April 10, 2003
Saddam Hussein's neighbors fear they may be next in the line of fire
By Richard Beeston, Diplomatic Editor and Times writers
THE fall of Baghdad sent shockwaves through the Middle East, where some of Iraq’s neighbours fear that their regimes could be next.
Whereas moderate Arab states that have backed America’s campaign can expect to emerge largely unscathed or even enhanced by the outcome of the war, hardline countries such as Syria and Iran are very vulnerable to the new power on their doorstep.
John Bolton, the US Under-Secretary of State, added his voice to a chorus of warnings from hawks in the Bush administration against states that have developed weapons of mass destruction or supported terrorist groups.
“We are hopeful that a number of regimes will draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq — that the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is not in their interest,” he said.
In a remark that sent shudders through Damascus, he added: “I think Syria is a good case where I hope they will conclude that the chemical weapons programme and the biological weapons programme they have been pursuing are things they should give up.”
Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, accused Syria last week of helping to arm Iraqi forces by permitting hundreds of Arab volunteers to cross into Iraq. Subsequent unconfirmed reports claimed that Syria had helped to channel Russian Kornet anti-tank missiles to Iraq.
The warnings from Washington appear to have been backed by military action. Two weeks ago a bus travelling through Iraq, 100 miles from the Syrian border, was struck by a US missile, killing five Arab volunteer fighters. Reports of bombing and low-flying American aircraft near the Abu Kamal crossing have been interpreted as an attempt to deter vehicles from travelling to Baghdad.
The Kuwaiti Al-Rai al-Aam newspaper reported last week that the oil pipeline running between Kirkuk in northern Iraq and the Syrian port of Banias had been blown up by American forces. The pipeline is believed to have supplied Syria with 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil a day, in defiance of UN sanctions. The report remains unconfirmed, but a diplomatic source in Damascus said that the supply of Iraqi oil to Syria appeared to have dried up.
Most Middle East analysts rule out an imminent American attack on Syria, arguing that the US has its hands full and is unwilling to engage in a new conflict likely to rile the Arabs even more.
In a telephone call to President Assad on Monday, Tony Blair reassured him that he “disagrees completely” with those supporting an attack on Syria, according to the Syrian National News Agency.
Robert Baer, a former senior CIA officer, said, however, that he believed that the Pentagon had “pretty much decided to go after Syria”, taking advantage of the presence of American forces in Iraq. The Syrians are “easy to get, they’re vulnerable. There’s been this build-up of rhetoric and, of course, the Israelis would like us to do it,” he said.
Mr Baer, who is visiting Beirut and Damascus, said: “The hawks in the Administration have clearly hijacked US foreign policy. The Pentagon has won over the State Department. How it will play out, however, remains to be seen.”
DESPITE harsh rhetoric, the Iranian Government has shown considerable restraint in the present conflict.
The Iranians have chosen to condemn rather than actively retaliate against several stray missiles, one of which killed a young boy on Tuesday, the invasion of Iranian airspace and warnings from America not to get involved. They are intent on securing their national interest in a post-Saddam Iraq.
Convinced that the US wants to reshape the Middle East and gain control of the region’s oil reserves, many Iranians feel that they are slowly being encircled. There are also fears that Tehran will be targeted because of its support for militant Islamic groups and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, particularly its nuclear programme.
“Iran feels it is going to be strangled gradually by the United States,” Professor Zibakalam, of Tehran University, said. “Yesterday it was Afghanistan, now it is another regime like that in Baghdad . . . the whole scenario is moving to strangle Iran.”
These fears have been rebuffed by diplomats here, despite being named on President Bush’s “axis of evil” list. Instead, they say, Washington is hoping that Iranians themselves can bring about change.
Some are not convinced. “I think there’s a 60 per cent chance it will be Iran’s turn after Iraq,” Behman, a soldier from the Iran-Iraq War, said.
Sheri, an arts student, said that the war could bring positive
effects. “Obviously, I’m afraid of war, but because I feel
that the place where we’re living right now is not what we want,
I hope that if there is a war here, things will change and the
country will become what we want it to be.”
THE capture of Baghdad allowed King Abdullah II to breathe a sigh of relief that the conflict across the border was nearly ove.
But popular resentment, caused by Jordan’s controversial policy of allowing US troops to operate from its territory, will not disappear quickly. Much will depend on the way that the postwar phase is handled.
“The big question is: what happens after war and how qill the Americans manage the post-war situation?” Abdul Ihal al-Khatib, a former Foreign Minister, said. “They should not operate as belligerents . . . they should involve all those countries who can contribute to stabilising Iraq and the region.”
Many Jordanians were hoping that the Iraqis would inflict painful losses on the “US- British invaders and occupiers” before Washington could declare a military victory.
But the reality is slowly sinking in, giving a brief respite to King Abdullah, 41, who had to shift positions over the past two weeks to appease growing anger among his subjects over the presence of US troops in Jordan.
“It never was a question of standing on the winning or losing side, as much as it was taking a pragmatic position that allows Jordan to sail through this storm and emerge with the least damage, while protecting its strategic interests with the US and maintaining domestic stability,” one Cabinet minister said. “So far, we have managed through this crisis without any significant internal confrontations.”
Jordan, strategically wedged between Israel and Iraq, has put blind faith in American supremacy and its readiness to come to its support in adversity. This may explain the King’s boldness to distance the country from the popular pulse over Iraq, possibly the riskiest move since a deeply unpopular peace treaty with Israel in 1994.
