Lebanon Asks for UN Cease-fire as Total Middle East War Looms
The government of Lebanon petitioned the United Nations for help in stopping Israeli bombings. This happens as all signs point to the war expanding into a broader regional conflict involving Syria and Iran. Meanwhile, the spreading conflict in the region is dividing longstanding international allies while creating some unusual bedfellows.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora called for a cease-fire under U.N. auspices Saturday, as Israeli warplanes hit central Beirut for the first time and smashed the Hezbollah leadership’s main strongholds. Strikes killed at least 18 Lebanese fleeing the onslaught, and Hezbollah rockets continued to pour into Israel, where officials warned citizens that Tel Aviv could be hit.
The deadly barrages came as Israel charged that Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have 100 troops in Lebanon providing Hezbollah key support — including helping fire a missile Friday that badly damaged an Israeli warship. Hezbollah denied it.
Neither side showed signs of backing down from the conflict, which erupted Wednesday when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. As civilian deaths mounted, diplomatic efforts to end the crisis had yet to get off the ground.
President Bush, on a trip to Russia, said it was up to Hezbollah “to lay down its arms and to stop attacking.” Arab foreign ministers gathered in Cairo but fell into squabbling after moderate states, led by Saudi Arabia, denounced Hezbollah for starting the fight.
In a sign the West expects a drawn-out battle, the U.S. Embassy said it was looking into ways to get Americans in Lebanon to Cyprus. France said it had already decided to send a ferry from Cyprus to evacuate thousands of its nationals.
At a G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the worsening situation but appeared divided on how to restore calm. Bush blamed Hezbollah and Syria for the escalating violence in the Middle East. “In my judgment, the best way to stop the violence is to understand why the violence occurred in the first place,” Bush said. “And that’s because Hezbollah has been launching rocket attacks out of Lebanon into Israel and because Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers.” Putin said it was unacceptable to try to reach political goals through abductions and strikes against an independent state. “In this context we consider Israel’s concerns to be justified,” he said. At the same time, he said, “the use of force should be balanced.”
Meanwhile, Lebanon sought support from fellow Arabs at an emergency session of foreign ministers in Cairo on Saturday. But sharp rifts erupted over as moderate Arab states denounced Hezbollah for starting the conflict. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal called the group’s actions “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible,” telling his counterparts: “These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we cannot simply accept them.” Supporting his stance were representatives of Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, delegates said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Another camp, led by Syria, defended Hezbollah as carrying out “legitimate acts in line with international resolutions and the U.N. charter, as acts of resistance,” delegates said.
Putin, certainly, is in little position to condemn Israel given the disproportionate force applied against Czechen rebels. That so many Arab governments are willing to condemn Hezbollah even though doing so effectively puts them on Israel’s side is particularly interesting.
There are reports that Israel has given Syria 72 hours to restrain Hezbollah or, presumably, the war will expand to a third front with other reports saying the Assad government really has little control over events and still others saying that Iran is goading Hezbollah’s current campaign of violence.
One wonders whether the so-called moderate Arab regimes will be able to stay on the sidelines if a wider war breaks out. Or, should I say, when. It seems inevitable given Israel’s presumptive goals.
Austin Bay correctly points out that, “Dealing Hezbollah more than a temporary defeat means terminating the Assad regime in Damascus. No doubt about it— the Israelis can seriously damage Hezbollah. Reducing Hezbollah’s arsenals may reduce its local clout in Lebanon. But Syria promotes Hezbollah and Iran finances it.” Taken to its logical conclusion–and the Israelis tend to do precisely that when it comes to matters of security–this means regime change not only in Demascus but in Teheran, too. Further, the Iranians have every incentive to jump in if Israel targets Syria, owing to their mutual defense pact with Assad and their joint interest in Hezbollah.
And, somehow, I don’t think the UN will be able to do much.