

"There are elements who have been misguided on religious message, which is the wrong narrative of religion. So we need to engage them by giving them an alternate narrative," said Iqbal. "There are people who have joined this movement for social reasons, social inequality and other reasons. So we need to have justice and good governance."

"And then there are also people who are criminals," he continued, "who are joining the bandwagon of extremists for their own agendas. So we need effective policing and effective intelligence to bust their ranks."

If that sounds familiar, there's a good reason. The U.S. government has outlined a similar vision of "reintegration" and "reconciliation" to bring the West's war with the Taliban to a close in neighboring Afghanistan. Ultimately, most analysts agree that Pakistan will need a political solution in its own war against militancy as well. The problem, as the United States has found with the Afghani Taliban, is that it is difficult to pursue that path from a position of weakness.

"Negotiations have to be conducted from a point of strength. And everybody agrees that the government is not attacking from strength," said prominent Pakistani nuclear expert and peace activist Abdul Hameed Nayyar. "There will have to be a strategy where first of all the militants are in some manner defanged and then they can move to take them on and try get them to negotiate."

The worry is that Sharif's party is going at this backwards -- more willing to negotiate with militants than to fight them.

"The one thing I would say to the next government is if you want to engage with these groups, you have to engage on the basis of the law and the constitution," cautioned Lodhi. "Because anything short of that is appeasement. And we know appeasement never pays."

When it comes to terrorism, Sharif and his fellow party members "believe that there is no room for extremism in Islam or in Pakistani society," Iqbal insisted.

But word and deed are two different things.

Many in Pakistan have not forgotten the image, a few years back, of Punjab's law minister and high ranking PML-N official Rana Sanaullah appearing in a motorcade with Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the onetime leader of the Punjabi-based Sunni sectarian group Sipah-e-Sahaba, which is banned in Pakistan as a terrorist group. Other militant groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba -- the group behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks -- also call the province of Punjab home. Sipah-e-Sahaba has since morphed into the Islamist political party Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, and according to multiple reports in the Pakistani media, it reached an agreement with the PML-N to jointly support candidates for roughly a dozen parliamentary seats.

Not surprisingly, this has Pakistani liberals and minorities nervous. Sectarian violence is on the rise in Pakistan -- there is evidence of it even in Islamabad, a relative oasis of calm, where calls to "Stop Shiite Genocide" are scrawled across the whitewashed walls of government compounds all over town. While Sunni extremists like Jaish-e-Mohammed have not focused on targeting the United States, there is a growing consensus in Pakistan that ambiguity towards militants plays into the hands of violent groups of all stripes.

Of course, ambiguity has been a hallmark of Pakistani counterterrorism policy for decades. The United States, for example, continues to criticize Pakistan's military for covertly supporting militant groups fighting Western troops in Afghanistan. Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, went as far as dubbing the militant Haqqani Network a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's intelligence agency in 2011.

Sharif has also taken a tough stand against militants at times. In the late 1990's, for example, "he wanted to be helpful where he could," Milam recalled, "but he was very careful and cautious."

In his own recent conversations with Sharif's advisers, Rand Corp. counterterrorism expert Seth G. Jones said they expressed great concern about the Pakistani Taliban, and a desire to secure continued U.S. assistance to fight the group. The United States currently provides military aid and counterinsurgency assistance for Pakistan to the tune of several billion dollars per year.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the executive director of the Islamabad-based think tank Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, also pointed out that one of the extremists groups Sharif and his party stand accused of tolerating tried to assassinate the PML-N leader in 1999. "Let's not forget Nawaz Sharif's government came down very heavily against Lakshar-e-Jhangvi," back then, which is why they targeted him, said Mehboob.

That's why he and others predict little change in the status quo between Pakistan and the United States regardless of election outcome. "I don't think there will be any major policy shift if the PML-N or PPP or even PTI comes in power," Mehboob said earlier this spring, using the acronyms for the ruling Pakistan People's Party and Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. He concluded, however, that "they have different approaches" when it comes to countering extremists.

If the PML-N does succeed in forming the next government, it will by all likelihood be via a broad coalition that could very well include members of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and other Islamist parties. "It seems," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani defense analyst based in Lahore, "that Pakistan's already confused policy on countering terrorism will become more vague."

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images