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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 August 2006, 13:44 GMT 14:44 UK
New phase in Mid-East power struggle
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Assad said US hopes for a "new Middle East" were "an illusion"

In the aftermath of the Lebanon war, there is euphoria in parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds that a blow has been dealt not just to Israel but also to US hopes of reshaping the region.

This was forcefully expressed by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in a speech on Tuesday in which he claimed that the "victory" of Hezbollah had wider implications.

"Their 'New Middle East', based on subjugation and humiliation, and denial of rights and identity, has turned into an illusion," he said.

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also a Hezbollah supporter, echoed President Assad when he said that the United States was "interested in turning the Middle East into its property and not a free Middle East".

"What the nations of the area want is a free Middle East and that is the difference," he said.

Iranian guards celebrate the ceasefire
The ceasefire sparked celebration in Tehran

A declaration of victory was made by Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, who said it had succeeded where "big Arab armies were defeated".

This contrasts with the position taken by US President George W Bush who said: "Hezbollah started the crisis and Hezbollah suffered a defeat in this crisis. There's going to be a new power in the south of Lebanon."

And State Department spokesman Sean McCormack dismissed President Assad's speech as "bluster".

"I think the Syrian government finds itself much more isolated right now than either one month ago or three years ago," he said.

Short-term gain

So with the fighting now ended, or at least suspended, the lines are being drawn for the next phase of the wider political struggle in the Middle East.

The results will probably be seen first, one way or another, in Lebanon.

I was staggered when Condi Rice suggested that this could produce some brave new world in the Middle East
Rosemary Hollis,
UK think tank Chatham House

It is possible that the central government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora could be strengthened if the plan to extend its authority to the Israeli border by means of the Lebanese army and an international peacekeeping force is properly implemented.

In the short term at least Hezbollah is likely to gain support.

It has stood up to Israel and Israel has not achieved its stated aims of destroying Hezbollah and getting its two captured soldiers freed.

But if the process goes as planned in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah's days as the dominant armed force there will be ended. It might gain as a political and social force but it might lose as a military one.

That would mark a significant moment in the wider struggle.

Embattled minority

There are fears, however, that the war will set back hopes for greater democratic progress in the region.

"I was staggered when Condi Rice suggested that this could produce some brave new world in the Middle East," said Rosemary Hollis of the Chatham House think tank in London.

US President George W Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
President Bush said Hezbollah had suffered a defeat

"Haven't they noticed that since Iraq started to go wrong, it has all gone wrong? Democratic progress died in Falluja. To me it is extraordinary to suggest that the region could be turned around.

"Both Bush and Blair think that the democratic, secular middle classes can lead the way but the answer from those people is: 'Have you no idea? By smashing your way into Iraq and now by unleashing Israel in Lebanon you think you can achieve this?'

"They feel embattled, a minority, and they are losing ground to extremists. Not that Assad has anything to crow about. He is not home and dry," she said.

Shia suspicions

On the other hand, Israeli commentator Mark Heller of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies reckons there is an underlying factor of an antipathy felt towards Hezbollah and Iran by many Arab governments which makes this unlike previous Arab/Israeli conflicts.

Iranian flag among rubble in Lebanon
Hezbollah's Iranian ties spark concern among some in the region

"Unlike Hamas, Hezbollah represents a Shia constituency and has longstanding and intimate ties with Iran," he said.

"Indeed, Hezbollah in Lebanon was originally created as a mirror of Hezbollah in Iran.

"Its leaders have personal ties with the Iranian leadership and its military force has been supplied by Iran and trained and supported by an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

"This link feeds Arab suspicions of Shia/Iranian power that have been growing for some time."

If that reading is correct, then any adverse impact of this crisis on democratic progress in the Arab world might be minimised.

Karameh lesson

It is as well to remember that in the Middle East euphoria often does not last long. The enduring lessons of this conflict will only become clear over time.

The history of the region is full of moments of elation and despair which appear to point one way but which in fact point in another.

In 1968, there was a famous battle in the town of Karameh on the Jordanian side of the River Jordan. Palestinian guerrillas fought a raiding force of Israeli soldiers and proclaimed a great victory that is celebrated to this day.

King Hussein of Jordan declared shortly afterwards: "We are all fedayeen." But two years later, he came to regard the Palestinians as a state within a state, a threat that had to be dealt with. He turned on them with his Bedouin army, crushed them and forced them to flee.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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