Reshuffling the deck in the Levant

Asia Times Online :: Middle East News, Iraq, Iran current affairs

The immediate economic realities are such that the United States and other world powers can hardly afford the instability to continue for very long. With crude oil prices over $100/barrel, the fragile signs of economic recovery will soon come in jeopardy. It is unclear in what time frame this danger would materialize, but some analysts mention another month at the most.

With signs of pressure from emerging powers (Russia and China reluctant to embrace active intervention in Libya; Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez proposing his own peace initiative there ), the United States might well try settle for a less than ideal scenario. Obama could, for example, stick to Jimmy Carter’s example: despite a bold offensive for a comprehensive solution to the entire Arab-Israeli conflict, Carter eventually decided, under pressure, to opt for a separatist peace between Egypt and Israel. In 2011, Syria would be a suitable candidate to play the role of Egypt in 1977; incidentally, this is one scenario tentatively on offer by both Israelis and Syrians.

Last Friday, it emerged that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad had spent “a few months” working on a peace initiative together with US Senator John Kerry. On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced that al-Assad might be ready to enter peace talks with Israel. If that were so, Barak added, Assad would find a “willing partner.”

Syria is especially important to watch. So far, whether by skillfully applied force or popularity, al-Assad has managed to avoid the fate of Mubarak or Gaddafi. He is, moreover, clearly on the offensive: even a puff piece about his wife published in the Vogue magazine last week attests to his renewed efforts to get into the spotlight.

The initiative vis-a-vis Israel is only one of several tracks al-Assad is developing simultaneously. He is also expanding his influence in Lebanon, and, if unconfirmed reports turn out to be true, talking to the Iranians about letting them build a naval base in Latakia. If he could line up the United States, Israel and Iran to all bid for his friendship, he would be in a position to cash in handsomely on the changing status quo – his major domestic problems currently are economic in nature.

Israel also has an interest to act quickly. In many ways – not least financially – the country is an island of stability, but the future is uncertain and the government is in crisis. In my article Bitter feud behind Israeli army brawl (Asia Times Online 10 February 2011) I outlined some of the main rifts; suffice it to add that there is a growing feeling of inertia and discord in the government, domestic paralysis and growing international isolation. “Netanyahu is beginning to resemble his friend Mubarak,” wrote recently in Ha’aretz Israeli journalist Aluf Benn. “The symbols of government remain in place – the expansive palace, the limousine motorcade, the battalions of bodyguards and the telephone calls from world leaders – but the power of influence is gone.”

Netanyahu and his close ally Barak are aware of this situation. According to another story by Aluf Benn, the international isolation was “brought home” to them during the recent debates at the United Nations Security Council of a draft resolution condemning Israeli settlement over the Green Line. “It was only the flick of Obama’s finger that prevented a huge diplomatic defeat for the prime minister,” Benn writes. “The White House went out of its way to make it clear that it does in fact support the condemnation and was voting against it only for domestic political considerations. Now the time has come to cash in, and Obama will demand a price for his veto.”

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