The Imminent Third World War

[tweetmeme] William deB. Mills has a theory that there are 5 possible outcomes for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis: Jordan becomes Palestinian, two states, secular democracy, Bantustan or complete catastrophe.  Of course, any of the five would have severe repercussions for the rest of the region – some good, some bad, with the most catastrophic being…

Mills asked me if I thought the likelihood of complete catastrophe was rising given the current complexities in the region.  There are many reasons why war could break out at moment and unfortunately the situation will further deteriorate for several months before anything will improve.  If the region can avoid war in the near future, the probability of war in the long-term could decrease as the more level-headed prevail.

A couple of days ago, I mentioned the various defensive alliances that are being constructed in the Middle East between Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Hezbollah and Hamas.  My theory is that the defensive pacts are creating a situation very similar to the complex alliances that were around before the first world war.  The importance of the comparison is, logically, that a major war could begin by a mere spark.  The assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai several weeks ago (allegedly by Israel) as well as the Israeli assassination of Hezbollah military commander Imad Maghniyeh in 2008 have led to promises of retaliation by both Hamas and Hezbollah.  Could these retaliations be the spark that sets off the ticking time bomb in Arabia?

As Mills pointed out to me, before WW1 there were no groups aggressively pushing for war.  Today, there are several extremist groups in Gaza that refuse to agree to a cease-fire with Israel (fortunately, they are small), Israel and Syria seem to be exchanging threats as often as Israel and Hezbollah while Israeli and American rhetoric towards Iran is nothing if not aggressive and antagonistic.  In this way, the probability of war is much higher than it was at the beginning of the 20th century.  Fortunately, just as there are plenty of reasons to be pessimist there are seeds of optimism that can give rise to peace, if given enough time (and sun and water to complete the metaphor).

There has always been a political component to Hezbollah; during and after the 2006 war, it was Hezbollah that provided the social services (money, food and water and infrastructure…) to the beleaguered south of Lebanon.  Hezbollah’s arm grew last year when its political alliance earned it more official power in the Lebanese government.  Recently, Nasrallah gave a speech that made Hezbollah’s anti-Israeli stance very clear as it threatened to inflict equal damage upon Israel in the event of war.  Nasrallah also mentioned the Ben Gurion airport as a possible target, a threat that brings new emotionally significant undertones to the conflict.

Yet, Hezbollah has also been openly trying to become more than just a militant organization.  Recently, the group has encouraged its followers that paying or electricity, paying parking fines and heeding speed limits is a religious duty.  Hezbollah has also been trying to increase perception that it is a nationalist group and not simply Islamist, while playing down its connections to Iran.  Of course, this does not eliminate its threat to Israel, but a more political Hezbollah begets a more moderate one.  As Hezbollah integrates itself more into Lebanese politics, it will need to further distance itself from the view that it has motives other than the good of Lebanon, making it more risk-adverse.

In Palestine, meanwhile, there is reason to believe that progress can be made.  With a divided negotiating partner, Israel has good reason to hold a hard stance and to refuse making real concessions – without a united Palestine true peace is unrealistic.  However, in the last few months, there have been some serious and some not so serious actions towards forging a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.  Reconciliation is far from guaranteed and a united Palestine certainly does not mean peace with Israel is imminent.  However, there will be more pressure on Israel to make concessions with a united Palestine that is clearly willing to make peace.  While the argument can be made that Israel should be more pliant now, knowing that peace is impossible and more confrontational when peace is possible in order to extract the best deal for the Jewish nation.  Yet, after the wars in Lebanon and Gaza, world opinion has started to turn against the Israeli occupation tactics (although there is still a big hill to climb, particularly in the US).  If the Palestinians hold united elections, the world will see the possibility of a breakthrough and push Israel more.

The hostility between Israel and Syria is, oddly, both an ancient and recent phenomenon.  To state the obvious, past wars between Syria and Israel prove that the recent downturn in diplomatic relations between Damascus and Tel Aviv is not new.  Yet the two sides had been involved in peace talks that broke off at the end of 2008 with the start of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.  While the negotiations seem to balance on Israel’s willingness to give up the Golan Heights – which, under Netanyahu seems unlikely, the mere fact that negotiations took place is evidence that they could restart.

Furthermore, relations between the US and Syria seem to be thawing.  After the Bush Administration did its best to isolate Bashar Assad, Obama has finally sent an ambassador to Damascus and the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs recently met with the Syria President.  Meanwhile, voices in the US have been growing louder condemning the US sanctions against Syria.  The US has also lifted travel restrictions and warnings to Syria as well.

Though some see the improvement of relations with Syria as a bad thing, the Syrian regime has made great strides in its attempt to reestablish itself as a leader in the Middle East.  A strong American presence in the country allows the US not only have a voice in the ear of the increasingly powerful Assad, but it also could help dampen the belligerent game of chess currently being played between Israel and Syria.

There are plenty of reasons to point to in order to dull my shiny shred of optimism – Iran is still aggressive and supplying Hezbollah and Hamas; the Gaza strip is still controlled by a Hamas that still officially does not recognize the Jewish state; Hamas and Hezbollah have promised retaliation for Israeli assassinations; and Israel is still controlled by one of the most hawkish governments in its young history.  But, as Annie said, the sun will come out tomorrow and the best way to make it to tomorrow is to last through the night.  Currently, the Middle East is a tinder box ready to explode, setting off a conflict that would have repercussions that last for generations.  There are reasons to believe that such a conflict can be avoided.

Unfortunately, the best way to avoid catastrophe is to avoid war in the near future – a useless and dull prescription for a terrible situation, but the chances of complete failure in the Middle East will decrease significantly with time as more moderate rational seeds are allowed to grow.

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