One Down, Two to Go
Today, Singapore, 30/11/2006
King Abdullah of Jordan warned this week that the Middle East is on the verge of three civil wars – one in Iraq, one in Lebanon and one in Palestine. The King, always the diplomat was actually rather cautious when he described all three conflicts areas as being “on the verge”. Judging by the amount of civilian bloodshed and total lack of governmental control, most observers would now consider Iraq to be in a fully fledged civil war. It is only Lebanon and Palestine that are still “on the verge”.
In this context, we cannot but remember the words of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who during the run-up to the second Iraq war told President Bush: You break it, you own it. The US “broke” Iraq and now it is stuck with it. Similarly, Israel “broke” Palestine and just recently “broke” Lebanon in the sense that long term policy failures combined with rash military actions have resulted in a strengthening of the radicals, be it Hamas in Palestine or Hizbollah in Lebanon and a breakdown of the established orders that had been maintained in these conflict areas for years.
In Lebanon the second Israel-Lebanon war that just came to an end through concerted international diplomacy, has brought out in the open a realignment of the internal ethnic power distribution. Developments that have been going on for years, primarily the strengthening of Hizbollah and the Shiite population in South Lebanon and at the same time, the relative weakening of the Christian community, have now become apparent to all. In the wake of the war, Lebanon’s ethnic groups, intimidated by a number of assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and journalists in the country, have been put on edge fearing a massive redistribution of power not only on the ground but also in the executive and legislative branches of Lebanon’s government. Hizbollah’s subversion of Lebanon’s independence has been blown wide open and the organization’s demand to increase its participation in the cabinet is meeting with widespread resistance. The memories of seven years of civil war between 1975 and 1982 have faded und judging by the vocal outbursts at the funeral of recently assassinated Minister of Industry, Pierre Gemayel, another bloody round may well be around the corner. The only way such a development can be prevented is by limiting Syria and Iran’s involvement in Lebanon and their strong support of Hizbollah. Unfortunately, the likelihood of this happening is remote and Syria and Iran will not easily forego the only real leverage they have against Israel. It remains to be seen if the Lebanese are strong enough to prevent the deterioration into civil war under these impossible conditions.
And Palestine ? While the internal struggle between Fatah and Hamas appears on hold pending the creation of a coalition government, technically speaking the situation is “civil-war like” with little or no Palestinian government control and plenty of civilian casualties primarily as a fallout of Israeli military action (up to the recent cease-fire). The fragile truce between Israel and the Palestinians, habitually more broken than kept, is a tempting target for those on both sides who oppose a settlement requiring real compromise. Israel’s PM Olmert won’t be able to maintain this cease-fire for long without progressing swiftly to serious talks also involving Hamas, anathema as this organization may be to Israel, not only about a prisoner swap. Despite causing the Palestinian population considerable damage through its continuing violence against Israel, Hamas has been able to shore up support and has hardly been weakened by Israel’s relentless retribution. Haled Mashal, the Hamas hardliner operating out of Syria, calls all the shots in this exchange and has a clear understanding of the realities on the ground in Palestine: Any alternative to a focused peace initiative will likely bring about a collapse of the Palestinian authority and give rise to another Intifada. Olmert will quickly have to prove how serious his current offer of concessions to the Palestinians really is – insisting on all of Israel’s demands will revert the region to strife in no time.
Last not least, Iraq. There is little that President Bush can tell Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki that could put an end to the ongoing bloodshed in his country. He has to impress on the Iraqi leader the imperative for forceful political moves that will put an end to the slaughter while promising continued military support as long as necessary. It remains to be seen if Bush can resist the pressure to just cut losses and get out as soon as possible. The fact that Hizbollah, Syria and Iran are stoking the fires of the uprising in Iraq appear to make US talks with Syria and Iran a necessity but is doubtful if a weakened Bush will be able to follow through.
The present outlook is bleak, Islamic radicals have gained ground all around, the situation is out of control and stability of any kind will remain elusive in the Middle East for some time to come.