Fearing the worst
The US turns to Arab leaders to contain Hizbullah, reports Emad Mekay
The United States is using authoritarian Arab leaders, who fear that Iran could export its revolutionary political model to their disgruntled populations, as a buffer between the Iran- backed Hizbullah and Israel, Washington's protégé in the Middle East, analysts say.
"Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan fear the momentum behind Iran's regional ambitions, which largely explains their surprisingly public criticism of Hizbullah, and by implication Iran," said George Perkovich, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, referring to how the three nations sided with their former arch- enemy Israel in its attacks against Lebanon.
"The anti-Israel declamations of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Iran's continued support of actors that refuse to recognise Israel's existence has paradoxically elevated Iran's standing in the Arab street and alarmed Sunni Arab rulers who have either recognised Israel or moved towards it," Perkovich added.
After all, long-time rulers in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have all met their toughest internal opposition from Islamist political groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan.
Some of these groups have even taken up arms against the ruling regimes, as is the case with Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and Al-Jihad in Egypt.
The regimes, with US backing, have been fighting these movements for years and are concerned that such groups could draw inspiration if a new successful model such as Hizbullah or Hamas came out stronger from their current confrontation with Israel.
"Hizbullah is an Islamist movement with ties to similar organisations in other Arab countries. Both the Egyptian and Jordanian governments have grown fearful of the rise of Islamist movements after the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral gains in Egypt and Hamas's election victory in Palestine," said Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Their strategic interest in containing Hizbullah, and for that matter Hamas, feeds on the ongoing domestic conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front, respectively."
Those motives coincide perfectly with Washington's aim, and that of Israel, to disarm Hizbullah and push the group north of the Israel-Lebanon border.
This was the mission for the visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Rome yesterday, where a core group of international players that includes Arab states met to chart the future of the region in the wake of the ongoing Israeli attacks on Lebanon.
Rice's visit had the declared purpose of creating "a new Middle East", where the Lebanese armed group Hizbullah no longer has potency in its military struggle with Israel and where Arab governments will play a central role in serving this goal.
Analysts here agree that Rice is visiting the Middle East to lobby support among Arab regimes against organisations like Hizbullah in Lebanon or the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in the Palestinian territories.
Rice's job, says Juan Williams, a senior correspondent with National Public Radio (NPR), "is to get the Arab states to act as a buffer between Hizbullah and the Lebanese government and Israel and the United States". And the Arab regimes are already on it.
The White House received Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, chief of the Saudi National Security Council, over the weekend. Egypt's General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman and Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit had met earlier with Rice and President George W Bush's national security adviser Stephen Hadley. The first target of US instructions to the Arab regime appears to be Syria.
Explaining the US tactics, Paul Gigot, the conservative editor of the Wall Street Journal 's editorial page, said: "they're working on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to try to pressure Syria to stop arming Hizbullah... the most important thing is to give Israel the time it needs to really make progress against Hizbullah, and I think that is the opening, and I think they're now taking it."
Washington has ostracised Damascus over the past two years and withdrawn its ambassador, leaving US-backed Arab rulers like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia as the main channel to take the message to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
"[The administration] is trying to say to Syria... your interests are better served in the Sunni Arab camp and the camp that's pretty much on our side, than with the Iranians," Mara Liasson, the national political correspondent for NPR, told Fox News Sunday.
"I do know that the United States is clearly looking to Syria, not Iran, as the target of diplomacy here. Syria is the weaker power, and while they don't provide the hundreds of millions of dollars a year that Iran does to support Hizbullah, they are the conduit for all the weapons that come from Iran into Lebanon and to Hizbullah," she said.
The second step prescribed for the Arab regimes is to give both political and military backing for the secularist anti- Syrian and anti-Hizbullah government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora.
Joshua Bolten, White House chief of staff, said on Sunday that Rice's mission to the region is to "empower the Lebanese government" and to rally the Lebanon Core Group -- which includes the Washington-backed Arab trio Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- in helping the Lebanese government "control its own territory" and stand between Israel and Hizbullah.
The plan is to create an international force that may include Arab elements to help the Lebanese government and its feeble army replace Hizbullah as guards for Israel's northern borders.
"I think the strategy for the US is to try to put together, with our allies, Arab and around the world, an international force that would go into southern Lebanon, as Israeli combat operations cease, accompany the Lebanese army into the south and provide, finally, a strong buffer," said David Ignatius, a columnist with the Washington Post. "That's a very, very difficult proposition. But that's what we're trying to do."