Friday, July 14, 2006

Light The Fuse and Run Like Hell

I'm a bit surprised that a friend of mine, half-jokingly, asked me why I was so interested and focused on the burgeoning conflict in the Middle East. "Why are you so worried? Israel is going to crush a good chunk of Hezbollah, Lebanon will rebuild most of its highways and the airport, and that will be it."

With all due respect to my curious friend, there are so many things to be concerned about vis-a-vis this conflict that I'm not quite sure where to start.

There is the obvious built-in, factory-installed Israel/Islam tension. Most, if not all, Muslims believe Israel should be wiped from the map. Some, ie those who are educated and modern thinkers, understand that Israel's existence is no longer a question but its boundaries and its relationships with its neighbors are. Since, however, the majority of Middle East nations would prefer Israel to be eradicated, there is always a constant sense of uneasy detente between the world of Islam and Israel. By definition, that means that one minor incident -- a kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by a rogue group like Hamas (in Gaza) or Hezbollah (in Lebanon) virtually guarantees the tension ratches up into fiery, no-holds-barred conflict faster than Michael Corleone offing Tataglia, Slacchi, Barzini and Cuneo -- and his brother-in-law, Carlo. Point is: when two sides -- each with an intense hatred of the other -- are forced to accept each other's existence against their wishes, even the most minor misunderstanding could be akin to going to Defcon 1 toot sweet.

Having said all that, there's the issue of oil. If this conflict (or when, perhaps) continues its inevitable escalation towards war, expect the price of crude to skyrocket and, along with it, the price of a gallon of gas. People paying $3.50 now can pretty much figure on $4.25 within a week if this continues. It's not an issue of scarcity; Israel isn't destroying any refineries and, thus far, neither are any other parties in the Middle East (aside from Iraqi insurgents). However, people who set oil prices on this side of the pond are worried that the supply chain will be cut, or will be less efficient, in delivering oil to the US. Assuming that happens -- eg the shit really does hit the fan -- then it's just a matter of time before the worrying starts reaching the higher-ups and the prices soar. This doesn't figure to be a long-term conflict; as soon as Hezbollah gets involved directly, as it claimed today it will do, Israel will go after them with everything they have (meaning air assaults, ground assaults, naval assaults and spec-ops raids). The problem, as I opted not to explain to my inquisitive friend, is that this conflict is not about Israel and Hezbollah and Lebanon.

The main problem, as I see it, is that Iran and Syria are most likely behind, or at least supportive of, the recent kidnappings perpetrated by Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Essentially, Iran wants conflict with the West without being linked thereto; Iran's position is that its nuclear program -- and as a result being in a position to be the most powerful nation in the Middle East -- hinges on whether other Muslim nations will support Iran versus the West or whether Iran's neighbors -- namely, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Jordan -- realize Iran is fueled by the quasi-maniacal ambition of its President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In Syria, there is an endless supply of funding for terrorism -- both Hamas and Hezbollah receive a lot of funding and weapons through this relationship -- and that is why Israel flew a military jet over Syrian President Bashar Assad's palace last week (in response to the Gaza kidnapping) and why Israel yesterday destroyed the highway connecting Beirut (Lebanon's capital) and Demascus (Syria's capital). It is a quietly-accepted fact that Saudi Arabian money has found its way into terrorist organizational hands in the past; but for the most part, the Saudis, along with the Egyptians and the Jordanians, would rather enjoy stability than risk the inmates taking over the asylum, aka the kingdom.

Incidentally, it was reported that an unmanned Hezbollah-launched aircraft inflicted serious damage on an Israeli warship that was on manuevers off Beirut's coast. It was also reported that the unmanned craft was manufactured in and supplied by Iran.

Basically, the question is whether Lebanon will side with Hezbollah or withdraw its support and protection for the group; the answer to that question is far from a given. In the past, Lebanon sided with Hezbollah because Hezbollah's presence on the Lebanese border provided a miltary barrier to what the Lebanese -- and all Muslims believe -- was Israeli aggression. However, as exemplified by this incident, which began after Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers -- Israeli aggression was in response to Hezbollah's actions, not the other way around. After a few more days of constant bombardment, the Lebanese government -- and more importantly, its people -- might just realize, as did many Afghanis after several days of US bombardment post-9/11 against the Taliban -- that letting loose the dogs of war isn't always such a wonderful idea. Israel has responded to Lebanon's pleas for a cease-fire by advising them it will not stop its assault until its kindapped soldiers are returned and Hezbollah is banished or destroyed. If Lebanon consults with the remainder of the Mid-East nations, it might find that the majority -- with Iran and Syria dissenting -- would happily take peace with the only price to pay of returning the kidnapped soldiers and banishing -- even in name -- Hezbollah from the current conflict and from the larger picture.

The larger picture, of course, is the unrest created by and colored by the Palestinian question. Essentially, once that issue is resolved -- easier said than done, of course -- then groups like Hezbollah and Hamas will have much less political currency with which to fight Israel. As much as most of the Arab world hates Israel, they are not willing to gamble their own lives in making that sentiment known. By that I mean that if groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are expressing the will of the people -- whether those people are Palestinians, Lebanese or Arabs in general -- knowing Israeli responses will be swift, aggressive and significant means that perhaps these groups will lose their mandates to perpetrate terrorist activities against Israel. Hence why Iran and Syria want conflict in the region and why they support groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. For these two nations, conflict in the region -- namely, between Muslims and Israel -- forces the more conservative nations, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. -- to pick a side. And almost every time, it's virtually assured that they will side with their Muslim brethren. If this aforementioned conflict is not military in nature but political -- say, a Muslim nation seeking nuclear technology (did someone say "Iran?") -- knowing other Muslim nations will support Iran's quest to possess nukes against the mid-line nations' Western allies will tip the scales and, accordingly, the balance of power.

In short, for nations that are seeking power, fomenting, fostering and supporting conflict in the region can only help.

So essentially, to answer my friend's question, it's not just about oil and it's not just about Israel. This conflict, possibly, could affect Iran's nuclear ambitions and Israel's resolution of the Palestinian issue. It's one thing to observe that Israel will likely crush Hezbollah; it's another to understand, or at least predict, what the result of the conflict will be, whether or not it expands from mere assaults and counter-assaults into all-out war.

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