The Middle East is entering a cycle of escalation and confrontation, on numerous fronts and of an unusual nature, threatening to drag several regional and international players in, perhaps at a deeper level than they might want. Palestinian-Israeli developments portend broadening the scope of the confrontation, not just between the Israeli government and Hamas in Gaza, but also between the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Washington, as well as between Egypt and Israel.
The escalatory and threatening discourse adopted by Hezbollah this week against the forces and leaderships of the Lebanese opposition carries in its folds the danger of igniting the internal situation in Lebanon and perhaps also broadening the scope of the confrontation with Israel, as this has become the only option left to stop the descent of its ally, the Syrian regime, into the abyss. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov carried to his meeting with the Foreign Ministers of the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) the clinging of his President, Vladimir Putin, to his policy on the regime in Damascus as well as on the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional role. Meanwhile, the formation of the Syrian National Coalition, which includes the entire spectrum of the Syrian opposition and gathers it under Arab, European and American sponsorship, represents a new framework and a historical development in the relationship of the Arab-European-American trio with Syria. Such a development could place the relationship with Russia and China on a new track that would lead to major understandings being reached, but could also place this relationship on a track of political and strategic confrontations.
All eyes are turning towards Washington to the same extent as they are gazing at the developments currently taking place in the Middle East. They are also placing President Barack Obama's policies under the microscope, as he begins preparations to take office for his second term after winning the presidential elections. Everyone is asking: what will Barack Obama do? One could say that the achievement of gathering the Syrian opposition had been Obama's demand and a main tenet of his policy on this issue, as he made clear during one of his debates with his Republican competitor Mitt Romney, who had called for arming the opposition in order topple Bashar Al-Assad. Recognition of the Syrian National Coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people will not take place quickly, although France was the first country to provide the coalition with recognition.
The US President, however, made sure in his first press conference to say that American envoys would be participating in the various meetings that will be held between representatives of the international community and the coalition of the Syrian opposition, stating that "we consider them a legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people [but are] not yet prepared to recognize them as some sort of government in exile." Obama then pointed to "extremist elements insinuating themselves into the opposition," saying that it was necessary to be cautious, "particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures that we're not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in -- in actions that are detrimental to our national security".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that his country faces a new "challenge" in Syria due to the presence of "forces affiliated with global Jihad" there. At the same time, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad said that Syrian troops had entered the disengagement zone supervised by the UN in order to pursue "the extremist forces that have entered the demilitarized zone". He added that "we have moved and that is all there is to it; we respect the Disengagement Agreement and are committed to it, but our patience has limits and Israel should realize this". The Golan Heights has returned to the forefront after a calm that lasted decades. The question that is now being raised is: will Israel find that its interests require it to support maintaining the Assad regime in power so that it may carry out the task of eradicating the forces of "Islamic Jihad" at it border? Or will Israel reach the conclusion that the Assad regime is on its way to disappearing sooner or later anyway, and that it would therefore be preferable to hasten its demise, because prolonging it would strengthen the forces of Islamic Jihad and gather them at its border?
The answer to this question is important because it will affect American considerations and the quality of the support the Syrian opposition will be receiving. This opposition does not want to fall into the trap of being labeled "Jihadist", especially as the proportion of Jihadists taking part in the military conflict against the regime does not exceed ten percent. This opposition is in need of armament to be able to dwarf Jihadist elements as well as the impression that the Syrian Revolution is headed by Jihadists. One of the mistakes committed by Russia is that it neutralized its own influence in shaping the alternative to the regime, which is on its way to disappearing, after neutralizing the main instrument it held for exerting its influence on the Syrian issue - namely the UN Security Council. Moscow has stripped itself of the instruments of influence and has become party to the internal conflict taking place in Syria alongside the regime. It has backed itself into a corner from which it is now unable to emerge, by clinging absolutely to Bashar Al-Assad. Today, after the Syrian National Coalition has been formed, and in the wake of the Cairo meeting earlier this week, a meeting which set a new framework for the Arab-European-American trio to work together, there is near-unanimous agreement at the international level over the necessity of strengthening support for the Syrian opposition.
