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ANOTHER CONFLICT IN THE OFFING?
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
July 11, 2007

By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News
Published: July 11, 2007, 00:02

As the Middle East marks the first anniversary of the "mini-war" between Israel and Hezbollah, there is concern that this summer may witness another, and bigger, military conflict involving Syria as well.

There is some evidence that Syria is preparing for what its Vice President Farouk Al Sha'ara calls "all eventualities", a euphemism diplomats use when they mean war.

Syria signed a mutual defence pact with Iran under which Tehran has started shipping large quantities of arms to Syria.

Earlier this year the Islamic Republic also set up a company to build two weapons assembly plants in northern Syria.

Tehran has also provided Syria with an interest free loan amounting to $1.2 billion, part of which will be spent on purchasing new Russian-made MiG-31E fighters to modernise Syria's semi-derelict air force. Iran has also managed to re-arm the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah, thus rebuilding its capabilities for opening a new front in support of Syria.

If a war comes in the near future, Syria could also count on Hamas to open yet another front against Israel from Gaza.

Syria has rebuilt much of its traditional strategic partnership with Russia, thus countering US efforts to isolate it. Damascus and Moscow are negotiating a deal, under which the headquarters of the Russian war fleet could be transferred to the Syrian port of Latakiyah from Sebastopol in the Ukraine.

Moscow fears that the Ukraine, which may by then become a member of the European Union, might not renew the Sebastopol lease to let the Russian navy stay.

Syria's President Bashar Al Assad has retailored his discourse to balance his appeals for a negotiated peace with threats of armed resistance a la Hezbollah.

There is no doubt that Syria feels in a stronger position than it did a year ago. The Ba'athist leadership in Damascus has been immensely encouraged by the Democrats' victory in last November's elections in the United States.

Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the new Democrat majority in the US Congress, made Damascus one of her first ports of call in her quest for an alternative to President George W. Bush's strategy of bringing democracy to the Middle East.

The visit made nonsense of Bush's efforts to isolate Syria with a promise that a Democrat president in 2009 would revive the traditional US policy of courting the Ba'athist leadership in Damascus.

After years of decline, the Syrian economy has returned to growth, thanks to massive investments by Iran.

Early temptation

Having abandoned his early temptation to liberalise the system, Bashar has reverted to his late father's iron fist style of rule, allowing the security services to assert control over all organs of state.

He is also encouraged by the way Arab and international opinion have assessed the outcome of last year's "mini war". Despite the fact that Hezbollah suffered a crushing defeat in military terms, it managed to portray itself as a victor simply because its military machine was not totally destroyed.

The perception in Damascus is that Arab and Muslim public opinion would regard any future Israeli military victory as a defeat for the Jewish state.

When I toured the Lebanon-Israel border area a few weeks ago, there were no signs at all that a war had been fought less than a year ago. Hezbollah flags were flying high on several "watch-posts" of the party and on a number of hilltops right under the nose of the United Nations' peacekeeping force that is supposed not to allow such demonstrations of defiance.

A number of Hezbollah vehicles were also making the rounds, keeping watch on all coming and goings of the UN force.

The surest sign that Washington's efforts to isolate Damascus have failed is Israel's undisguised enthusiasm for peace talks with Syria.

When I met Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in his office in Occupied Jerusalem a few weeks ago, he denied that he was "starry-eyed" about prospects for peace with Syria. Nevertheless, he made no secret of his keenness to talk to the Syrians, even if that meant undermining Bush's strategy.

At last month's meeting with Olmert at the White House, Bush finally sated that Israel was free to conduct whatever negotiations it wished with Syria. But he also made it clear that the US would not take part.

Such a public divergence in American and Israeli policies on so vital an issue is certain to encourage the hardliners in Damascus that their adversaries are disunited and unable to develop a common strategy.

The complex game that Damascus is playing is also influenced by fears that the Arab peace proposal, first formulated by King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia and later endorsed by the Arab League may lead to serious negotiations with Israel, thus marginalising Syria.

If the Arab initiative leads to a solution of the Palestinian problem, possibly through the creation of a Palestinian state, Syria would be left alone with its Golan Heights still under Israeli occupation.

Thus, Bashar's tantalising offer of talks to Israel may be prompted by his desire to derail the Saudi peace proposals before they gain any momentum.

Paradoxically, the current apparent divisions within the US and between the US and its Arab and Israeli allies appear to have strengthened the hands of the war party in both Damascus and Tehran. This is why another summer war, though not certain, remains a dangerous possibility.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is basedin Europe.

 

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