Moscow pessimistic about postwar Middle East

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya) - It is said that a pessimist is a well-informed optimist. Most Russian experts are pessimistic and do not think there is a chance to stabilize the situation in Lebanon.

In fact, the best-case scenario envisions that several things will happen at once: the resolutions of the UN Security Council will be abided by; effective peacekeeping forces will appear on the Lebanese-Israeli border; domestic political stability will take hold in Lebanon, Israel and some other countries in the region; and the Iranian nuclear problem will be resolved. Moreover, it foresees that relations between the international community (first of all the United States) and Syria will improve, the Palestinian problem will be resolved and there will be a change for the better in the Arab-Israeli conflict. A failure in any of these areas may lead to a new escalation of hostilities in the Middle East.

Remarkably, Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, said: "In the Middle East, declarations calling for peace easily lose contact with the belligerent reality. The new resolution [1701 of the UN Security Council] is to a large extent the consequence of the previous one's remaining unfulfilled. So the question of any party's victory in the large-scale Middle East conflict is as premature as talk of peace."

What caused the Lebanese war? Vitaly Naumkin, president of the Center for Strategic and Political Studies, believes that "hostilities on the Israeli-Lebanese border were caused by unresolved conflicts in the Middle East." The Lebanese situation cannot be separated from what is going on between Israel and Palestine and from the entire problem of Israel's relations with Arab countries, he maintains. That is, as long as Israel occupies Arab territory, the situation can escalate at any time.

Like many other Russian experts, Naumkin does not rule out that the reasons for the Lebanese war go beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict and are linked to the fight against Islamic radicalism. After all, the goal of Israel's latest military campaigns (fully supported by the U.S.) was to topple radical Islamist leaders, both on the territory controlled by the Palestinian National Authority and in Lebanon. Obviously, the attempts failed, although they may be repeated. Yet Israel never officially declared this goal.

There is also the popular explanation that Israel's military campaign in Lebanon was part of the Iranian-U.S. confrontation. Some Moscow experts say that Tehran provoked Hizbollah in order to distract the international community from the Iranian nuclear problem and demonstrate its influence in the region. Others do not agree. Naumkin, for example, dismisses the idea that Iran benefited from the Lebanese conflict: "I believe that Iran is interested in improving relations with the West and in dialogue with the U.S. on its nuclear program, which will give it security guarantees," he said. "So I do not think that Iran is behind the situation in Lebanon."

Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Institute of Middle East Studies, says the contrary: Iran has reaped "political benefits from the crisis," because America was delivered an indirect blow through Israel, which was obviously something Tehran wanted. Only Iran can influence Hizbollah and, consequently, developments in Lebanon, he says. The Lebanese campaign was a trial of strength for Iran acting through its satellite, Hizbollah, he argues.

He offers another conclusion: there can be no final settlement in the region without Tehran's involvement and without establishing an Iranian-Israeli dialogue. "Any other effort will be useless," he underlined, "especially UN efforts to deploy peacekeepers on the Lebanese-Israeli border."

Given the UN's weak peacekeeping capabilities in the Middle East and the present unwillingness of Israel and Iran to start a dialogue, the region will not remain calm for long, Satanovsky says. Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, agrees: "The parties are interested in a truce, not in peace, because Israel has not achieved its military and political goal of destroying Hizbollah's camps."

Still, other Russian experts say that neither Israel nor Hizbollah is interested in resuming hostilities, at least any time soon. Vladimir Akhmedov, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Oriental Studies, says that Hizbollah's current priority is to provide financial support to victims of the war and to cooperate with the Lebanese authorities in dealing with its consequences. This is the best way for the movement to expand its influence in the country and secure a foothold in national state institutions, including the army. Hizbollah has proved its military, political and informational viability. Now it will focus on expanding its power in Lebanon, not on fighting against Israel, the expert said.

"Any attempts to disarm this Shiite movement may prove destructive for both Lebanon and the entire region," Akhmedov emphasized. The Lebanese military fear that it may split the Army, where one third of servicemen are Shiites that have relatives in the south. The Lebanese authorities also fear provoking outrage among Shiites, who account for 40% of the country's population, thus escalating religious hatred and destroying the spirit of national unity the war has brought.

As to Israel, Dr. Yelena Melkumyan says that it will not benefit from resumed hostilities, either. "That would be possible only if the latest Lebanese campaign had succeeded," she told RIA Novosti. "However, although Israel seriously damaged Hizbollah, it cannot boast important foreign policy achievements - the war has not stirred up popular support for the Israeli government, while Hizbollah's popularity in Lebanon and the Islamic world has surged."

In such circumstances it will be very difficult to disarm Hizbollah, she said, although it could be possible if Persian Gulf states made it a condition of financial assistance to rebuild Lebanon. "Economic leverage can be very powerful," she pointed out. "Hizbollah has the means to provide assistance to families that have suffered from the war and it will do so for populist purposes. But it does not have the money to restore the country's infrastructure. So Lebanon hopes for Arab countries' investment, which means that Arab nations can put pressure on Hizbollah."

Still, quick changes in Lebanon cannot be expected, all the more so since the country's political system, based on confessional representation, is not very strong, Melkumyan emphasized. "The situation is very fragile. Everything depends on internal political developments in Lebanon. The Lebanese should strengthen central authorities. This is not done easily, as there are forces both inside and outside the country that exploit conflicts between different Lebanese communities. There is no unity even within confessional groups."

Other Middle East experts also point to the need to carry out political reform in Lebanon. Professor Grigory Kosach emphasizes that all government and parliamentary coalitions in the country are built around a very sensitive balance between different communities' interests, a practice which paralyzes Lebanon. It was no coincidence that the Taif Accord signed in 1989 and designed to stop the civil war in Lebanon envisioned the gradual abolition of sectarian considerations in the political structure. This has not happened yet, although the Accord is even mentioned in UN Security Council Resolution 1701.

However, as Kosach believes, Lebanon will not be able to cope with political reform on its own - it should be linked to reform in all Arab nations. "The Lebanese crisis showed that the idea of Arab unity, no matter what we think of it, is still significant. If every Arab state developed without worrying about what the others might say or do, many problems would be easier to solve," he said.

As we can see, a tangle of the same regional problems keeps turning the Middle East into a battlefield. It does not matter how long the pause between wars is - a few months or a few years. What matters is that this will go on until major changes are made throughout the region.

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