While the relief of eased regional tensions is welcome, signs point to an unprecedented upheaval and possible catastrophe ahead, writes Hassan Nafaa*
Recent weeks have brought a series of unexpected and exciting developments that may just form a turning point in the mode of interactions this region has experienced for so long. Suddenly, after sharp and intensifying polarisations that seemed at times to be propelling the region towards an immanent inferno, the blackened skies have begun to clear, the roar of thunder and flashes of lightening have receded, and one can sniff a freshness in the air as though a new dawn were at hand. Since Lebanon has always served as the riverbed in which regional parties have poured their tensions and refuse, it has naturally become a kind of finely tuned meteorological testing station capable of detecting subtle shifts in regional temperatures, shifts in the direction of winds and even seismological vibrations indicative of benign tremors or impending quakes and volcanic eruptions.
It was no coincidence that the dormant Lebanese volcano should awake again within a few months of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. After the US accomplished its immediate aim of toppling the regime and when it became clear to all that it had come to Iraq to stay and that it was not so much interested in Iraq per se but in Iraq as a staging post for executing its plans for redrawing the regional map to suit its post-11 September global enterprise, other world powers, including those that had previously opposed the American invasion and occupation, soon caved in to Washington's will and ambitions and signalled their readiness to cooperate. No observer of events at the time could escape the conclusion that Washington would soon turn its sights on other regimes and forces hostile to its Middle Eastern policies and that the next phase would naturally require: first, the disarmament of Hizbullah, which could not be accomplished until Syria was ousted from Lebanon; second, giving Israel the go-ahead to destroy Palestinian resistance factions and, if necessary, to eliminate Yasser Arafat; and third and most importantly, slaying the regional serpent, Iran.
So, on the pretext that Syria had failed to deliver on a pledge it made not to press for extending president Emile Lahoud's term in office, France and the US got together to push through UN Security Council Resolution 1559. But the ground had to be prepared in order for that resolution to be put into effect, and that required Syria's departure from Lebanon. The assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri provided the key to a successful drive to that effect. With Syrian withdrawal, the US and France had won the first round in the battle over Lebanon. But it was still too soon to be jubilant; ultimate victory in that battle required the toppling of the Syrian and Iranian regimes and the defeat of Hizbullah.
It quickly became apparent that it would take more than the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon to disarm Hizbullah and, thereby, to neutralise Lebanon preparatory to the next step. Therefore, it was now time to bring in Israel. However, since Israel was unwilling, at the time, to hand back Shebaa Farms to Lebanon, which would have given the West's allies in Lebanon a major playing card against Hizbullah, and since Israel was still thirsting to avenge itself for its defeat against Hizbullah in 2000, it opted for military escalation. With Syria out of the way inside Lebanon, Israeli strategic planners thought, Hizbullah would be easy prey. So, in July 2006, Israel launched its offensive into Lebanon while the US waged a diplomatic offensive using the spectre of a "Shia crescent" to polarise the region into Sunni versus Shia camps so as to align the former against Hizbullah as a sectarian puppet whose strings were held in Tehran. Although Israel and the US (along with their regional allies) sustained an embarrassing setback in this round, they did not despair. They next turned to diplomatic means to obtain the goals they failed to accomplish on the field of battle. The end of Lahoud's term in office provided just the opening they needed to spark a domestic power struggle. Here, one is forced to admit that Syria and its allies inside Lebanon facilitated the task of the forces propelling tensions in Lebanon to a new brink that, with the government's decision to penetrate the internal communications network of the Lebanese resistance, threatened to plunge the country once again into the morass of civil war.
At this point, events in the region began to take a 180-degree turn, as though a magical hand had decided that it was now time to reshuffle the deck.
First, Qatar with the clear backing of the Arab League called for a meeting of the Lebanese factions in Doha. All leaders responded immediately and the meeting ended with an agreement to elect Michel Suleiman as president, to form a national unity government in which the opposition would be guaranteed a third of the cabinet seats, and to charge parliament with drafting a new electoral law the general outlines of which have already been agreed upon.
