Powerful countries know that it is dangerous to be seen to flinch, because enemies take heart and allies’ knees begin to knock. A great power also knows that if it sets out on a military adventure without setting achievable goals, it can get into bad trouble. What’s true for great powers is doubly true for beleaguered Israel, which failed to dismantle Hezbollah’s power over Lebanon. But the Lebanon war’s failure may yet provide an opening to peace if Israel is bold enough to seize it.
The world has two chief aims in the area between Cairo and Teheran: to maintain peace in the wider Middle East so that oil flows freely through the Persian Gulf; to steer the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians toward a settlement that guarantees the safety of Israel in its internationally recognised borders, while meeting the Palestinian people’s legitimate national aspirations for their own state. The two issues have long been connected, but the main link is now President Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria.
Isolated, desperate for allies, Syria has been helping Iran in its quest for regional hegemony. Since Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution evicted Syria last year, the Syrians have sought to haul Lebanon back within their sphere of influence. They back Hezbollah – and help Iran send it weapons – because Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s shock troops keep the government in Beirut weak. The Syrians also like to present themselves as the last real Arab defenders of the Palestinian cause.
In short, Syria, with its geographical position, its Iranian links and weapons, and its brutal Ba’athist regime, has become the lynchpin of developments between the Mediterranean and the Gulf. To secure Lebanon, and to bring Hamas to the bargaining table with Israel, it is Syria that Israel and the United States must deal with, one way or another.