As Lebanon suffers under continuing rounds of Israeli air strikes and the United Nations, Europe, and other international players demand Israel curb its attacks (BBC), the violence cast a new light on the role played by Iran and Syria. Israel's defense minister says the country will consider deploying an international force (LAT) on the southern Lebanese border, and a new U.S. diplomatic initiative in the region (NYT), spearheaded by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, reportedly aims to convince Syria's Arab allies to urge Damascus to reexamine the long-term implications of the aid it provides for Iran's stalking horse, Hezbollah (AP). Several Arab states already have expressed concern about the new power of Shiism in the region, from Iraq's new government to Hezbollah to Iran itself. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak reiterated his anger at Iranian involvement (Ynet) in stirring the separate Hamas-Israeli violence in Gaza. CFR President Richard N. Haass says the Middle East is entering a new era in which "external powers count for less, and local actors—be they states or militias or individuals—count for more" (NYT).
In fact, Bill Samii of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty writes that Tehran and Damascus have been involved in this crisis from its outset. The two countries, whose relationship is examined in this Backgrounder, are exploiting the crisis to try to increase their regional influence. Don Darling notes in the Weekly Standard that Hezbollah's recent use of the Iranian-produced Raad-1 missile threatens 2 million Israelis, and leaves no doubt about Tehran's involvement in the violence. Iran's backing transformed Hezbollah from a ragtag group of fighters into a formidable military movement, writes Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman in his authoritative book, Deadly Connections: States That Sponsor Terrorism. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is given credit for skillfully maneuvering the group into the Lebanese government.
In Damascus, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has faced multiple challenges since taking over the presidency after his father's death in 2000. The Los Angeles Times says the Lebanon crisis reflects Syria's desire to increase its political clout by emulating Iran's model for greater independence through defiance of the international community. Syria's decline in influence after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in February 2005 is explained in this Backgrounder. Flynt Leverett, senior fellow at the New American Foundation, illuminates Bashar's regime in his book, Inheriting Syria.
And Iran is having internal power struggles of its own. Pepe Escobar writes in the Asia Times that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leads one of four factions vying for power in Tehran, and he is following his own agenda, which may not necessarily be that of the country's theocratic leadership.
Other Arab countries are expressing sympathy for the Lebanese civilians sustaining most of the casualties, and a measure of anger at Hezbollah (WashPost). But this sentiment is not reflected in public opinion on the Arab street: Most regular citizens in a range of Arab countries support Hezbollah's actions (CSMonitor). The Middle East Media Research Institute details the disparate reactions in Lebanon, Iran, and Syria to Israel's military offensive, finding both praise and some criticism. Syrian political expert Sami Moubayed writes that some in the Middle East are quietly wondering if Nasrallah is another Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, who led his country to "unforgivable defeat" in 1967.
And the crisis reflects badly on the United States, which many in Lebanon see as having abandoned the country after encouraging it to choose democracy and push out Syria. By failing to rein in Israel's military campaign against Lebanon, the United States is damaging its own interests and reputation in the region and making Israel more insecure, writes Muqtedar Khan of the Brookings Institution.