Lebanon has been torn between West and East for quite some time. The very founding of the state was based upon a compromise between Christians and Muslims. The former would acknowledge that Lebanon was an "Arab state" in exchange for a Muslim pledge not to pursue unity with Syria. The division between the pro-West bloc and the pro-Syria bloc continues through today, although the actors on both sides of the divide have changed.
Following the 2005 Cedar Revolution and the end of the three-decade-long Syrian occupation of Lebanon, despite attempts made at national unity, the Lebanese political field split in two: the pro-West March 14 Alliance and the pro-Syria "March 8" camp. This time, the divide was Sunni Muslims and Druze vs. Shiite Muslims, with Christians split between them. One party that would join the "March 8" coalition was Hezbollah, the self-proclaimed "Party of God.
Following Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sought to "export the revolution" across the region. This effort largely failed. There was, however, one country that fit the bill. Lebanon shared a border with Israel. It had a notable Shiite population. Western countries had a stake in the "Switzerland of the Middle East". From this, Hezbollah was born -- an Iranian proxy in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, tensions grew between Syria and Iraq over the latter's decision to invade Iran in 1980. Syrian President Hafez al-Asad was known for having a reactive, calculated foreign policy and clearly viewed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's belligerency as a threat to his regime. As a consequence, Syria sought closer ties with Iran. A natural corollary was Syrian support for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Syrian-occupied Lebanon.
Hezbollah effectively became an Iranian proxy in Lebanon under Syrian control, replacing the Palestine Liberation Organization - which had been forced out of Lebanon by the Israeli invasion in 1982 - as Syria's primary tool to confront Israel. (Syria had lost its principal ally in the struggle against Israel in the form of Egypt, after the latter signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979. Due to its clear military inferiority, Syria could not wage a full-blown war against Israel alone, and hence used paramilitary groups in Lebanon to apply pressure on Israel.)
Hezbollah's military force in Lebanon has grown substantially over the years. The 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War allowed the militant Shiite group to claim that it -- not the Lebanese Armed Forces -- was responsible for defending Lebanon. Indeed, Hezbollah is now the largest armed force inside Lebanon's borders.
Hezbollah's political influence has also increased considerably. The Doha Agreement, which brought to an end the 2008 conflict in Lebanon, provided for a clause that guaranteed that the Lebanese parliamentary opposition -- then Hezbollah and its allies -- would receive a blocking third of the votes in the Lebanese cabinet. Earlier this year, Hezbollah won the support of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose party's votes gave Hezbollah enough support in parliament to propel their own candidate, the independent Najib Mikati, to the premiership.
"March 8" is now in control. But who's calling the shots? There is considerable reason to believe that Syria's influence in Lebanon is waning, while Iran's is on the rise.
Since 2005, Syria has not held a physical presence inside Lebanon. This has had two consequences. First, Hezbollah has been able to gain more independence from Syria and has drawn closer to its religious and ideological sister, Iran. This was particularly noticeable during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent visit to Lebanon.
Furthermore, as reported by The Jerusalem Post, it is quite possible that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps's Quds Force ordered Hezbollah to assassinate former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, with less Syrian involvement than previously thought, which suggests that Iran's relative influence over Hezbollah had been growing since before the Cedar Revolution took place.
Second, Syria has sought close ties with Lebanon's government in order to maintain its influence in Beirut. Ironically, Damascus's attempts to reach out to Beirut combined with physical pressure exerted on the pro-Western camp by Hezbollah caused Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the late Rafic Hariri, to cuddle up with the Syrians at Hezbollah's expense. Hezbollah's political takeover of Lebanon this year should be interpreted partially as the organization's rebuke of Damascus. Hezbollah wants to send al-Asad's regime a clear message: "You don't run the show here anymore."
Syria, in a sense, is stuck within Iran's revolutionary axis and is hence unable to fight Tehran's growing influence in Lebanon at its expense. Syria cannot leave the axis partly due to Iran's growing regional influence, particularly following the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen against U.S.-backed regimes. Moreover, the current uprising in Syria will keep President Bashar al-Asad worried about his own job more than expanding his state's regional influence.
Furthermore, the Ba'athist regime in Syria views itself as the last outpost of true Arab nationalism. Aligning itself with Iran's "resistance bloc" allows Damascus to have more of a say in Arab regional affairs. It also allows Syria to differentiate itself from other Arab regimes in terms of its image. This is a must for a regime that has built the state's identity around the Ba'ath Party. Syria cannot leave the Iranian axis for fear of compromising the regime's long-term stability both at the regional and domestic levels.
Make no mistake: In Lebanon, Hezbollah is control -- and Iran is calling the shots.