Geopolitical Diary: Petraeus' Surprise Trip to Beirut
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the top coalition military commander in Iraq and future head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), made a surprise visit to Beirut on Wednesday to discuss military cooperation with the Lebanese. The U.S. general reportedly met with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman (also a former army commander) and acting Lebanese army commander Maj. Gen. Shawki al-Masri. Petraeus essentially has been Washington's rainmaker for the Middle East. He is credited with bringing some semblance of stability to Iraq and has been chosen to try to do the same for Afghanistan. Though his hands are already quite full, the general — who takes over as CENTCOM chief in September — apparently felt the need to make time for some meetings in the Levant, which leaves us wondering what this trip is really about. Contrary to expectations, the visit likely has little to do with military assistance to the Lebanese army. No amount of U.S. aid is going to be enough to build the Lebanese military into a force unified and formidable enough to competently confront an organization like Hezbollah. And a soon-to-be CENTCOM chief like Petraeus certainly does not have to be the one to make the time for a trip to Beirut to discuss giving a new batch of vehicles to Lebanese security forces. We suspect this meeting addressed more important matters. The visit comes at a critical time; the regional dynamics are shifting in the Levant. Israel and Syria are negotiating in fancy hotel rooms in Turkey over a peace deal that would enhance Israel's national security and reassert Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. These talks are progressing and are making Hezbollah more and more paranoid by the day, given that any final accommodation between the Israelis and the Syrians would include cutting Hezbollah down to size. Though the Syrians already appear to have taken some (quiet) steps to curtail Hezbollah's arms supplies, the Israelis are signaling that the ultimate litmus test for this peace deal will involve bigger and bolder action by the Syrians against the Shiite militant group. Israel is not about to allow Syria to play the middle ground in dealing with Hezbollah. With the Lebanese incapable of containing Hezbollah themselves, the Syrians are expected to play a major role in diluting Hezbollah's military strength. Exactly how Israel intends to deal with Hezbollah is still unclear, especially as the Israeli government is in a major political flux over its prime minister's impending resignation. But Israeli preparations for a military confrontation with Hezbollah are now in full swing, and we can't help but wonder whether these preparations are simply precautionary measures in case of a Hezbollah attack; or perhaps they are part of an Israeli strategy to goad Hezbollah into a war that would prove Syria's commitment to the peace talks. The same day Petraeus was in Lebanon, STRATFOR picked up information from a source in the region claiming that Syria had dismantled an anti-aircraft system in the Anti-Lebanon mountain range to the east of the Bekaa Valley — a major Hezbollah stronghold and likely the main site of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel should full-scale hostilities resume. According to the source, Israel assured the Syrians (via Turkey) that it would not attack Syrian military positions in the event of such an outbreak, leaving Hezbollah particularly vulnerable and dependent on its own meager arsenal of man-portable surface-to-air missiles. STRATFOR has not been able to confirm this information, but if true, it signals a significant shift toward peace by the Syrians. Whether or not Israel intends to attack Hezbollah, whether or not Syria intends to attack Hezbollah, and whether or not the two decide to work together militarily or politically against Hezbollah, the bottom line is that that time is coming. Any of the above options are feasible, and there are many more ways to skin this particular cat. But the commonality among all of them is that Israel and Syria are sliding from a cold war into a cold peace, and that will redefine not just their bilateral relations, but the balance of power throughout the region. A Syria that can work with Israel is one in which Iran holds little influence. A Lebanon under the Syrian thumb is one in which groups like Hezbollah face the question of accommodation or oblivion. A more secure Israel is one that does not need to be overly concerned about anything the Palestinians demand. All this adds up to a very different region, and one which the United States — via Petraeus — fully intends to be involved in shaping.