All the ingredients are there: Relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria have reached a breaking point over Damascus' interference in Lebanese political affairs; Israel is threatening an all-out assault on the Gaza Strip in retaliation for Hamas' shelling of Israeli population centers; and the United States is perceived as reverting to gunboat diplomacy in the Mediterranean.
Following Saudi Arabia's decision to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus, both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have issued statements calling on their nationals to leave Lebanon, fearing the country could be heading for a generalized outbreak of violence.
Saudi Arabia has been trying to intercede on behalf of the Lebanese government, backed by the United States and France, in efforts to bring about a resolution to the deadlock in negotiations over the replacement of the Lebanese president. Rival Lebanese political parties have been unable to agree on a candidate to fill the country's top political job, which has remained vacant since last November when Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of an already extended mandate.
The rising tension in the Middle East comes as the United States deployed the USS Cole and two other warships to the eastern Mediterranean in a show of force that has brought criticism from both supporters and opponents of U.S. policy in the region. This move by Washington follows an executive order signed by President Bush calling for tougher economic sanctions against Syria, particularly targeting individual members of the Syrian government suspected of corruption and/or involvement in hampering Lebanese affairs.
In a move that could well torpedo Syrian President Bashar Assad's hopes of convening an Arab League summit in Damascus later this month, Saudi Arabia is calling for an emergency Arab League meeting to be held as early as next week, as Saudi efforts to convince Damascus to resolve the crisis centered on the election of a new president for Lebanon have faltered.
Meanwhile, the arrival of U.S. warships in the region has angered both Syria and their Lebanese allies in the Hezbollah, as well as the Lebanese government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, who summoned the U.S. the ambassador to Beirut, demanding an explanation.
While Damascus and Beirut fail to see eye to eye over many issues, both seem to agree that U.S. military muscle-flexing is contributing to the rise of tension in the region.
The deployment of U.S. warships off the Lebanese coast revives fears of a repeat performance of past military misadventures by the United States. Many Lebanese still remember the unfortunate events that unfolded during the deployment of the multinational force in Lebanon in 1983, when the USS New Jersey bombarded positions held by Muslim forces opposed to the U.S.-backed government. Using its 16-inch guns, the Jersey propelled artillery shells the size of a Volkswagen into the Lebanese hills.
The damage caused by the pounding of the New Jersey was more political and psychological than physical. It ended up hurting U.S. foreign policy far more than it did the militias. Attacks against the U.S. Marines, then part of the multinational force, escalated, culminating with the suicide truck bombing of the U.S. and French military installations in Beirut and the killing of 241 U.S. servicemen and 58 French troops. This eventually led to the withdrawal of the multinational force from Lebanon.
Condemning the U.S. military presence in the region, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said force would not solve Lebanon's political problems. "We have been saying that the United States was obstructing the political solution in Lebanon and the existence of this ship affirms this," Moualem said after a meeting with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa.
"Those Lebanese who are betting on the United States flexing its muscles will be disappointed. Washington cannot impose the solution it wants. The way out has to be based on a Lebanese consensus," Moualem told reporters.
That is just the point. The door leading out of the Lebanese morass should be opened by a Lebanese consensus. It should not be blown open by U.S. Navy warships, just as it shouldn't be forced open by Syria and/or its Lebanese allies.
Claude Salhani is Editor or the Middle East Times.