French President François Hollande announced that "Paris would look at the question of arming the Syrian National Council once it had created a transitional government". Britain, officially, is refraining from supporting the armament of the opposition, but it is in effect heading in that direction - at least by providing cover for the Arab countries that will be arming it, led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Japan will be hosting the meeting of the "friends of the Syrian people" on the 30th of this month, which it is hoped 150 delegates from 60 countries will participate in. Indeed, the global gathering for Syria has taken a clear stance in terms of political, financial and humanitarian support, yet military support remains under discussion. Ultimately, this is where the real test is, as arming the "secular" opposition has become a duty for the Western countries that have pledged to support the opposition so that it may stand in the face of the war machine employed by the regime. There is no way to fulfill such a pledge except by imposing safe zones or no-fly zones that would not necessarily require American troops or direct military intervention by the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO), but rather empowering the opposition by supplying it with heavy weaponry and providing political cover for Turkey.
There are reports that Tehran has provided the Syrian regime with two Iranian jet pilots to bomb the Syrian people, in addition to the participation of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese fighters in the battle alongside the regime. There are also indications of a decision by the axis that includes the regime in Damascus alongside Tehran, Moscow and Hezbollah in Lebanon to opt for escalation to the extent of exporting the crisis to neighboring countries, in particular Lebanon and Jordan. Instability is spreading in Iraq as well. On the other hand, there are Gulf Arab, European and American efforts to stifle the Assad regime, not just by erosion from within but also by placing its Russian and Chinese allies in jeopardy. The first step will take the form of enticing Russia and China to come to their senses and agree on a new binding resolution from the UN Security Council that would include a ceasefire and initiating a process of political transition.
Russia, as it seems, will not back down on maintaining Bashar Al-Assad as one of the pillars of the process of political transition. This will most likely lead to a fourth veto that will start a Cold War and a period of lukewarm and rigid relations between the Gulf countries and Russia, as well as China, if it too were to wield a fourth veto. Yet this will neither be sufficient nor will it represent the end of the road. Indeed, the new European-American-Arab movement will require an agenda agreed upon for the steps that will follow, including the details of the consequences and practical measures that would result from continued Russian-Chinese defiance. To be sure, the confrontation has entered a new phase, and there is no going back on such a course, unless the features of understandings were to emerge although they are not today in the offing. In truth, Washington is at the forefront of both choices.
The other confrontation that has entered a dark tunnel also requires care from the United States with the utmost caution. The Palestinian-Israeli issue had relatively taken the back seat for the past two years, but this does not negate the danger of an eruption of this unnatural situation. Israel carrying out the assassination of the General Commander of the Izz Ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Hamas movement, Ahmed Jaabari, represents a decision to escalate and provoke, the political and military aims of which include Israeli electoral considerations, the prestige of the Israeli army's military deterrent force, testing new Israeli weapons, driving the Palestinian Authority into a position of weakness so as to accuse it of having lost the ability to lead, and dragging Hamas into a confrontation. Israel's leadership may have in mind to provoke a limited and restricted confrontation that it would be able to rein in. Yet in times like those being witnessed by the region, such a method is extremely dangerous and may not be containable. It could even drag the United States into getting implicated where it does not wish to.
The US President falls between, on the one hand, the Palestine pledge he committed to at the beginning of his first term, and , on the other, the weariness of the Palestinians of treacherous promises and of paying the price of promises, threats, procrastination and delays. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not been able to back down on his request for a vote on a draft resolution at the UN General Assembly that would grant Palestine the status of observer state, as long as he does not obtain a serious American vision, plan or roadmap to the two-state solution.
The US Administration will not be able to intensify pressures to the extent of dissolving the Palestinian Authority, with what this would entail in terms of chaos and of the dissolution of the PA's security commitments towards Israel under the Oslo Accord. Yet this Administration is not, at the moment, likely to put forward a new vision or promise. Thus the US President might find himself facing a new reality, one that involves defiance and confrontation with both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, as the latter moves forward with illegal settlement-building, assassinations and bombings, while the former is divided between Hamas, which fires rockets, and the Palestinian Authority, which will establish the observer state - a state that has the right to hold to account and prosecute at the International Criminal Court (ICC) Israel for committing war crimes on occupied Palestinian soil. There will therefore be a different equation based on confrontation of a different kind.
The Middle East is headed towards a difficult phase -- a phase that requires President Barack Obama to stop delaying and postponing, because time now favors extremism and eruption.
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