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July 21, 2006

All Hell Breaks Loose in the Middle East

by Leon Hadar

U.S. President George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers had pledged that after ousting Saddam Hussein they would succeed in transforming "liberated" Iraq into a prosperous democracy that would serve as a model of political and economic freedom for the Middle East.

Remember the Domino Effect that Westernized and secular Mesopotamia would have had on the rest of the authoritarian government in the region?

The withdrawal of Syria's troops from Lebanon and the so-called Cedar Revolution were supposed to help eradicate the sectarian splits in that country and make it possible to disarm and co-opt the Shi'ite-led Hezbollah into the political system. That would be followed by the collapse of the Ba'ath regime in Damascus, and perhaps lead even to the downfall of the ayatollahs in Tehran.

And finally, as the Bushies envisioned it, "the road from Baghdad would lead to Jerusalem." That is, the dramatic explosion of freedom in the Arab world would make it more likely that the Palestinians would move ahead to establish their own independent state and conclude a peace accord with Israel. In the first stage in that process, the Palestinians would hold a free election that would bring to power a moderate and peace-oriented leadership.

More than three years after the inauguration of President Bush's project to remake the Middle East, it's becoming clear that the new Iraq did become, indeed, a model for the entire Middle East, a model of sectarian violence, religious extremism, and growing anti-American and anti-Western sentiments.

Power Shift

If anything, as the recent developments in the region are demonstrating, Bush's policies have made the Middle East safer – not for democracy but for ethnic and religious strife. His policies have helped to shift the balance of power in the region in the direction of Iran and Shi'ite and Sunni radicals. What Iraq seems to be exporting to the Middle East is war and instability, a lot of it.

Just this week in Iraq, Arab-Shi'ites and Arab-Sunnis were massacring each other in several parts of the country, which is in the process of degenerating into a civil war that could split it into Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish mini-states. In Baghdad, the secular regime of Saddam has been replaced through an open election by a coalition of Shi'ite religious parties (with links to the ruling Shi'ites in Iran) that have taken steps to limit the rights of women and religious minorities.

The main beneficiaries of these developments have been Iran's religious Shi'ite rulers, who have strengthened their influence in Iraq and are encouraging radical Shi'ite groups in the so-called Shi'ite Triangle stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Levant – including Hezbollah in Lebanon – to reassert their power and challenge the ruling (pro-American) Arab-Sunni governments there.

And in Iran itself, instead of the Democratic Spring that the neocons had predicted, the ayatollahs have actually strengthened their hold over power, and a virulent anti-American (and anti-Israeli) figure was elected president through a mostly democratic process.

In Lebanon, U.S. pressure forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops that were invited by the Arab League to bring stability into that country in the aftermath of the civil war and the Israeli occupation in early 1982 (which also helped give birth to Hezbollah). Then the Americans celebrated the sectarian parliamentary election that helped increase the political power of Hezbollah and brought it into the government.

Hence, Hezbollah gained more power and representation, while a weak central government didn't have the power to disarm its militias that continue to dominate southern Lebanon and the border with Israel.

And the road from Baghdad didn't lead to Jerusalem. The Bush administration has failed to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and has increased U.S. backing for Israel. At the same time, the Americans, resisting advice from Israelis and moderate Palestinians, insisted on holding free elections in the West Bank that led to the victory of Hamas, an anti-Israeli, anti-American, radical Sunni group that is opposed to holding peace negotiations with Israel.

Hamas is also an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which aims at replacing the current regimes in Egypt and Jordan with anti-American religious parties. Israel and the United States refused to talk with the new Hamas government and took steps to strangle the economy of the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Revolutionary Process

So on one level, on the "democratic" side of the democratic empire in the Middle East, the Bush administration launched a revolutionary process that has brought to power and played into the hands of the more radical, anti-American players in the region: Iran and its alliance of Shi'ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Hamas (Muslim Brotherhood) in Palestine, and by extension, the rest of the Arab-Sunni world.

On another level, on the "imperial" side of the democratic empire in the Middle East, the Americans moved aggressively to strengthen their hegemony in the region directly (Iraq), indirectly (Lebanon), and through proxies (Palestine). They attempted to build up an international coalition to contain and isolate Iran and force it to give up its ambition to develop nuclear capability, and adopted a similarly punitive approach against Damascus while trying to oust Hamas from power.

Was it surprising, therefore, that this mishmash of idealistic democracy-promotion crusades in the Middle East and a unipolar approach aimed at establishing U.S. hegemony in the region ended up producing an ad-hoc, informal coalition of anti-American players, who were emboldened thanks to Washington's policies and who are now trying to challenge U.S. power?

Iran, whose leaders sense that it is gradually becoming a regional power, and an isolated and angry Syrian regime decided to utilize their proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, to deliver an indirect blow to American power by taking aggressive moves against an American proxy, Israel.

Indeed, it is in that geopolitical and regional context that one should focus on the killing and kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers on Israel's borders with Gaza and Lebanon. The goal of this action was to demonstrate that against the backdrop of the U.S. quagmire in Iraq and the increasing influence of Iran, Washington would find it difficult to maintain the status quo in the region.

If the Americans decide to get involved in the current fighting in the Holy Land and Lebanon, they wil be drawn into another military front in the Middle East, where as in Iraq, they wil be embroiled in more bloody ethnic and religious clashes, helping to accentuate the claim that a U.S.-Israel axis wants to control the region and is at war with Islam.

Or if the Americans refuse to intervene, the continuing fighting and the televised images of Muslims being killed by the U.S. and Israel in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, and Afghanistan will play into the hands of the emerging radical forces and erode the foundation of U.S. hegemony in the region.

In any case, as Tehran and Damascus see it, the Americans will have no choice but to deal with Iran and Syria directly – or indirectly through the United Nations – in order to achieve an end to the hostilities. These governments, and the non-government entities allied with them, are now in an improved bargaining position vis-à-vis Washington and will be able to extract concessions from it on various issues – Syria in Lebanon and Iran over nuclear development.

The Bush administration is hoping that Israeli military power will succeed in defeating Hezbollah and Hamas, and as a result, the Americans will be in a position to counterbalance Iran's growing power.

But it's not clear how the Israelis could actually defeat Hamas and Hezbollah, short of re-invading southern Lebanon and Gaza and finding themselves once again engaged in never ending, bloody warfare with guerilla forces, not unlike what is happening now to the Americans in Iraq.

As a result, radical Shi'ite and Sunni forces will be in a better position to stir up the Arab masses against the pro-American old regimes in the region. That explains why the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and the Saudis seem to be backing Washington's efforts to disarm Hezbollah.

But here is the catch: The Shi'ites constitute today at least 40 percent of the population of Lebanon, and any attempt to destroy the military infrastructure of Hezbollah could ignite a civil war in Lebanon.

Perhaps then the Americans would have no choice but to invite the Ba'athists in Syria to impose order in Lebanon. Indeed, they might use that occasion to ask Saddam Hussein to do the same in Iraq.

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Singapore Business Times. Visit his blog.

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