Friday, May 7, 2010

War, this summer?

Israel has only fought pre-emptive wars. All indications show it is gearing up to fight another, one that may change everything, writes Galal Nassar

The strong language the US secretary of state recently used reflects heightened tensions in the Middle East. During a dinner gala hosted by the American Jewish Committee last Thursday, Hillary Clinton warned Syria of the consequences of delivering military hardware to Hizbullah and Hamas. Clinton said that the decisions of the Syrian president "could mean war or peace for the region". Syria, she claimed, was passing on sophisticated weapons, including missiles, to pro-Iranian groups in South Lebanon and Gaza, and thus risking war.

According to Clinton, Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is destabilising the Middle East. Meanwhile, Hizbullah's acquisition of new weapons, especially long-range missiles, would threaten Israel's security and destabilise the region. The smuggling of weapons to Lebanon was a violation of UN decisions, she said, referring to UN Resolution 1701 issued in August 2006.

Clinton's remarks came only days after Israeli President Shimon Peres accused Syria of delivering Scud missiles to Hizbullah. Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, speaking in Washington last Thursday, said that Lebanon would be accountable for any future flare-up in the region. Addressing the American Jewish Committee, Barak said: "We make it clear once again that we see the government of Lebanon, and behind it the government of Syria, [as] responsible for what happens now in Lebanon. And the government of Lebanon will be the one to be held accountable if it deteriorates."

The most vocal warning, however, came from Jordan where officials warned that the impasse in the peace process could lead to war by summer. Barak tried to play down the peril during his visit to Washington, stating that there is "no need" for war.

Still the accusations to Syria and Hizbullah are unlikely to go away, and they are taking a toll on Syrian-US relations. The US Congress has suspended the sending of an ambassador to Damascus after the US Department of Defense issued a report saying that Hizbullah has been armed to the level of 2006, or even more.

Remarkably, Israel is denying Syria's claims that it is preparing for war. The denial is quite interesting, for in the past Israel used to encourage such claims, for they helped throw fear in the hearts of its enemies. The assumption back then was that Israel was able to choose the time of battle. This is no longer true. Israel seems to be apprehensive of war. It seems to recognise that things are different now. Iran, Syria and Hizbullah, taken together, seem to provide a counterbalance for Israel's military might. Either that, or Israel is trying to divert attention from its own war preparations.

What is going on? In particular, what is the significance of Jordan's warning of potential war? Is there another path other than war to be explored? Or have the roads leading to peace been blocked? Currently, it seems that hurdles are blocking the way in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

A SERIOUS CONUNDRUM: The general situation in the region is one of tension and ambiguity, and this goes for all major players. What is worse is that there are no initiatives or efforts made to defuse tensions or explore new solutions. It is hard, given current circumstances, to challenge the Jordanian claim that the current impasse is an open invitation for war.

Syrian-Israeli negotiations are at a standstill and unlikely to resume in the near future. Right now, the Syrians and the Israelis disagree on the nature of mediation. The previous mediator, Turkey, is no longer on good terms with the Israelis. The French offered to step in, but the Syrians turned them down. And the US, which has failed to bring the Palestinians and Israelis together, doesn't seem to qualify for mediation between Syria and Israel.

Few expect the deadlock in negotiations between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel to end while the current Israeli government is in office. Reports concerning the early resumption of negotiations are hardly credible. In fact, Israel is engaging in brinkmanship and escalating its measures against the Palestinians. If anything, Israel's attempts to Judaise Jerusalem may unleash a third Intifada.

Meanwhile, the PA seems to have run out of options. Any further concessions to the Israelis may undermine its remaining credibility. The deadlock is not expected to end anytime soon. One no longer hears of any mediation by the Europeans or initiatives by the Quartet, and the much-touted Moscow conference couldn't get off the ground.

As for the conflict between Hizbullah and Israel, things are coming to a head. Hizbullah continues to ally itself with Iranian policy, thus making itself a player of some importance in the region. And as it continues to challenge Israel, Hizbullah's regional status is likely to grow.

Hizbullah says that it is keeping Israel at bay, for it wouldn't allow the latter to attack Lebanon with impunity. Still, observers note that Israel is constantly provoking Hizbullah and Lebanon. Israeli warplanes keep flying over Lebanon and Israeli troops make repeated incursions into Lebanese territories.

