Three war clouds hang over the Middle East. The first represents the possibility of American or Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear installations. The second represents the threat of a fresh civil war in Lebanon. The third points to the growing threat of military clash between Israel and Syria.
While all three clouds are thickening to become more threatening, the third appears the most likely to break into actual thunder and storm. The issue formed a key part of the talks between President George W. Bush and visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Washington recently.
The reason why the most imminent war in the region might involve Israel and Syria rather than Iran and the United States is that the putative adversaries are basing their rival strategies on the Tennessee turkey-shoot rules. Under that rule the hunter of wild turkeys always starts by bringing down the laggard in the targeted flight of birds, then proceeding to shoot the others one by one until the leading bird is hit.
Under that rule the laggard in this turkey flight is Lebanon, followed by Syria and moving to Iran as the lead bird. On the opposite side, that is to say seen from Tehran, the laggard is again Lebanon, followed by Iraq, Israel and then the United States as the lead bird.
This means that both the United States and Iran, as the true adversaries in the undeclared war now raging in the Middle East, seek to control Lebanon.
The US sees Lebanon not only as a new springboard for the creation of people-based regimes in the region but also as a key element in exerting pressure on Syria either to detach it from the Islamic republic or, if that fails, bring it into the fold through the use of force.
Iran, for its part, sees Lebanon as the most sensitive segment of its broader glacis that also includes Syria. If the Islamic Republic controls Lebanon, the Syrian part of its glacis will also be safe. At the same time, control of Lebanon would enable Tehran to take the war to the heart of Israel whenever it so wishes. With its Lebanese and Syrian glacis safe, it would be able to raise the temperature against the US-led coalition in Iraq further, thus hastening the American cut-and-run operation that the mullahs expect the new Democrat majority in the US to force upon the Bush administration.
However, the two adversaries are divided on one crucial point in their respective analyses.
Iran believes that whatever flash point it might provoke in Lebanon would remain limited to that country. The US, on the other hand, understands that losing Lebanon to its arch adversary in the region would doom all chances of seeing Iraq through to some level of stability that would allow an orderly American withdrawal.
The struggle for Lebanon has already started in its crucial political phase. The Islamic republic, acting through Hezbollah and its Maronite allies led by ex-General Michel Aoun, is trying to destroy Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government through internal haemorrhage.
The pro-Tehran coalition has already persuaded six ministers to resign from the Siniora cabinet. A seventh had resigned a few months ago, although his departure has not been officially approved. All that is needed is for one or two more ministers to quit for Siniora's cabinet to lose its quorum and thus be forced to step down. Such a development would suddenly transform Emile Lahoud, the incumbent president, backed by Iran and Syria, into the real power in Beirut insofar as he would have the right to name a new prime minister.
The pro-Iranian camp's position would be further strengthened by the fact that Hezbollah remains the strongest military force in Lebanon and thus capable of keeping the regular army out of the struggle for power.
The likeliest scenario, however, looks different. Rather than watch with folded arms as Iran and Syria annex Lebanon, Israel would feel obliged to take action. It is clear that Syria would be the immediate target of such action. The message would be simple: make a move against Beirut and you will get hit in Damascus! The danger that Syria is courting has increased for two reasons.
The first is the failure in both the US and Israel of the engage-the-Syrians chorus to make much headway.
The second reason why Syria may be in greater danger is that, for the first time in decades, it has moved into a position from which it cannot back out at will. Pushed by Iran into trying to make a comeback in Lebanon, Syria may be heading for a gamble that is not easy to pull off.
With the UN investigation on the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri complete, Syria faces a Hobson's choice. If Bashar Al Assad cooperates with the UN, he would not only weaken his regime but might also face personal legal complications to say the least. On the other hand, if he decides to defy the UN on that issue as well, he would make it impossible for people such as Djerdjian and Kimche to sing their songs in his favour.
The cloud of war hanging over Syria may not look as dark as the other two clouds mentioned above. But it looks the most threatening.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.