Analysis: It's springtime; war in the air

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI Contributing Editor  |  April 7, 2008 at 12:00 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 7 (UPI) -- It's springtime in the Middle East once again, and that usually means that fighting season may breakout soon. Unless …

The current stalemate in the Middle East peace process compiled with the buildup of tension on several fronts may result in an explosion of violence before any new breakthrough, such as renewed peace efforts are seriously undertaken. In fact, given the current conditions permeating the region, a stalemate would have been a positive sign. What we're seeing is a steady regression into the danger zone, the end result of which may trigger a new Arab-Israeli conflict.

In its April 4 edition, the Jerusalem Post reported that Syrian President Bashar Assad said during the recent Arab summit held in Damascus that "Syria won't hesitate to use any means at its disposal to deal with the ongoing political crisis in Lebanon, even at the price of renewed fighting between Israel and Hezbollah."

Much of the tension stems from political arm-wrestling between the Beirut government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and the opposition spearheaded by Hezbollah. The conflict takes on greater dimensions and wider geopolitical implications given that the scope of the dispute goes well beyond Beirut and Damascus.

The crisis is amplified with the United States, the European Union and many Arab countries, primarily Saudi Arabia, supporting the Lebanese government; and the Lebanese opposition -- Hezbollah and Gen. Michel Aoun's Patriotic Movement -- in turn getting full backing from Syria and Iran.

What in essence should have been a Lebanese government crisis has turned into a showdown between the Lebanese government striving for legitimate political independence from Syria, with the Syrians determined to have the last word and prove they remain the true masters in Lebanon. At the same time, the crisis has expanded to include Washington, just as determined to show Damascus who is really calling the shots in the Middle East. Further complicating the political process is the entry of Iran, which sees an opportunity to remind the United States that it too has a say in the politics of the region.

Through their backing of Hezbollah, both Syria and Iran can, if they wish, ignite Israel's northern front, a move Damascus is most certainly likely to move toward in the event of the Syrian-Israeli front going hot.

While officials in Syria and Israel have been issuing statements moistening their reluctance for war, the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat cites Walid Moallem, Syria's foreign minister, as having told a meeting of European Union ambassadors that Syria, while hoping to avoid a clash with Israel, "must be on alert for any Israeli attack."

Tension in recent weeks along the Syrian-Israeli border have risen to unprecedented levels, possibly the most serious since U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated an armistice between the two warring sides in the wake of the October 1973 war.

The Syrian foreign minister has made several statements in recent days indicating Damascus is wary of Washington's intentions in the region. Both the Syrians and the Israelis have been voicing officially their reluctance to resort to violence, preferring instead to engage in a peaceful approach to solving problems. This, of course, does not preclude that both sides have been keeping their troops along the dividing line in a state of readiness, just in case.

In its article, the Jerusalem Post quotes Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon saying, "Unfortunately, Syria is stuck deep in the evil axis of connections with Hezbollah."

What is aggravating the situation in the Middle East to the point of a new eruption? There are several pots boiling at the same time; Lebanon-Syria; Syria-Israel; Iraq; Iran; Iran-Israel; Iran-United States. Think of a gas stove, each burner with its pilot light. For the moment, each of these conflicts has its "pilot light." But what happens when that light is inadvertently extinguished? The Middle East's pilot lights run the risk of being smothered unless dialogue replaces aggressive sound bites; in keeping with the gas stove analogy, the released energy will eventually explode.

And those pilot lights are controlled by Syria and Iran, two countries with whom the Bush administration refuses to engage in dialogue. At a regional security conference in Bahrain last December organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie told conference participants -- among them U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- that he had one message for the United States: "Until the United States engages with Iran and Syria, there will be no solution."


Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.

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