Commentary Magazine


Keeping Friends Close, Frenemies Closer?

It can be confusing enough to make policy according to the creed “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But what happens when the enemy of your enemy is also the enemy of your friend? Or when an entity starts out as your enemy but then becomes the enemy of your enemy? Is there such a thing as a frenemy in international relations? (It does have its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, after all.)

Those are, thanks to the Levant’s general descent into violent chaos, not hypothetical questions. As Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote earlier today, the European Union has finally designated as a terrorist organization Hezbollah’s “military wing.” Though this was a modest–and, quite possibly, ineffectual–step, it was the culmination of years of prodding from countries that already ban Hezbollah, such as the United States. The U.S. considers Hezbollah our enemy. But last week, the lines blurred a bit, as McClatchy reported:

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning a campaign of bombings that will target Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria, Lebanese officials said Monday.

The unusual warning – U.S. government officials are barred from directly contacting Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated an international terrorist organization – was passed from the CIA’s Beirut station chief to several Lebanese security and intelligence officials in a meeting late last week with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah, Lebanese officials said. …

The U.S. Embassy declined to comment or to allow the CIA station chief for Lebanon to be interviewed. A CIA official in the United States said the agency would have no comment. Conveying such a warning to the Lebanese government when civilian lives might be at risk would be a normal procedure, people familiar with CIA procedures said.

Hezbollah is our enemy–but so are al-Qaeda and its affiliates. But al-Qaeda and its affiliates are also friends of our friends, and enemies of our enemies, inside Syria. Al-Qaeda has also been known to cooperate with Hezbollah, which would make them the friend of our enemy. Context is everything, I suppose.

The argument that can and has been made is that the U.S. is nervous about the spillover from Syria and the spread of sectarian violence into Lebanon. Fair enough. But the McClatchy report (if correct) notes that the CIA not only sent warnings to Hezbollah but also “other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria.” Wouldn’t that include, quite prominently, the Syrian regime and forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad? Isn’t that Hezbollah’s most notable ally in Syria?

Additionally, when the president initially chose to aid the rebels in Syria, the administration did so through Qatari and Saudi intermediaries, who then empowered the more radical Islamist elements. What does it say about the attempt to help the anti-Assad forces that it ended up empowering figures we now consider to be worse than Hezbollah? Entrusting Qatar turned out to have been something of a bad bet. At this point, it very well might be too late to help the moderates take control of rebel forces. But according to Sunday’s New York Times, intelligence officials aren’t so sure:

The comments by David R. Shedd, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, were one of the strongest public warnings about how the civil war in Syria has deteriorated, and he seemed to imply that the response from the United States and its allies had so far been lacking.

Mr. Shedd suggested that in addition to strengthening the more secular groups of the fractious Syrian opposition — which the Obama administration has promised to arm with weapons and ammunition — the West would have to directly confront more radical Islamist elements. But he did not say how that could be accomplished.

He did not say how it could be accomplished most likely because no one has any idea how it could be accomplished. “Directly confront more radical Islamist elements” is euphemistic language. What it means is: defeat the more radical Islamist elements. A sustained effort to do so inside Syria would probably have us simultaneously supporting the “good” rebels while fighting the “bad” rebels who are fighting against our other enemy, the Assad regime, and a third enemy, Hezbollah.

We would then be protecting Hezbollah from the “bad” rebels while trying to protect other groups, especially in Lebanon, from Hezbollah, all the while working in Europe to blacklist Hezbollah, whom we’re protecting from the friends of our friends in Syria. I admire the optimism, if not the good sense, of anyone who thinks this sounds like something the Obama foreign policy triumvirate of John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Chuck Hagel can pull off.

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