Fears were widely expressed about the likelihood of a US attack on Iran before President George Bush finally leaves the White House in January 2009. Others anticipated an Israeli strike against Syria was on the cards. In the event it looks as though Lebanon is the most likely flashpoint for new conflict in the region.
Middle East watchers have been anticipating trouble for months: Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza – each one a doomsday scenario in the making. But when Hizbullah troops took over West Beirut in May it seemed the dye was cast.
Reports from Beirut say it was the actions of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government in closing down Hizbullah’s communications network (telephone and Internet) that sparked the row. The move was later reversed, but by then the damage had been done.
That action, together with the PM’s decision to sack the head of security at the capital’s international airport, on suspicion of having connections with Hizbullah, provoked the latter to describe Siniora’s actions as a declaration of war.
In a series of savage gun battles that left almost a hundred people dead, Iranian-backed Hizbullah took control of the city, from the US-backed Siniora government, later strengthening its gains by seizing control of strategic areas of the Chouf mountains, south-east of the capital. Analysts say these positions would be invaluable in any confrontation with Israel.
President Bush, arriving in Israel to take part in the country’s 60th anniversary of independence celebrations, as part of a wider Middle East tour, announced he would send troops to help “beef up” the Lebanese army. The destroyer USS Cole has returned to patrol the Lebanese coast, where its presence will underline American support.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Saud Al Faisal, announcing that the kingdom was gravely concerned by events, called upon “all the regional sides to respect the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon”; his remarks a clear reference to Iran and Syria.
The truth is that no one wants – or can afford – a war in Lebanon at this point. The Arab League are “talking” but it will take more than mere talk to resolve this situation, especially since ongoing talks of some considerable duration have, to date, failed to come up with any convincing answers. Could it be that the right people are not involved in the continuing conversation?
Any useful dialogue must now bring to the table Shi’a-dominated Iran along with Syria and the heavyweight protagonists of the opposing side, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Such negotiations will not be easy to organise or implement but what are the choices?
Lebanon has been locked into a political stalemate since November 2007 and the country’s failure to agree on a president to replace Emile Lahoud, who had the approval of the governments in Beirut and Damascus. The only things created since have been a vacuum and widespread political unrest.
If the governments of the region – under whatever guise – do not put their heads together soon and prove decisively they are capable of putting their own house in order, the real “outside influences”, the US, the EU, Russia and the rest, will be making their own bids to draw a line (or lines) in the sand. And we all know where that is likely to end.