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Limits of Roles are Drawn by Fire

Limits of Roles are Drawn by Fire

Monday, 26 August, 2019 - 07:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
In recent weeks, the world became preoccupied by the eruption of crises in Asia. In a world ruled by social media, it is no longer possible to sweep crises under the carpet of diplomatic civilities. The regular citizen is aware of the crises from the moment they happen. He quickly expresses his opinion and seeks to dig up sensitive issues. In the new world, the primary parts of battles are fought on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms.

This applies to the renewed crisis between South Korea and Japan that has led to the opening up of old wounds and they are many. This also applies to the new chapter of the Indian-Pakistani crisis linked to India’s recent measures in Kashmir. These developments are added to the ongoing duel between the world’s top two economies. The streets of Hong Kong have also become a ticking time-bomb and a strong test to the strongest Chinese president since Mao Zedong.

The crises in the Middle East have not dropped from the world’s attention. The crisis over the Iran nuclear deal is still present at all meetings, especially after the impounding of oil tankers was reminiscent of hostage crises and the hefty prices that need to be paid to resolve them. The world has, however, succeeded in holding its breath after concerned parties said they did not want to be dragged into a war, which would be costly and difficult to contain. Moreover, there has been a growing conviction that Iran, which can resort to destabilizing the situation in the Hormuz Strait, would not go so far as to close it. It knows that such a move will lead to the establishment of a broad international front against it that would include the European powers that are keen on salvaging its nuclear deal.

The Middle East returned to the forefront of international concern when Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that Israel struck Iranian military bases in Iraq. He said that he had ordered his military to act freely to thwart Iran’s hostile plans. He went even further by saying: “I don’t grant Iran immunity anywhere. It is trying to establish bases against us everywhere. In Iran itself, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen.”

Netanyahu’s frank comments about targeting Iranian military infrastructure and Popular Mobilization Forces targets in Iraq surprised many observers. They had expected Israel to remain vague over its role in the “mysterious blasts” that took place in Iraq. Furthermore, the acknowledgment could embarrass the United States, whose forces stationed in Iraq control the country’s airspace.

The PMF had held the US responsible for the blasts. A day after Netanyahu’s comments, Iraqi Shiite religious authority and resident of Iran’s Qom, Kazem al-Haeri issued a fatwa that bars the continued deployment of American forces in Iraq. The edict renewed debate in Iraq that Iran may opt to retaliate to harsh American sanctions against it by attempting to expel US forces in Iraq, either through a parliamentary order, if possible, or through attacks carried out by “unknown” groups.

On the ground, Netanyahu’s declaration means that Iraq is officially a legitimate target of Israeli strikes that are aimed at countering Iran’s military entrenchment in the region, and which were originally limited to Syria. In reality, the Russian military presence in Syria has led to the containment of the war Israel was waging against Iran’s entrenchment because it has led to the containment of Tehran’s response to the strikes and which were being fired from Syria. The launching of Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Iraq has supported the claims of American-Russian consensus over Israel’s right to defend its security against what it believes to be threats from Syria and Iraq.

The developments have gone beyond that with Israel launching new strikes against Syria and that led to the death of Lebanese Hezbollah members. It followed this up by sending drones that crashed in Beirut’s southern suburbs. The battlefield has therefore been expanded from Syria to Lebanon after it was expanded from Syria to Iraq.

Israel’s actions raise many questions: Does Netanyahu believe that now is the appropriate time to a wage wide-scale confrontation with Iran and its allies in countries where it is seeking to set up a permanent military presence? Does he believe that the period separating us from American elections is the appropriate time to wage such a confrontation? Does he believe that roles in the region are drawn by fire, not negotiations? Does he fear that the US will pull out its troops from Iraq and Syria and therefore, prefers to widen the confrontation before this happens?

Other questions have also been raised: How long will Iran continue to receive blows in Syria without retaliating through its allies? What about Hezbollah? How long will the party tolerate strikes in Syria and challenges in Lebanon without responding? What if this response led to a wide-scale war? What about Russia’s stance? The Trump administration? What if all the wars became mixed together and swallowed up the region?

It is clear that the sanctity of borders in the Middle East has fallen. They are being violated by policies, rockets and drones in total disregard of international law.

Another development has also taken place, this time it concerns the Syrians, Americans, Turks and Kurds. The birth of the “safe zone” in Syrian regions bordering Turkey was officially announced. This Turkish-American cooperation defused some of the tensions that erupted by Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system. Some believe that the Syrian regime’s recapturing of regions are part of a Russian punishment against Turkey for its renewed close cooperation with Washington. These insecurities will emerge on Tuesday when Putin receives Erdogan, whose Syria policy has been nothing short of conflicted and arrogant.

It is clear that Washington believes that returning eastern Syria to Damascus is tantamount to handing it over to Iran. The Americans are justifying their ongoing deployment by saying it is aimed at ensuring that ISIS does not reemerge and at weakening Iran. Western security reports have also said that it will not be long before ISIS rears its head again.

Many crises are raging in the region we call the Middle East and some believe that even greater challenges are in store.

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