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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Mubarak in the middle


The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, has taken on the thankless task of trying to maintain a lowest common denominator of solidarity between Arab states. Most recently, this has entailed seeking to prevent the squabbles between Syria and two of its neighbours--Lebanon and Jordan--spiralling out of control, and seeking to foster harmony among rival Palestinian parties. However, a visit to Cairo by the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, on June 22nd failed to yield much progress on any of these fronts, offering the prospect of a summer of rising tensions in the Near East.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia were instrumental in persuading Mr Assad to bow to international insistence that he should withdraw from Lebanon after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, in February last year. Syria did pull its forces out, but has by no means given up its efforts to influence political affairs in the country. In the meantime, the interest of Egypt and Saudi Arabia--the two most powerful Arab states--in keeping up the pressure on Syria on the Lebanese question has waned. Indeed, Saudi Arabia signalled that it had to all intents and purposes washed its hands of the affair when it dispatched a junior (non-royal) minister to represent the kingdom at an Arab summit conference in Khartoum in March this year, at which the Syrian-Lebanese dispute was one of the main issues on the agenda.

The Arab states are anxious about this issue primarily because of their wish to avoid a renewed outbreak of civil strife in Lebanon. They are also concerned about the risk of a breakdown of order in Syria, and about the extent of Iranian influence in both countries. The conclusion appears to be that the pressure on Syria with respect to Lebanon should be moderated, and that the potential for Syria to play a role in balancing the various fractious Lebanese political forces should be recognised. In return, Syria has been asked to deal constructively with the demands of the international community, articulated most recently in UN Security Council resolution 1680, which was passed on May 17th, for it to accede to the Lebanese government's request for it to delineate the common border and establish normal diplomatic relations.

Heat's off

Syria is not inclined to be co-operative, judging that events have turned in its favour on a number of fronts. These include Iraq, where the US attempt at salutary regime change has gone badly awry, Iran, which seems to have the upper hand in the dispute over its nuclear plans, and, most importantly, in Lebanon itself. The political inheritors of Mr Hariri are looking increasingly beleaguered, owing to internal divisions and fading international support. Michel Aoun, the former figurehead of Lebanese resistance to Syrian domination, has been prepared to throw in his lot with pro-Syrian figures within his Maronite Christian sect and with Hizbullah, the dominant Shia group, as part of what looks like a determined bid to become president when the controversially extended term of Emile Lahoud comes to an end next year. The prime minister, Fouad Siniora, appears to be marooned, despite the warm words of support he has received from the US administration. Syria has also drawn comfort from the slow progress being made by the UN investigation into the murder of Mr Hariri and into 14 other killings of assassination attempts presumed to be linked to it.


Mr Mubarak has on several occasions over the past few years sought to caution the young Syrian president against overplaying his hand, to little avail. There is now a risk of this pattern being repeated. If Mr Assad engineers the humiliation of Hariri-front in Lebanon there is likely to be a backlash, which could easily turn violent. Egypt has accordingly suggested that the time has come for Mr Assad to offer Mr Siniora a liferaft in the form of an agreement to discuss border issues and to open embassies in Beirut and Damascus. Syria's response, in the words of Mr Assad's foreign minister, Walid al-Muallim, who accompanied his to Cairo, is that conditions are not right for such a step because of the poor relations between the two governments. If embassies were opened under the current circumstances it would not be long before a diplomatic crisis would erupt and the respective ambassadors would be recalled, Mr Muallim opined.

Palestinian progress

During Mr Assad's visit, the two leaders also discussed the question of healing the rift in Palestinian ranks between Hamas and Fatah. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is making some headway in his efforts to secure Hamas support for a document including implicit recognition of Israel. If the talks on this document succeed, Mr Abbas is expected to call off plans for a potentially divisive referendum on the issue, and a Palestinian government of national unity is likely to replace the current Hamas administration, which has had a torrid few months owing to the cut-off of most of its financing sources and its failure to impose security. Syria is in a position to derail this process as it hosts Hamas factions that are less inclined than the Gaza-based leadership of the movement to co-operate with Mr Abbas. Syria also provides a haven for Islamic Jihad, which, unlike Hamas, has refused to cease military operations against Israel, prompting Israel to persist with its own heavy bombardments of Gaza and airborne attacks on supposed leaders of Palestinian armed groups in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Stirring up Jordan

An allied issue of concern to Egypt, in its role of Arab peacemaker, is the rise in tension between Syria and Jordan. This follows Jordanian accusations that units from the military wing of Hamas have infiltrated Jordan from Syria with the intention of carrying out armed operations against government targets. Both Syria and Hamas have denied these allegations, and Syria maintains that any issues of concern will be dealt with in a meeting to be held in the next few days between the two countries' respective prime ministers in Damascus. Both Syria and Jordan have also denied having recourse to Egypt for mediation. One possible explanation for this curious affair is that it is related to the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in both countries. In Syria, the Islamist movement is agitating from exile for fundamental political change, based on free elections, which would undoubtedly spell the end of the Baathist regime. The Syrian government might in these circumstances find it useful to deliver a warning to Jordan not to interfere. (There is a precedent for this, as the late king Hussein of Jordan acknowledged supporting the armed uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in the 1970s and early 1980s.) By the same token, Jordan has concerns about the potentially radicalising influence of Hamas on its own Islamist forces, including the Islamic Action Front (IAF), which is represented in parliament. Four IAF MPs are currently under arrest in connection with their having presented their condolences to the family of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, who was killed by US forces on June 11th (with help from Jordanian intelligence, it is claimed).

Source: ViewsWire Middle East
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