Since 2010, a spate of civil wars and uprisings in the Levant, collectively known as the Arab Spring, has changed the region’s political landscape at a rate that’s nearly impossible to follow.
But that doesn’t stop Thomas Sanderson, co-director and senior fellow for the Transitional Threats Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) from trying.
“The landscape changes every day,” Sanderson told the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh in a luncheon last week at Pittsburgh’s Rivers Club. “It’s a fool’s errand to try and create a snapshot, unless you only want to show someone that this is what the flowchart looked like on a certain day. At midnight, it changes completely.”
CSIS, a bipartisan foreign policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., issues reports and recommendations for governmental and public consumption. Sanderson’s recent work in the organization’s Transitional Threats Program has taken him to every country in the region, where he’s interviewed everyone from academics and members of clergy to heads of state and jihadist militants.
“It’s easy to think that these guys are in combat and they’re hiding out, and that they never have interaction with the rest of society. They absolutely do,” Sanderson said. “They’re out there raising money and doing interviews with reporters. If you’re an American who has come several thousand miles to talk to them, they want to do it as long as they feel safe. They’ve got an ax to grind and want to tell you what’s up.”
Over two hours, Sanderson detailed the ways in which the region that stretches from Libya through the rest of the Middle East to Turkey and Iraq has changed since demonstrations, uprisings and civil wars have swept across the Arab world, and how a tenuous situation in Syria complicates things even more.
Asked what among the group’s recent findings was the most surprising, Sanderson didn’t hesitate.
“The support for Hezbollah among all parties except the most extreme Sunnis,” he said. “I was really shocked at how supportive people are, including U.S. government officials. There are government officials who have a rosier view of Hezbollah than I expected because of the bulwark they represent against the most extreme jihadi militants.”
Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist organization that operates out of Lebanon on Israel’s northern border, has been in periodic, but heated, conflict with Israel since the early 1980s. Now though, the group the State Department has twice placed on its list of foreign terrorist organizations since 1999 might be the only thing keeping a more frightening enemy from Israel’s front door.
Fighting from Syria’s ongoing civil war between reigning President Bashar al-Assad and a plethora of ideologically different rebel factions — including ISIS (al-Qaida in Iraq) — has already spilled over into Lebanon, prompting some speculation that Lebanon could be the next Arab nation to fall into disarray. Sanderson said he doesn’t see Hezbollah letting that happen.
“At this point in time, Hezbollah is the best security for Lebanon. They’ve gone from four-man teams staging guerrilla-style attacks against Israeli forces to operating at the company level,” Sanderson said, adding that Hezbollah controls an incredible intelligence operation inside Lebanon.
“Hezbollah is highly effective in keeping parts of the government and country together and keeping the Shia community calm, essentially exerting discipline over young guys who might want to pick up guns, go into Sunni neighborhoods and create huge problems.”
While a strong Hezbollah might not be great news for Israel in the long run, Hezbollah’s ability to keep Sunni extremists from infiltrating and destabilizing Lebanon has allowed tensions in the Golan to cool down a bit.
“Israel views Hezbollah still as an enemy,” Sanderson added, “but as one doing work that is to the overall benefit of Israel in the region.” However he also noted that Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war was contributing to the destabilization of Lebanon because Sunnis are increasingly making revenge attacks in Lebanon.
The instability in Syria remains the predominant threat. While various Sunni groups from Turkey to Iraq want Assad and his Baath party out of the picture, their broad dislike of each other still drives the bus — and nothing in the region is ever come by simply.
“Assad has been very effective at positioning himself as the lesser of two evils,” Sanderson said. “Assad was sending money to ISIS on a tractor to buy oil. There are Jewish groups that sell things to Sunnis and Shia fighters. There are Shia that sell to Sunnis. This is what happens in war. People do some really crazy stuff, either because they’re desperate or they’re terrible people.”
(Matthew Wein can be reached at email@example.com.)