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Belmont Club

The Middle East

February 15th, 2009 - 9:22 pm

US diplomatic efforts are afoot in the Middle East.  What they are intended to achieve is unclear, but the tone is unmistakeable: let’s make a deal.  Hillary Clinton is going to Egypt with a bag of money for reconstruction while John Kerry heads for Damascus.

“The secretary will be coming to Cairo on the second of March,” Aboul Gheit said. “We expect lots of commitments from everybody, lots of commitments for reconstruction.” The United States has already contributed nearly $60 million since the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza this winter, most of it going to international institutions on the ground in Gaza, including the United Nations and Red Cross. … The US is also eager to show its appreciation to Egypt for working to bring a cease-fire between the different parties and playing a high-profile role in addressing the conflict, according to observers.

No one knows what Kerry will say to Assad, but the press hints at what they may talk about: Hamas and Hezbollah and unspecified ‘other’ militants. By implication they will also talk about Israel, Lebanon and Iraq which is where all these proxies operate. A Reuters report on the Kerry trip describes the coordinated offensive to “engage”:

Kerry met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday, Jones said. Syria and the United States are on poor terms because of Damascus’ support for the Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah.

Under Bush, Washington withdrew its ambassador in Damascus following the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and accused Syria of allowing Islamist fighters to infiltrate Iraq. Cooperation between Syria and Iran has also angered Washington.

That’s going to change to an extent still unknown. Each of the three shadow participants in this diplomatic dance — Israel, Lebanon and Iraq — the other parties, have recently passed or are nearing political milestones themselves. Israel and and Iraq have just finished crucial elections and Lebanon is heading for one. Each will want something to say about the deals that the Obama administration is preparing to make. Take Israel: they are fed up with diplomacy at the very moment Obama is enamored of it. Despite Netanyahu’s inability to build a coalition government, recent elections in Israel have widely been seen as a ‘shift to the right’. The Washington Post says

Israel’s election this week left doubts over who will become prime minister, but a clear majority of voters supported parties that regard military force, rather than peace talks, as the best way to safeguard the country.

The shift away from politicians who emphasize negotiations with Palestinians and the country’s Arab neighbors means that Israel’s right, after years in the political wilderness, is almost certain to be back in control no matter who forms the next government.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, hundreds of thousands of people rallied to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Rafik Hariri’s assassination at the hands of what many believe to be Assad himself. The LA Times writes, “The rally on the fourth anniversary of the Sunni leader’s assassination came as Lebanese politicians launched campaigns for crucial parliamentary elections, which will pit the nation’s Western-backed coalition against the Hezbollah-led camp supported by Iran and Syria.” What they fear most is a sell-out to Damascus.

Sunni Muslim, Druze and Christian leaders called on voters to head en masse to the polls in June, telling the crowds that the election would boil down to a decision between an impartial and sovereign country and a state mired in conflict with neighboring Israel and dominated by regional powers.

The June 7 election “is a crossroads in the life of the democratic Lebanon,” said Saad Hariri, head of the parliamentary majority and son of the leader, who was killed Feb. 14, 2005, by a bomb in central Beirut.

Thus at the very time that Clinton and Kerry are looking to make a deal or at least explore the possibility of one, political elements in both Lebanon and Israel are likely to resist being turned into bargaining chips. On the Gaza front, as if Netanyahu’s election were not enough to give Hillary a headache, domestic politics also served notice that it too had appearances to protect. The Jerusalem Post says that Congressional leaders want assurances that the bag of carrots Hillary is taking with her to Cairo won’t wind up being gnawed by Hamas, which is of course the point of the carrots if Hamas is to be negotiated into anything.

Meanwhile, more than 50 members of the US House of Representatives signed a letter to Clinton calling on her to halt US contributions to the United Nations Relief Works Agency until more stringent reviews show whether any Palestinian terrorists are receiving money from the refugee organization. The letter, co-authored by Steve Rothman (D-New Jersey) and Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), said the representatives support US assistance to Palestinians but want to make sure none of it is reaching Hamas supporters.

The Kerry trip comes two weeks before an international tribunals is scheduled to start proceedings which may indict the Syrian President himself in the Hariri murder. Whatever Assad wants from Kerry, assurances that he — and his near associates — won’t be doing the perp walk is likely to be one of them.  Hillary has apparently promised Hariri’s son justice, but what that will mean remains to be seen. As the BBC report went on to say, Syria may have already been given assurances that Assad is off the hook, though that is still a speculation.

On the eve of the fourth anniversary of the murder that changed Lebanon’s history, Saad Hariri, the young leader of the country’s pro-Western Sunni parliamentary majority, received a phone call from Hillary Clinton.

The US secretary of state was ringing to assure him that the new American administration would do everything in its power to bring to justice those who killed his father, Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri….

According to Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre, the West has also changed its attitude towards Syria. “In the beginning the UN investigation was clearly geared towards regime change in Syria, and now this is no longer the case,” he said. The aftermath of the car bombing that killed Rafik Hariri on 14 February 2005 The killing of Rafik Hariri sparked outrage in Lebanon

“I think now, both in Europe and in the United States, there is a realisation that the Syrian government is here to stay.”

Unlike their predecessors, first President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and now US President Barack Obama have made it clear that they want to engage with Damascus.

Meanwhile looking West to Iraq, ‘other militants’ aside from Hamas and Hezbollah may have been plying their trade among pilgrims hailing, ironically enough, from their partner Iran. But these are expendabe. A recent attack on Shi’ite pilgrams may be the work of Sunni militants with connections to Syria. The VOA writes:

Anbar’s police chief told al-Arabiyah television that the Iraqi suspect, Sadi Nayif, carried out sectarian killings of Iraqi Shi’ites. Al-Qaida in Iraq is a Sunni militant group. The Anbar police official says Nayif recently returned to Iraq from Syria.

Elsewhere, a bomb exploded Sunday in Baghdad’s predominantly Shi’ite Sadr City district, killing one person and wounding 18 others. In other violence, gunmen killed an Iraqi soldier and a civilian Sunday in separate attacks in the northern city of Mosul. The U.S. military also says an American soldier was killed Sunday in a bomb attack in southern Iraq.

Still, engagement is in the air. The Saudi King has “sent his son to Damascus to discuss with Syrian President Basher Al-Assad best ways for improving their bilateral ties, which reached low ebb over Lebanon, Iraq and to a lesser extent, Palestine.” And the best way to restore unity, according to Damascus, is to put the Palestinian issue front and center.

“Assad sent a reply message on latest regional events particularly after the Israeli aggression and the importance of Arab solidarity in the face of challenges confronting the Arab nations, particularly in Palestine,” read the statement, carried by government-run Syrian Arab News Agency. The Saudi King told his fellow Arab leaders in Kuwait last month that he was declaring an end to “the recent period of quarrels” and “opening the door of unity.”

All of which brings us back to Hillary’s bag of carrots, Netanyahu and the Lebanese democracy movement again in a full circle. The concessions that Obama and Hillary plan to offer may have the effect of destabilizing rather than calming the region. Whoever gets voted out in diplomacy’s ultimate reality show is sometimes prone to returning in the next episode with machete swinging and guns blazing.  Watching developments in the distance of course, is Syria senior partner Iran. Obama hasn’t even begun feeding that beast yet.

Forgive me fodder, for I have sinned. Maybe, maybe not.

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