Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Middle East’s likely “escape to war”

My English wording of Ghassan Charbel’s editorial appearing today in pan-Arab al-Hayat:

Will we wake up one day to news of missiles raining on Israel and of Israeli warplanes mounting retaliatory raids? Or will we wake up to news of an attack on an Israeli embassy or cultural center and of Israel hitting back in South Lebanon? What if Israel opted to widen the scope of armed conflict to settle accounts with Iran’s nuclear facilities? Where will Iran elect to respond and will the United States be able to stay out of the fray? And what if we woke up one day to sea mines in the Strait of Hormuz? Or to a suicide attack on a U.S. ship in Gulf waters?

I am aware of speculation going around here and there. Many are saying:
  • That the West does not want war and is incapable of waging one even if it wanted to
  • That Barak Obama, who is seeking a second term, wants to come across as a president who returned the troops home from a war initiated by his predecessor, rather than a president who involved the U.S. military in new hostilities
  • That Nicolas Sarkozy, who ventured into Libya, has no appetite for a new adventure
  • That David Cameron and Angela Merkel are immersed in the West’s financial crisis and its fallout on the euro

All the above is true, except that wars are sometimes triggered by a sudden breakdown in this or that volatile area.

I am also aware:
  • That Iran masters war brinkmanship, but is also adept at avoiding war at the nick of time
  • That the Syrian army’s deployment today rules out confrontation with Israel
  • That Damascus knows Syrian missiles won’t cripple Israel but an Israeli air blitz on elite Syrian army units would break the regime’s back
  • That Hezbollah won’t readily invite war in Syria’s present circumstances and during the sea change enveloping Lebanon

I am aware of all this, but I am tempted to pose a war-related question. What are the chances of either being driven to war, or hotfooting to one, in the belief that (1) it would shuffle the cards and (2) its price, no matter how high, would still be less than the price of eclipsing the rejectionist crescent.

I write this after closely monitoring news over the last few days. Clearly, tension in Iran is rising. Its economy is suffering from sanctions, with more to come. It is unable to halt the decline in the value of its national current. Enrichment of nuclear fuel is proliferating its isolation. Its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz earned it a stern warning. Blaming Israel for the assassination of yet another Iranian nuclear physicist, the fourth in two years, is no simple matter.

I also write in the wake of President Bashar al-Assad’s speech. Clearly, the Arab observer mission is dead and buried and so are the prospects of any other Arab League solution. The regime rejects any solution that would see Syria going into a transition phase. The regime is still counting on eradication and victory, irrespective of the staggering price tag. In turn, the opposition is unwilling to accept any cosmetic solution that would keep the regime in place. Thousands of people killed in opposition ranks have strengthened arguments for internationalization and an armed face off.

Missed solutions raise the specter of a civil war with regional dimensions, given the internecine squabbles in Iraq and Lebanon over Syria’s predicament.

A great showdown is looming. What is taking place on Syrian soil does not only put at risk the regime. The whole rejectionist front’s future is in the balance. Collapse of the Syrian regime, if it happened, would lose Iran a hub it spent years and fortunes nurturing. It would relegate Hezbollah to the status of a local player. It is an open secret that most missiles the party used in the 2006 war were manufactured in Syria with Iranian funds.

The gloomy picture I detect reminds me of something I heard a few months back. My interlocutor said, “Bailing out Syria’s regime is worth triggering a war on Israel that might change the region’s landscape. If you face such an enormous loss, better take the risk and use all your cards.”