Second, on the Syrian question, Turkey announced that it was brokering indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel. It then came to light that earlier rounds had taken place and that the negotiations are making steady progress and may soon evolve into direct talks. More recently, Paris dispatched two high-level envoys to Damascus, clearly meant to reward Syria for the part it played in the success of the Doha agreement. Also, President Bashar Al-Assad responded to an official invitation from Paris to participate in the Union for the Mediterranean summit and to attend celebrations commemorating the French revolution. The signals were clear: the French-Syria rupture had come to an end. Now, moreover, there are rumours circulating in the press that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is pushing for a direct meeting between Al-Assad and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the fringes of the Mediterranean summit and 14 July festivities.
Third, meanwhile in Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas announced that he was prepared to mend fences with Hamas on the basis of the Yemeni initiative adopted by the Arab League. Then, just as suddenly, Egypt's efforts to broker a truce between Israel and the Palestinian resistance factions emerged from their long dark tunnel in the form of a phased agreement that will permit for the halting of targeted assassinations on the part of Israel, the halting of missile fire from Gaza, the opening of checkpoints and the lifting of the Israeli embargo. The first stages of this agreement have already gone into effect and may well pave the way for a prisoner exchange in accordance with which the Israeli prisoner of war Gilad Shalit will be handed over in return for a reasonable number of Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
Fourth, even the situation with Iran appears to be cooling down. EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana headed off to Tehran carrying with him a new and more tempting package of incentives. The package offers to help Iran obtain its nuclear energy needs, to lift UN imposed sanctions, to end Iran's international isolation and, indeed, to acknowledge a major regional role for it, all in exchange for Tehran's agreement to temporarily halt its uranium enrichment activities until an agreement can be reached over the place and means for enriching the uranium Iran requires to continue its nuclear programme for peaceful purposes. Iran has yet to respond officially to the offer. It is unlikely to refuse it outright, although it is doubtful that it will accept it immediately as it is.
This breathtaking rush of developments suggests a major change is afoot and that political givens in the region are not the same as they were only a few weeks ago. What is the nature of this change and what are the new givens? I suggest two readings of the situation. The first is optimistic and holds that all parties concerned have come to the conclusion that it is impossible for any of the rival camps to gain a victory by force in any of the crisis zones and, therefore, compromise solutions are inevitable. The second reading is the pessimistic one. It holds that opportunities for compromise have long since ended and that recent developments signify only the calm that precedes the inevitable storm, in this case one of cataclysmic proportions.
Regretfully, I tend towards the second reading for several reasons. First, concrete factors in favour of acceptable compromise solutions are not sufficiently available on any of the said fronts. While some factors may propel towards temporary calm in order to forestall escalation, the motives and positions of adversaries remain too far apart. Second, although none of the regional and international parties, apart from the US and Israel, have an interest in escalating situations, these parties do not possess sufficient leverage to alter balances of power in a manner conducive to mutually acceptable settlements. Third, while it is true that the US and Israel have previously tried to impose compromises or settlements by force, especially in Palestine and Lebanon, and that these attempts have failed miserably, there is no evidence that they have reconciled themselves to the need for real compromise. Both continue to regard Iran as a major threat to their security and their interests in the region and both realise that if the Iranian nuclear programme is not destroyed or totally contained before autumn it will be difficult to accomplish that objective in the near future.
For the foregoing reasons we can not rule out the possibility that current attempts to calm down tensions along the arc of Middle Eastern crises is, in fact, only prelude to a blanket offensive that has been on the drawing boards for some time. This conclusion is supported by several serious political analyses that I have come across recently and that concur on two essential points. The first is that Israel no longer trusts in the ability of diplomatic means to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions and, therefore, insists that other means -- principally military -- be brought to bear before the end of Bush's term in office. Bush, of course, is totally sympathetic and ready to be of service, as Chris Hedges warns in his article "The Iran Trap" appearing on Truthdig.org 8 June. Among other evidence pointing in that direction, Hedges cites the letter by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers to President Bush threatening to open impeachment proceedings if Bush attacked Iran. Conyers, in that letter, points to the resignation of Admiral William J Fallon -- reportedly the only person who could have forestalled a US "pre- emptive" strike -- from the head of US Central Command as an indication that the Bush administration was unilaterally planning for military action against that country.
The second point of agreement is that Iran possesses many powerful deterrents that would make a military attack against it a stroke of madness. But then, who is to say Bush is not mad? I personally fear that Bush could be driven by his megalomania and his fundamentalist creed to bring on Armageddon.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.