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When Elephants Fight… - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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As efforts to arrange a ceasefire in Lebanon intensify, the would-be peacemakers remain confused about the nature of the conflict.

Is this war about Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah and Hezbollah militants held by Israel, as the protagonists claimed at the start of the hostilities? If yes, why is that issue practically left out of the draft resolution submitted by France and the United States to the Security Council?

Alternatively, if the war is, as Hezbollah claims, about the liberation of Shabaa farms, still held by Israel, the solution is easy.

Israel holds the farms because the United Nations believes they belong to Syria.

All that is needed is for Syria to announce the farms do not belong to it but to Lebanon. Kofi Annan has made it clear that as soon as Syria relinquishes its claim, the Shabaa farms would be transferred to Lebanon. Most Lebanese do not see why they should die to liberate tiny Syrian farms when the Syrians do not fight to liberate their own land, including the Golan.

Let us assume that the war is about helping the elected government in Lebanon establish its authority in the south. In that case, why the UN did not do anything to implement its Resolution 1559, designed to achieve that objective?

Imagine a situation in which Hezbollah no longer fires missiles at Israel but also refuses to disband its militia. Would the international community care? Parties like Hezbollah maintain private armies and act as a state within the state in many countries.

If the war is not about kidnapped soldiers, disputed farms, and support for Lebanon’s central government, then what is it about?

Some of us have insisted from the start that this is a proxy war in which the protagonists are fighting on behalf of outsiders with broader strategies. When we first offered that analysis, we were vilified as neo-con warmongers and worse.

In the past two weeks, however, that analysis has been echoed by others, including prominent figures on both sides of the conflict.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, has made it clear that she sees the conflict in Lebanon as a battle in the broader war over who sets the agenda for the “new Middle East.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair has spoken of an “arch of instability” that spans from North Africa to the Indian Ocean and described the war in Lebanon as part of the conflict between Western democracies and radical Islamism.

At the other end of the spectrum, Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi has echoed the views expressed by Rice and Blair. He, too, says that the war in Lebanon is about reshaping the Middle East. A week ago, his Foreign Minister Manuchehr Motakki presented that analysis in Beirut, drawing flak from Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

However, the most frank analyses of the situation on the Iranian side of the conflict have come from two close aides of Khamenehi.

The first was by Ali Akbar Velayati, the man who was the Islamic Republic’s Foreign Minister for 16 years. Now an advisor to the “Supreme Guide”, Velayati is regarded as a major voice in shaping Tehran’s foreign policy.

In a speech in Tehran last week, Velayati said that, by destroying the Taliban regime in Kabul and the Baathist dictatorship in Baghdad, the United States had created an historic opportunity for reshaping the Middle East.

However, the kind of the Middle East that President George W Bush wishes to create requires regime change also in Iran and its sole regional ally Syria. One way Iran and Syria could protect themselves against American ambitions is to put pressure on Israel through Hamas and Hezbollah.

As long as Iraq and Afghanistan remained hostile to the Islamic Republic, there was little chance of Iran casting itself as the new leader in the region. The Islamic Republic had to devote much of its energies protecting its borders with Afghanistan and Iraq.

With the Taliban and Saddam Hussein gone, Iran is safe on its borders and can move onto the offensive in pursuit of its regional ambitions.

The second analysis came from Hussein Shariatmadari, also a top aide to Khamenehi and director of Iran’s main daily newspaper Kayhan (Universe).

Shariatmadari believes that with the fall of Communism, the task of challenging the “Infidel” West, under US leadership, in setting the global agenda, has devolved to the Islamic Republic and its Khomeinist ideology. In an editorial bearing the title of “This Is Our War”, Shariatmadari made it clear that Hezbollah was fighting not for prisoners, the Shabaa farms or even “Arab causes”, whatever they may be at any given time, but for Iran in its broader struggle to prevent the US from creating “an American Middle East.”

The consensus in Tehran is that American power is peaking out and that the West as a whole is entering a period of historic decline. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is convinced that it is the turn of rising new powers, brimming with energy and ambition, sustained by strong demographic trends, and ready for endless sacrifice and suffering, to provide humanity with leadership.

Seen in that context the ultimate control of the current war may not be in the hands of either Israel or Hezbollah.

As this war continues, both sides would discover each other’s threshold of pain and learn to live with it. Israel has lost 70 soldiers while Hezbollah admits the loss of some 60 fighters. Both could live for a long time with such limited losses.

Does this mean endless war in which Lebanese and Israelis, mostly civilians, will die in what is, in fact, a conflict between the United States and Iran?

Much of the answer must come from Lebanon.

The Lebanese, united in their grief over the war, remain divided on who should shape the future Middle East. Hezbollah and its allies favour a Middle East in which Iran provides leadership in the name of radical Islam. Without saying so in public, other Lebanese parties would rather live in a Middle East dominated by the US.

A similar division exists in Israel, albeit on a smaller scale and in more subtle ways.

Some Israelis believe that they have paid a high price for being dragged into big power rivalries, first during the Cold War, and more recently in the conflict between the West and radical Islam. Israel’s close association with the US has meant substantial loss of support elsewhere, especially in Europe where anti-Americanism has grown since the end of the Cold War.

There was a time when Israel was the darling of the left in the West, and a leading member of the Socialist International. In those days, Israel received its weapons, and its nuclear arsenal, from France and the Soviet bloc, and was seen by European left as an outpost of “progress” in an Arab world dominated by “reactionary regimes.” Now, however, much of the Western left sees Israel as a cat’s paw of “American Imperialism”, and thus as an enemy.

“When elephants fight, smaller beasts better stay away!” Given by Kenneth Kaunda, the father of Zambia’s independence, that advice, was meant for newly created Afro-Asian states during the Cold War.

Many believe that it also applies to Lebanon and Israel today, two small countries, which have no reason to be at war with one another, and yet are destroying each other on behalf of bigger powers with rival agendas.