With news and comment about the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War dominating the media scene these days little attention is paid to the increasing possibility of future wars in the Middle East which may come as early as this summer.
Wars happen when a status quo becomes unstable- either because one side finds it unbearable or because another side hopes to benefit by undermining it.
Right now, the new status quo as shaped by last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah is under threat in Lebanon. The Islamic Republic in Iran and Syria are determined to break Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s government and transform Lebanon into a gun pointed at Israel.
At the other end of the spectrum, the United States and France, now closer than ever thanks to Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as president last month, are determined to exert maximum pressure on Damascus as a means of either encouraging regime change or forcing President Bashar al-Assad to distance himself from the Khomeinist regime in Tehran.
The United Nations Security Council resolution 1757 is the legal instrument through which pressure would be exerted on the Syrian leadership. The resolution, approved under the UN Charter’s Chapter VII, which makes it mandatory, approves the formation of an international tribunal to investigate a series of political murders, including that of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, over the past two years. The evidence so far shows at least some degree of Syrian involvement in virtually all the murder cases under concerned. What will the Syrian leadership do? If they accept the resolution and cooperate with the tribunal they would risk helping consolidate a new status quo that will be against their longer-term interests. If, on the other hand, they adopt a defiant posture, they would force the UN to act to end what amounts to a standoff with Damascus.
The status quo is also under threat in the Palestinian territories where what looks like a bourgeoning civil war is already under way at least in Gaza. The Islamic Republic and Syria have joined forces with the international Salafist movement of which Hamas is a part to make sure it does not lose the coming civil war. At the other end of the spectrum, Israel is unlikely to sit back and see Al Fatah, its possible interlocutors in any future peace talks, destroyed by Hamas.
So far, the Islamic Republic and Syria have managed to hold their own, and even score a few points, by doing what they are good at: waging proxy war against their real or imagined foes. However, like other instruments of policy, proxy war has its limitations.
The current avalanche of material about the Six Days War of 1967 has paid little attention to the fact that it came after a long period of proxy war waged by Egypt against Israel through Palestinian armed groups. Although the actual 1967 war was provoked by Egypt’s President Jamal Abdul Nasser, possibly egged on by his Soviet allies who hoped to destroy the Israeli nuclear program, it is unlikely that the Jewish state would have tolerated the proxy war waged against it for long before turning into a larger conflict.
The question today is how long it would take before Israel decides that the cost of a long proxy war against it far outweighs that of a broader but shorter war against those who pull the strings from Damascus and ultimately Tehran.
A few weeks ago, there was much talk in Israel of a possible return to peace talks with Syria. Some Israel strategists were even deluding themselves with the theory that Syria would walk away from its Iranian allies in exchange for the prospect of recovering the Golan Heights.
Now, however, almost no one in Israel shares such illusions. Hence, the recent string of statements by Israeli military and political officials about the Jewish state’s readiness to take military action against Syria.
If Ehud Olmert survives as Israel’s prime minister he would lack the political strength needed for offering the Golan to Syria in exchange even for the best of possible peace deals. On the other hand, if Olmert is forced out of office, it is almost certain that someone more hawkish, notably Benjamin Netanyahu, would succeed him.
With Netanyahu at the helm, there will be no chance of Israel returning the Golan to a Syrian regime that he regards as “despotic and terrorist”. There is one more possibility: Olmert himself might decide that the best way to end the proxy wars is to attack Syria. Such a move might enable him to efface the perception, patently unjustified, that he somehow lost last summer’s war against Hezbollah.
Neither Tehran nor Damascus appears to have thought of an alternative in case their current policy of waging proxy becomes too risky. Last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic made this clear by asserting that the “countdown for the destruction of Israel” had begun with the proxy wars waged against it from Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. There is some evidence that at least part of the Syrian leadership shares Ahmadinejad’s illusion.
The problem for those who depend on proxy wars as an instrument of strategy is that, at some point, they may lose control. Like all wars, proxy wars develop their own internal dynamics and, because history is never written in advance, no one, not even those who unleash them in the first place, can set their full course at will.
The overall regional picture becomes even grimmer when one takes into account the proxy wars that the Islamic Republic is waging in Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Pakistan and, more recently, even Turkey, sometimes with Syria as its Man Friday.
Will the Middle East have another summer war soon? It is hard to say. One thing, however, is certain: the situation in the region has reached a degree of dangerous instability that it might not last to the end of the year.