All is quiet on the Middle Eastern front — for the time being. A little more than a year after the war between Israel and the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Hezbollah ended almost as abruptly as it had started, there are rumblings of possibly renewed violence in the Middle East.
The next few months could be "fateful" for Syria, says the country's president, Bashar Assad, as quoted by the usually very well-informed Internet blog, SyriaComment.com.
Indeed, the region was rife with rumors over the last few months of probable outbreak of hostilities between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights. And rumors of a possible attack by the United States on Iran's nuclear facilities have never been entirely off the radar screens. Some circles in Washington are calling for action before the Islamic Republic becomes a nuclear power, making the possibility of such a raid far more complex.
Reports of a third U.S. carrier task force — with the USS Nimitz — said to be heading for the Gulf region this week now places a total of about 300 carrier-based fighter jets within striking range of Iran.
"The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better," says Joshua Landis, co-director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Peace Studies and publisher of the SyriaComment blog. From Syria, he writes that the next few months "will be a waiting game and the hatches have all been battened down."
Damascus and Tehran are bound by a mutual defense pact and an attack on Iran by the United States is likely to bring Syria into the fray. An Iranian opposition figure reports an important arms deal was struck between Iran and Syria after the Damascus visit last week by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran will fund Syria's military about $1 billion toward arms procurement.
In the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Ali Reza Nourizadeh reports the defense agreement between the two countries allows Iran to keep MiG-31E fighter aircraft based in Syria with Syrian markings, but at Iran's disposal.
Syria hopes to use the money to renew its aging fighter jets, Soviet-era tanks and anti-ship missiles and develop its nuclear and chemical weapons programs.
Mr. Assad also reportedly promised Mr. Ahmadinejad he would stop pursuing peace talks with Israel if Iran backs Syrian interests in Lebanon. The strengthening Iran-Syria ties are seen as a serious threat in Israel. The Jerusalem Post reports Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman calling for a national unity government to protect the Jewish state from the growing "axis of evil."
Report of the Syrian-Iranian agreement and Washington's saber-rattling has not done much to lessen the tension in the region. Even recent overtures toward Syria from France, which is reasserting itself as a key player in the region's politics, has kept relations between Damascus and the West tense. Middle East experts remain pessimistic regarding the region's immediate future, despite a recent call by President Bush for a regional conference to relaunch the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Breaking the long isolation imposed on Damascus by Washington and Paris since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, French President Nicolas Sarkozy dispatched an envoy to Damascus and Iran, to reassert France's role in the region.
Although French Foreign Ministry sources say the visit by Jean-Claude Cousseran to Damascus and Tehran will not diminish Paris' support of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government, the move is still a break from the previous policy of former President Jacques Chirac to keep Syria isolated.
Mr. Chirac and Hariri were close friends and the killing of the former Lebanese leader pushed Mr. Chirac to freeze relations with Damascus. While President Sarkozy made it known he intends to continue supporting Prime Minister Siniora's government, he is not burdened by the personal relationship his predecessor entertained with Hariri.
Nevertheless, Naharnet, the Internet edition of the influential Lebanese daily newspaper An-Nahar, cites unnamed French Foreign Ministry sources as saying the French envoy to Damascus was instructed by the Elysee Palace to inform Syria of the need to quit betting on external powers to make a "deal" at Lebanon's expense.
A possible deal between Damascus and Washington and/or Paris to the detriment of the Lebanese continues to worry many Lebanese who fear Syria reasserting itself militarily in Lebanon.
Still according to the Lebanese newspaper, French sources confirmed Mr. Cousseran conveyed a "harsh warning" to Syria's Vice President Farouk Sharaa and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem concerning the need to deal "positively" with French and Arab efforts aimed at building stability in Lebanon.
The sources stressed that "Cousseran was 'very honest and clear' with the Syrian leadership," and made it known this was Syria's "last chance" to change its behavior in Lebanon. The Lebanese paper said the French envoy "informed Syrian officials future such meetings will not take place unless France sees 'tangible' changes in Syria's behavior in Lebanon and the region."
Yes, the Middle Eastern front may be quiet. But is it the proverbial calm before the storm?
Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.