In Gaza, the situation seems to be getting worse. After the recent war, a period of relative calm ensued, with the Israelis staying out and the Palestinians refraining from firing rockets inside Israel. Now the Israelis are back to making incursions into Gaza and the Palestinians are firing rockets once more. Tensions are growing steadily, and there doesn't seem to be a likely solution in the horizon.

THE MISSILES CRISIS: Tensions are growing throughout the region. It is no longer a situation in which one country or one crisis is involved. Trouble in one area seems to be feeding trouble in another as the whole region descends into a feeding frenzy of instability.

For instance, the crisis of the Scud missiles came to exacerbate an already volatile situation. As Israel accused Syria of sending Scud missiles to Hizbullah, a much-awaited improvement in Syrian-US relations came to a sudden halt. One has to keep in mind that it was the Pentagon -- not Israel -- that first warned of the growing military power of Hizbullah.

The Pentagon said that Hizbullah had built up its military preparedness to the same level it had before the 2006 war. For all the talk about tensions between the Israelis and the White House, the Pentagon seems to be saying all the right things for Tel Aviv.

What the US and Israel are saying now is not just that Syria is giving Scuds to Hizbullah; they are saying there is a limit to what weapons Hizbullah is allowed to have. No wonder Hizbullah's secretary- general is getting even more vitriolic than usual about Israel.

Syria has its own interpretation of what's going on. Its officials believe that the accusations are but pretext for an attack. Indeed, there is a similarity between the accusations now being levelled against Syria, in terms of its supplying Hizbullah with weapons, and the accusations made about Iraq's alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, which was used as pretext to attack Iraq. Do we hear the same media drums? Do we see the same diplomatic wheels in motion?

The Jordanians warn that the current impasse in all tracks of the peace process may lead to war by summer. What is especially scary about this prediction is that it comes complete with timing: this summer.

And there is no denying that preparations for war are underway. Israel is conducting drills all the time, and Iran is not to be outdone. Hardly a month passes by without Iran declaring new manoeuvres on land and at sea. The Iranians are not acting on impulse. They have already received implicit threats from the US president and in January the US Department of Defense issued a memorandum detailing ways of dealing with the Iranian nuclear programme.

A few months ago, both the Russian president and his army chief made remarks to the effect that the US and Israel were planning for war on Iran. And they voiced fear that the conflict may turn into a nuclear war in which millions may perish.

Is war a definite possibility? Or is it all a show of multilateral brinkmanship? Is it perhaps that everyone is testing the nerves of their opponents, but no one really plans to go to war? And how long can this go on before someone loses patience and fires the first shot?

A SLIPPERY PATH: The region is sitting on a powder keg. We may not have war yet, but there is a flurry of intelligence operations going on in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, with buildings being blown up and men shot in the streets.

Meanwhile, the entire region is obsessed with war, not peace. Politicians speak of war every day, and the Iranians and Israelis are training as hard as they can for a possible military showdown. The propaganda keeps raining down on us non-stop, the recent bout involving the charge that the Syrians are smuggling missiles to Hizbullah.

A war wouldn't be devoid of motive. The Israelis fear that they may lose the military superiority they equate with their own survival. The Israelis are ready to go to war to prevent another axis from rising in the region. They fear that the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah axis may match Israel's power and thus end its long-held sway over the region. For years the US made sure that Israel was the region's top military power, and now this guarantee may be coming to an end.

A review of all Israeli wars in the region shows that Israel only fights pre-emptive wars. Such wars are meant to prevent any Arab country from growing in military power to the point to which it may challenge Israel's military superiority.

This situation is becoming more untenable with every passing day. Israel wants superiority, wants to prevent any country in the region from obtaining nuclear parity, and is ready to go to war to remain the region's top power.

ANOTHER WAR: Today, Israel is afraid that it may not be able to win a war as convincingly as it used to do. Things are changing, as the recent meeting in Damascus between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar Al-Assad, and Hassan Nasrallah suggests. So Israel now wants to fight alongside Western armed forces, just as it did back in 1956. No longer is Israel willing to go it alone, as it did in 1967 and 1973.

In fact, Israel is quite nervous about its receding power. It may want to go to war alongside the US, but that's not as good of an option as it seems. If the US participates in a war, everything has to be done the way the US chooses, and with primary concern given to US interests.

We need to take the statements Secretary Clinton made at the American Jewish Committee very seriously. She made it clear that the US agrees with Israel's assessment of the situation. What this means is that the Americans may consent to a regional war that may alter the regional balance of power. Pro- Israeli diplomacy doesn't seem to be doing much to change that balance. Therefore, military action cannot be ruled out.