Between the Arab Summit and the End of the Bush Era: Prospects for a Regional Conflict

03/21/2008 04:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nine months stand between the presumed Arab summit in Damascus, scheduled for the end of March, and the end of George W. Bush's term in office, as American presidential elections come to an end next fall. Nine months, during which the Iranian-Syrian partnership will have the opportunity not only to influence American policy towards the issue that includes them, along with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, but also, as they seem to believe, to affect the outcome of the American presidential elections. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad longs for the historical role played by the Iranian revolution when it held American hostages during President Jimmy Carter's term, releasing them only on the day President Ronald Reagan assumed office. Syrian President Bashar El-Assad dreams of playing a similarly historical role through Syria's heading of the Arab summit. He seeks to form a new Arab system subjected to the regional balance of power, under Iranian hegemony brought about by America's war in Iraq, bound to developments dictated by Damascus on the Lebanese front, and mystified as a result of the carefully planned Israeli and Syrian disruption of the Arab peace initiative in the Middle East.

Prominent on the minds of many Arab leaders is a fundamental question: What must be done? Especially in the transitional period of the coming nine months, charged with all kinds of possibilities: from a war which may be deliberately sparked or may come as a result of an unintentional blunder, to a state of complete paralysis that could strengthen the extremist alliance and ferment new developments that may be difficult to undo. To avoid waking up to a different state of affairs, one it may not find to its liking, the U.S. must ask itself that same question before it is too late. Recent developments in the Middle East have come in a large part as a result of American policy over the past years. Israel's arrogance, continued occupation and settlement building, and its refusal to submit to the Roadmap for Peace, are only the result of the preferential treatment Israel has received from the various American administrations over the past decades. The time has come to put an end to this. The arrogance clearly displayed in the methods of the Islamic Republic of Iran is partly the result of President George W. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is high time to acknowledge this, to admit that mistakes were made, and to prepare for what may come. The coming nine months are not inevitably subjected to Iranian, Syrian or Israeli decisions in the absence of the U.S. and the international community. On the contrary, both countries and their regimes are under international scrutiny and are subjected to sanctions, some of which have been passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, as is the case with Iran, and others which most certainly will, as is the case with Syria.

Significant implications are to be found in a report published by the New York Times concerning the American president's support for former U.S. Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq Paul Bremer's initiative to dismantle the Iraqi army, instead of simply disarming the Revolutionary Guard while maintaining the other units of the Iraqi army intact, as the original plan had suggested. According to the report, Bremer received President Bush's support to the surprise of members of the National Security Council, including then National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice. The implication is that George W. Bush, who has often been described as a backseat president to Vice President Dick Cheney, may not at all have been so. It seems in fact that he is acting according to his personal convictions, as one of the people closest to him has certified, objecting to the mistaken assumption that George W. Bush is a mere victim of the judgment of others in his administration. During the few remaining months of his term, the controversial American president will have the opportunity to draw on aspects of his personality in the service of convictions he claims to be at the core of America's national interests. Prominent among these is establishing a Palestinian state, ensuring Lebanon's independence and stability, and preventing further deterioration of the situation in Iraq.

Let George W. Bush get angry at Israel's refusal to honor its commitments. Those same commitments the American president made when he promised to work hard and expressed his optimism regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state in 2008, before the end of his term in office. Let the American president be explicit, and make it clear to Israel that the U.S. will no longer be able to cover up and justify Israel's violations, under the pretext of rockets fired by Hamas. Let him publicly declare that the construction of Israeli settlements represents a blatant breach of obligations under the Roadmap for Peace, and that the U.S. does not consent to the collective punishment of the Palestinians in Gaza under the guise of retaliation against Hamas.

The truth is that Israel and Hamas are partners in the crime of systematically undermining the Palestinian Authority. Both sides need to maintain the conflict, both reject the obligations and demands of peace. Hence, each conveniently summons the other to clashes and confrontations, to whom civilians, and aspirations for peace on the basis of a two-state solution, fall victim. How strange are the calls, by American institutions, studies and publications, to embrace Hamas and include it in ongoing negotiations. This either reflects naiveté or is in fact a deliberate attempt to weaken the Palestinian Authority, represented by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad, in the course of the negotiations to establish a Palestinian state.

