By Abdel Bari Atwan
The tripartite meeting held in Damascus last week included Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and his Iranian guest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hizbullah in Lebanon. The three came together as a "war council" to discuss plans, roles and functions in the event of an attack on any or all of the three parties. A similar meeting took place between Mr. Ahmadinejad and the leaders of the Palestinian factions in the same context.
The timing of this meeting, the results and the press conference that came after, all confirm that a strategic alliance is being formed; a new front that will be the spearhead of opposition to the US-Israel alliance and anyone who joins it, secretly or in the open, from amongst the Arab governments, should war break out.
Iran's president predicted that war will start this year, in the spring or summer. Hizbullah, according to Mr. Nasrallah, will strike Tel Aviv and its airports and power stations if Israel dares to bomb Beirut Airport or any Lebanese power stations or other vital infrastructure.
This reveals an unprecedented degree of self-confidence and bold statements as the Middle East prepares to respond to any Israeli aggression. This is unheard of, especially since the Arab regimes started to incline towards "peace" with Israel, dropping all other options and reaffirming this inclination with an Arab peace initiative, the details of which were prepared carefully in the American "kitchen" by skilled "chefs".
The Arab region now stands at the beginning of a new phase, similar to that which preceded the two wars on Iraq (1991 and 2003), and in line with the same compass; some side with the US, others don't. And just as some Arabs became allies of the Americans against Arab Iraq, we may, in the next phase and for the first time in the history of the region, witness another more dangerous precedent, with some Arabs siding with the Americans and Israelis against the Syrians and Iranians and their allies.
The Syrian leadership has apparently decided on its position, opting to close the doors to trite American smooth talking. The country is strengthening its strategic alliance with Iran in a clear response to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who demanded that the Syrian leadership stays away from Iran, whose own leadership is, according to the American-Israeli narrative, stirring-up trouble in the region. This Syrian decision comes after a long period of quiet diplomacy and half-open doors for dialogue with the West, including the United States, but it looks as if the imminence of a military confrontation has led President al-Asad to abandon this approach and prepare for the possibility of another "mother of all battles". Syria cannot break its strategic alliance with Iran, which has been in place for more than thirty years, and it is no exaggeration to say that, in fact, such a split has not even been considered.
Mrs. Clinton, who broke diplomatic and moral etiquette by asking Syria to stay away from Iran, did not offer anything in return for such a move, except to suggest that it might precipitate the return of the American ambassador to Damascus. Does she think that Syria cannot exist without the presence of a US ambassador?
For thirty years, Syria has been a primary component of the Egyptian – Saudi ‑ Syrian triangle which basically controlled the region and placed their bets on peace; so what did Washington offer in return for such a moderate approach? Did it force Israel to end its occupation of the Golan Heights and return them to Syria? Did the US swamp the country with billions of dollars of investment to create jobs and a decent living for the unemployed in Syria? Or did the US remove Syria from its list of "terrorist states"?
There is no direct air route between Damascus and any US city and we have not seen a single US aircraft land at Damascus International Airport for fifty years. This is despite the fact that Syria opposed the regime of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and participated indirectly in the "liberation" of Kuwait, and has cooperated fully in the war against terrorism, and still does.
Serious developments are taking place when we see Hassan Nasrallah going publically to Damascus and when we see Mr. Ahmadinejad, a Shia' Muslim, praying in a mosque behind a Sunni Imam and reacting sharply when foreign journalists asked provocative questions about this issue. Some may say this was a media stunt to build bridges with the Sunni community, and that may be true, but was it wrong? Muslims are supposed to be one Ummah and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the major moderate states, which is generally anti-Iran, has launched two important initiatives in the past two years: in-depth dialogue between Sunnis and Shi'ites, and interfaith dialogue between the followers of the three monotheistic religions. It is hoped that it will not be too long before we see Sunni Arab leaders praying behind imams who are followers of the Jaafari school of thought in Shi'ite mosques in order to achieve a historic reconciliation and end to the sectarian strife. Such a split has widened following the US occupation of Iraq, so why not take such steps now if we all claim to follow Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him)?
Of course, the Syria-Iran alliance does not possess nuclear warheads or the sophisticated weaponry maintained by Israel and America; there is no military balance in the region (and the US has armed Israel to make sure that the status quo stays that way). However, that was also the situation when Israel launched its war against Lebanon in 2006 and look what happened then.
The strike capabilities of the joint US-Israeli forces are great by any standards, but Japan was still Japan even though two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and Germany became a single state again after fifty years of its ideological division. Syria and Egypt continued to exist after defeat in the Six- Day War of 1967, but the question here is whether Israel will continue to exist if it launches a new war of aggression; if it does, will it be supported and protected by the US as it is now?
Israel faces serious crises, domestically and internationally, and is, if not hated, at least not loved even by its Western allies, who are fed up with its arrogance and repeated belligerence in its ongoing occupation of Palestine and the blockade of Gaza. Its consistent refusal to reject peace proposals means that it exists in a state of confusion reflected clearly in the sending of a whole squad of assassins to kill one unarmed man in Dubai, which achieved its strategic goal but resulted in a completely negative international backlash.
The Israelis are beating the drums of war and the Obama administration seems to be unable or unwilling to rein them in. Perhaps the US president has become more convinced by Israeli arguments about the inevitability and desirability of aggression against Iran and Syria, which would explain why the US seems to have abandoned any serious efforts in the peace process and apparently approves of Israel's right to settle in Jerusalem. It would also explain why Obama is dealing indifferently with its allies in the Palestinian Authority.
A verbal attack by US military officials and Joseph Biden, the Vice-President, and the meeting between Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defence and his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, in Washington, as well as the expected visit of Benjamin Netanyahu to the US capital, all are indicators that war is pending, not becoming a more remote possibility.
Israel cannot coexist with another nuclear power in the region as that would remove its current strategic advantage, nor can it accept an Islamic bloc on its borders, with Iran, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan encouraging the expansion of trade and joint ventures by the abolition of visa requirements allowing free movement for their citizens. It is therefore neither a surprise nor a coincidence that there was a failed military coup against the government of Recep Erdogan in Turkey, which has played a key role in this new alliance while at the same time cooling the relationship with Israel.
It is hard to believe that it was a "slip of the tongue" when Mr. Ahmadinejad said that the peoples of Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine "and Iraq" will confront Israel and its aggression. Did Washington hear this statement, which confirms the failure of its invasion of Iraq, on which it has spent to-date more than $800 billion?
The coming days will be full of surprises which we hope will be positive for the Arab and Muslim world.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.