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Middle East: Syria, Iran Loom Larger In Israel-Lebanon Crisis

  • Charles Recknagel

Israeli soldiers on patrol near the border with Lebanon on July 13 (epa) Israel is stepping up air attacks on Hizballah in a declared campaign to root it out of southern Lebanon. It is also hitting Lebanon’s economic infrastructure in a bid to force the Lebanese government to help reign in the militia. That strategy is similar to Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza. For now, this two-front Israeli war against Islamic militant movements is very different from Israeli-Arab conflicts of the past, which were between states. But could the conflict broaden into a war between Israel and Syria, or even Iran -- two countries Israel accuses of bankrolling Hizballah and supporting Hamas?


PRAGUE, July 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Israel is now fighting with Islamic militias in two theaters from which it previously thought its military had permanently withdrawn.


As it wages an air campaign against Hizballah in southern Lebanon, and an air-and-ground campaign against Hamas in Gaza, Israel’s frustration is mounting. Even as it vows to break the backs of both militias, Israel knows it cannot crush the militant groups without also curbing their sponsors.


Pointing The Finger At Damascus And Tehran


So recent days have seen Israeli officials increasingly singling out Syria and Iran as the source of the problem they now face.


"The reason we see now this deterioration, it is because of a premeditated attack or strategy that unfortunately is being concocted in Damascus and in Tehran," Israeli Ambassador to the United States Daniel Ayalon told journalists in Washington on July 12.

"There is the possibility that Israel could choose to escalate the conflict to include Syria," says analyst Mouin Rabbani. " And there is also the possibility that if Israel continues pounding Lebanon and vastly escalates its campaign there that Syria would try intervene to come to the assistance of Lebanon, which could also produce an Israeli-Syrian confrontation.”

Ayalon said that Iran, despite its distance from Israel, has two goals. The first is to work for the “Islamic radicalization” of the region in hopes of creating more theocratic states like its own.


Tehran's other goal, according to Ayalon, is to distract the international community from Iran’s nuclear program, which he said aims at acquiring nuclear weapons.


Other officials in Israel have also been calling attention to Tehran. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, said on July 13 that there was concern Hizballah would attempt to move the two captured Israeli soldiers to Iran.


Tehran immediately rejected that charge, with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi saying Israel is “talking absurdities.”


Iran Answers Back


Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad vowed to help Syria -- which shares a defense pact with Iran -- if it is attacked.


"If the occupying regime [Israel] commits another stupid move and attacks Syria, this will be considered as an attack against the whole Islamic world and that regime will receive a fierce response," read a statement by Ahmadinejad that was broadcast on state television on July 13.


Analysts say that as the tensions rise, the possibilities for state-to-state warfare increase.


Heading Toward War?


Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group in Amman, sees the danger of the conflict widening into an Israeli-Syrian showdown as the most pressing.


“That is a distinct possibility," Rabbani says. "There is the possibility that Israel could choose to escalate the conflict to include Syria. And there is also the possibility that if Israel continues pounding Lebanon and vastly escalates its campaign there that Syria would try intervene to come to the assistance of Lebanon, which could also produce an Israeli-Syrian confrontation.”


The danger could be increased by the limited room that exists for diplomatic solutions. Two of the most obvious brokers -- the United States and the United Nations -- are not favorably regarded by Damascus.


The UN Security Council meeting on July 13 to discuss the Israel-Lebanon crisis (epa)

U.S. President George W. Bush on July 13 blamed Damascus for supporting Hizballah, saying that the Israeli soldiers “need to be returned” and Syrian President Bashar Assad “needs to show some leadership toward peace.”


Washington has few trade and diplomatic ties with Damascus, and some U.S. officials have called for regime change there.


The UN is unwelcome in Damascus because of its continuing investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. That investigation has linked Syria to the killing.


That would leave any broker’s role to a European country such as Germany -- which has played a leading role in previous negotiations between Hizballah and Israel. But such a player -- which would certainly exercise little leverage over either Syria or Israel -- would need great goodwill on both sides to succeed.


Geography Plays A Role


Rabbani says he sees little likelihood of an armed Israeli-Syrian conflict widening to include Iran -- despite Tehran’s recent vow to come to the aid of its defense-pact partner.


“I am assuming that Iran’s statements yesterday were motivated in large part to dissuade Israel from any plans it may have to attack Syria," Rabbani said. "But its difficult to say to what extent Iran would come to Syria’s active support. I mean, geographic distance does play a role here, and I find it extremely unlikely that Iran, which is probably also preoccupied with preparations of its own against any potential American and/or Israeli attack on Iranian territory, I find it extremely unlikely that it is now going to use whatever retaliatory measures it may have found against Israel in Syria’s defense.”


As the crisis continues, both Hizballah and Hamas are sticking to their conditions for ending it.


Hizballah has said it is ready to exchange the two soldiers for prisoners held by Israel. Analysts say that obtaining such an exchange was the militia’s intention in launching a cross-border raid into Israel on July 12.


Hamas is also seeking a prisoner exchange. But analysts say that as the crisis in Gaza has grown, Palestinian demands appear to be widening to also include an end to Israeli security operations and assassinations in the Palestinian territories.

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