There is much that raises suspicion in a recent report published by the International Crisis Group. The first section of the report includes some objectionable statements, such as in its first few lines which state that "The policy of isolating Hamas and imposing political sanctions on Gaza has proved bankrupt and, by all conceivable measures, has backfired. Violence is on the rise, causing harm to both Gazans and Israelis. The economic situation has collapsed, generating anger and despair. President Mahmoud Abbas and other pragmatists have lost all credibility." These words clearly indicate the group's bias against the Palestinian Authority; a truly intriguing bias, especially upon closer examination of the members of this group, whose recommendations are notoriously patronizing. What could be the motive behind discrediting President Mahmoud Abbas and mocking the other pragmatists, in a hint to Salam Fayad? The increasing violence is the result of the policies and actions of both Hamas and Israel, not those of pragmatists within the Palestinian Authority. Gaza is suffering from sanctions and collective punishment as a result of decisions taken by Hamas and the Israeli government, but certainly not of those taken by the Palestinian Authority.

If the purpose of such smear campaigns is to create channel between Hamas and Israel, then they are unnecessary. Indeed, such channels have already been opened through Arab and non-Arab sponsors. To speak of agreements between Israel and Hamas over issues such as a cease-fire and putting an end to the assassinations of Palestinian leaders in return for a cessation of rocket-launching against Israel is one thing, but if the purpose of the sponsors and campaigners is to weaken the Palestinian Authority who is negotiating with Israel, then it is a completely different matter. Israel and Hamas can exchange all the love they want, but if their goal and the objective of those supporting such a love affair is to undermine the Palestinian Authority, then the real goal is to entirely cripple the negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of the two-state solution.

Accordingly, if the American president is serious about his commitments toward establishing a Palestinian state, then let him get angry at his Israeli allies who have repeatedly and persistently evaded all peaceful solutions. The problem does not lie with Hamas alone, but also with Israel. Moreover, Hamas does not act independently for the sake of the Palestinian people suffering under occupation. But rather, it acts in accordance with the needs of a radical regional agenda, based in Damascus and Tehran, whose foundation is the rejection of the two-state solution.

The main link in the extremist alliance is Damascus, which is preparing to head the Arab summit and to exploit this position in the service of Iran's interests and its own. The deep inter-Arab division is not only over Lebanon and Syria's insistence that Lebanon is a trading card that it will not give up under any circumstances. The real battle is over the fate of Arab-Iranian relations in the light of Iran's insistence that it has the upper hand, allowing it to finally export its model to the rest of the region. The means of reaching this goal are not limited to Iraq, which plays a central role in Iran's strategy. They also involve turning Lebanon into a base for the prototype of the Iranian Islamic Republic, and include Syria as the link with Hezbollah and the home-base of extremist Palestinian organizations. The current Syrian leadership embraces wars of the same "logic," as it did under late President Hafez Assad. This involves interplay between the logic of resistance and the logic of negotiation. The Syrian-Iranian relationship, a strategic one under the rule of Assad Senior, has turned into a relationship of dependence for survival, intimidation and vendetta under the rule of Assad Junior. The latter has in fact informed several of his visitors that he would never give up his alliance with Tehran or Hezbollah in Lebanon under any circumstances.

The ideas exchanged by Arab leaders include what can be described as the "logic of caution," without expressing fear of retaliation or escalation in confronting Damascus. It may be said he who gains from threatening to use revenge is he who threatens to use instruments available to him to get back at his direct Arab neighbors, because this allows him to buy time and because his neighbors are either too weak or afraid of retaliation. However, caution also implies close scrutiny and readiness for the mistakes that Tehran and Damascus will inevitably make, as they assume that the coming nine months represent their opportunity to subdue others in the Arab region. Moreover, the ideology adopted by the two regimes will ultimately fail to spread in the region, and especially in Lebanon. It is an ideology that defies nature, and hence will inevitably fail, no matter how strongly its advocates believe it to be exportable or even sustainable.

It may be a while before the triumph of the logic that refuses to submit to oppression, blackmail and fear of retaliation. The path to victory will be a difficult one, not for those who embrace caution, but for those who embrace arrogance and claim to have no fear in their hearts, when in reality panic is eating at their hearts and depriving them of sleep. After all, the International Tribunal has been launched and those implicated in political assassinations in Lebanon will be brought to justice. The Security Council will also have to impose sanctions on Syria if it does not comply with its resolutions. George Bush may or may not be angry enough to warn Damascus to leave Lebanon alone, but it is likely that the regime in Damascus will commit sufficient mistakes in the coming nine months and in the days that follow.

The American presidential candidates, as well as the current president, have all made it clear that Lebanon will not be a bargaining chip. Some may engage in dialogue with Syria and Iran, and may negotiate with either or both, but none will sacrifice Lebanon for any kind of agreement. The reason is simply that all have finally understood the meaning of the battle for Lebanon.

As such a battle is critical for the Arab world and for the interests of the international community in the region, it is necessary to keep close watch not only of current events, but also of developments that will arise before the Arab summit takes place at the end of this month. It is necessary to take precautionary and punitive measures during the coming nine months, which Tehran and Damascus assume to be an appropriate time for disruption and revenge.