This post is going to be short on newsy links, because I’m a bit swamped for time right now. But just a general FYI… things are heating up in the Middle East in several important ways. So here are a bunch of disjointed snippets that may be of interest.
- In the region of Israel, there’s a ramp-up to the real war for which the earlier Lebanon war was a dress rehearsal. But it’s a bit less clear what form this war will take.
- The internal fighting between Hamas and Fatah for control of the Palestinian territories has heated up, but I don’t see any clear evidence of heavy outside involvement in it; this could be a bona fide internal matter. It does ensure that Fatah is pretty irrelevant to the outside world for the near future, although Hamas has enough capacity to continue firing a steady barrage of rockets into Israel. Israel’s patience is wearing thin once again, which is why it started actually counterattacking a few days ago, and Olmert warned that nobody is immune. This is a not-subtle reference to saying that even Hamas members of the Palestinian Parliament are legitimate targets if they’re actively involved in making war against Israel, which you would think would be an obvious sort of statement. Nonetheless, certain media outlets (notably Al-Jazeera and Le Monde) portray this as a horribly inflammatory act by Israel. (Odd little tidbit: The news story about Olmert’s announcement kept getting revised in the English edition of Al-Jazeera, so that as the day went by the phrasing sounded more and more gentle.)
- The internal fighting in Lebanon is heating up as well. This appears to be a fight between the official Lebanese Army (relatively speaking, good guys; they represent in some way the general Lebanese population) fighting against Sunni forces inside the refugee camps. These Sunni forces are apparently being backed by al-Qaeda, which is a bit odd because since when does al-Qaeda give a rat’s ass about the Lebanese field? Something odd is up here and I haven’t quite figured it out. Meanwhile, Hezbollah (which is a Shi’ite force in Lebanon, maintaining its own 20,000-strong army mostly under the control of Iran) is trying to rearm as fast as possible, with significant arms purchases from Russia in the past few months. (These are technically being sold to Syria, which means that both Syria and Hezbollah are likely to end up with them.) This includes significant quantities (100’s of units) of C-802 shore-to-ship missiles.
- Note that Syria is arming up in that story. Bashar al-Assad seems to have gotten his domestic issues sorted out reasonably well, so if war flares up he may try to take advantage of the situation by getting involved. Jordan probably won’t, which means that Syria is going to try to up its creds with the Islamist world and weaken Jordan’s by comparison. That would give a huge bonus to Islamist groups that have been trying to recruit in rural Jordan, at the expense of making those groups more openly opposed to the Jordanian government, and if King Abdullah isn’t careful that could end up with a coup. Let’s see if he knows how to handle this hot potato. (I’m guessing it won’t be by fighting with Israel; his best move is probably to do some combination of cracking down on militants and providing better economics to the countryside. Which is going to be hard, so if we can arrange for financial support to Jordan for peace in the near future there’s likely to be a good dividend in it. Their countryside is already one of al-Q’s prime recruiting grounds)
- Meanwhile in Israel, there’s going to be a runoff for the Labor party leadership, but it looks like Ehud Barak is the favorite to win. And thank God — he’s one of the few people there whom I trust to both know how to use force and to know how to make peace. If he wins the Labor party, that means there’s a good chance of forcing elections reasonably soon, or otherwise jiggering things so that he ends up as PM again. Which would be good for regional stability in all ways. (Other countries are a lot less likely to invade if they know he’s in charge. Olmert as PM and that idiot Amir Peretz as Defense Minister was practically an invitation to come cause trouble)
- Meanwhile, further East…
- The US had high-level talks with Iran about Iraq. So here’s the back story: Iran has offered the US a deal, which basically amounts to the US giving Iran free rein in Iraq (approval over high-level government appointments, their military can “help maintain peace,” etc), as well as not putting up any serious opposition to the Iranian nuclear program (I’m assuming that public loud statements are fine, so long as there’s no actual action), in exchange for Iran making sure that the US withdrawal from Iraq goes reasonably smoothly and the country doesn’t descend into chaos. Now, I don’t know exactly what the US said back to this, but I did notice a few important things: First, we had high-level talks with them, which is really the biggest thing they wanted — to be treated as a top-level regional power. Second, from the announcement it seems that we’re implicitly accepting the Iraq portion of the deal, although the public phrasing of it makes it sound very nice and like both sides can claim victory. (It isn’t; pay attention to what the US and Iran are actually getting out of the deal they’re announcing, and you’ll notice a certain asymmetry. Well, that’s what happens when you get into wars you can’t win.) Third, the official line is that we only discussed Iraq and not the nuke program, but I don’t quite buy that — from what I’ve heard of the Iranian proposal, it tied the two together, and I can’t imagine any reason why Iran wouldn’t want to do so. The lack of discussion may mean that the nuke issue was simply tacitly accepted by the US, or that they just really don’t want to talk about the fact that they’re talking in public. Which is understandable.
- This suggests that we’ll start a significant troop drawdown in Iraq in a few months, and modulo various diplomatic niceties Iran will basically start increasing its diplomatic and military presence there. This means that Iran will end up with solid control over Iraq, Syria and (through Hezbollah) Lebanon, as well as a completely ineffectualized Afghanistan, thus giving them a complete arc of control across the entire Middle East. They won’t be playing a direct part in the coming war, but they’re sure going to be pulling the strings behind it.
- The US wasn’t entirely stupid in these negotiations, though. As they were starting, the Fifth Fleet sent two carrier groups (the Stennis and the Nimitz) into the Persian Gulf for war games, just as a hint to Iran: We still have the military power. You’re getting away with this, but that does not mean you’re getting away with whatever you want.
- Thoughts: We don’t really want to fight a land war against Iran right now. Nobody’s up to the challenge, and Russia will definitely be giving them equipment backing etc.; Putin has been aching for some opportunities to flex Russian power against the US. (He’s been doing it a good deal against Europe with fuel supplies etc…) None of the post-Cold-War presidents have done a good job of making Russia feel that it’s getting proper respect as a world power, and we’re paying the price in that Russia is now determined to earn its creds by showing how much power it actually has.
That said, we can still screw with Iran in various ways if push comes to shove. They can hide their nuclear installations, for example, but their oil installations are pretty visible. If it comes time for a military operation, one could always bomb the living hell out of those. (Drive the price of gas up, sure, but that may not be an entirely bad thing anyway.)
- On the subject of terrorism, there are a lot of vague rumors but nothing concrete. This summer would definitely be a time that various groups would be very happy to pull off some major attacks, but it’s not clear if they’re logistically prepped for it. Various foreign-involved or oil-related facilities in Saudi Arabia are major targets and will probably be attacked, but they can also defend themselves better than most targets. There may be attempts in Europe or even the US, but my crystal ball doesn’t have enough information to say anything useful about that. So I’ll keep a weather eye open and see what transpires.
So that’s it for now. Lots of vague noise, little concrete. I think we’re in a sort of final stage of back-room negotiation and planning before things start to really go off visibly. Late summer (July / August / September) will likely heat up considerably. For now, there are just the quiet rumblings of a large herd of heavily-armed political elephants in the distance…