The King is also banking on the promise of postwar order to bring prosperity to Jordan’s weak economy, which has suffered more than £1.3 billion in losses since the start of the war on Iraq, its main market and sole supplier of cheap oil.
He will, however, have to keep public distance from Washington,
to avoid inflaming sentiments and giving more ammunition to
hardliners and fundamentalists. Washington has already agreed to
give Jordan more than £700 million over one year to offset the
impact of war, while Japan has pledged £64 million in grants.
ISRAELIS greeted the images from Baghdad with a quiet satisfaction, sure that the threat always felt from Saddam Hussein had been expunged.
Ordinary Israelis were looking forward to the Government lowering the state of alert against a possible biochemical attack, under which the nation has lived for the past three weeks.
But mingling with pleasure was a degree of wariness that the new post-Saddam era might bring demands to reach an early peace settlement with the Palestinians.
For the duration of the US-British war in Iraq, Israeli officials have emphasised that it was not their conflict, while supporting the aims of toppling Saddam.
Israelis believe that a successful war against Saddam removes a threat while sending a powerful message to the Arab world that the Jewish State is here to stay.
Government officials and commentators have always, however, had an eye on the “day after”, when the focus of attention will switch back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ariel Sharon’s Government is fearful of British attempts to push President Bush into early publication, and implementation, of the international peace “road map”, which envisages an independent Palestinian state by 2005.
Officials fear that it could be the price Israel pays to cool tempers in the Arab world, an approach that they believe is being pushed by Tony Blair.
There was little official reaction yesterday, but ambivalence expressed itself on the streets of Jerusalem. Moshe Zaken, 46, whose family emigrated to Israel from Iraq in 1951, hailed developments in Baghdad as signalling a new era of peace between the two countries. “I’m in euphoria,” he said. “Israel was under threat all these years and now we can relax.”
But Michael Soshan, 37, sounded a note of caution. “We shouldn’t become indifferent because we are still under threat from the Muslim world,” she said. “We should stay on alert because danger always awaits us.”
In Ramallah, Palestinians were sardonically singing, “al-nasr lana” — victory to us — as they absorbed the scale of Saddam Hussein’s fall. Time and again it was muttered, in mocking reference to the bombastic but pitifully empty boasts that the vanquished Iraqi President had made as he promised to put the invading American and British armies to the sword.
“He’s a cartoon tiger,” Khaled Mohammed, 40, said, plainly angry as he sat watching television coverage of Saddam’s defeat. “We’ve been listening to how boastful he was about his Fedayin, his Republican Guard and his army. And look, it’s just a joke what’s happening. Saddam is empty. We Arabs have many leaders who are empty.” Palestinians had not expected Saddam’s armies to defeat the military might of the United States and Britain.
They had hoped that an Iraqi resistance that would give the
invaders a bloody nose and rekindle a sense of Arab pride. “We
saw Saddam Hussein as our lifesaver,” Rostom Alam, a local
chemist, said. “He was so different in the way he stood up for
the Palestinian cause to other Arab leaders. He declared his
support economically, morally and militarily, by providing our
people with weapons. “Now he has let us down. It’s a great
disappointment. He has become like all the others who betrayed
TURKEY will come away from the war with a clear conscience, but little else, having strained its ties with Washington over its refusal to allow the deployment of US soldiers on its soil, but failing to use the dispute to improve its relationship with Europe.
When Turkey’s parliament voted on March 1 to oppose the US deployment, it not only deprived the United States of what was felt to be a crucial northern front against Baghdad, it also deprived itself of a multibillion-pound aid package to compensate for warrelated economic losses, the chance to take its own troops into northern Iraq to guard against any attempts at independence by either Iraqi or Turkish Kurds and very likely the chance to have much of a say in the formation of a post-Saddam Iraq.
The fact that the vote came only after a protracted and undignified period of bargaining and threats by both sides meant that the 50-year alliance was probably damaged even more than it would have been by a simple Turkish refusal at the start.
The highest levels of the Turkish administration remain unconvinced of the need and the legitimacy of the US-led war and are angry that Washington went through with a move that could greatly destabilise the country’s borders and economy.
Turkish officials insist that the strategic alliance with the US is too strong to be badly damaged now, particularly given pro-Western Turkey’s position in a volatile region rich in resources but hostile to America.
A visit last week by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, was followed by Turkish agreement to allow US logistical and humanitarian support through its soil and a deal for greatly reduced sum of US money ($8.5 billion (£5.5 billion) in credits rather than a package worth up to $30 billion) to help Turkey’s already ailing economy, but this has been seen as simply an attempt to smooth the problems over.
It will not be clear just how bad ties have been hurt until
after the war, but still, both sides achieved considerably less
than they hoped for at the start of a period that many agree was
one of the bleakest in the relationship.
THIS could be one of the countries most vulnerable to the changes in the region.
The Saudi authorities cooperated more than they have admitted with American and British forces engaged in the campaign. In particular they allowed coalition aircraft to use bases in Saudi Arabia for combat operations against Iraq.
But the war has been deeply unpopular with ordinary Saudi people. The authorities fear a backlash from the rising anti-American sentiment and will press America to close its bases in the country and move all foreign troops off its soil.
The monarchy is also concerned about American plans for a representative government in Iraq and Washington’s declared aim to spread democracy through the region.
It is very worried about the prospect of a Shia Muslim leadership taking control in Baghdad, challenging the Sunni Muslim domination throughout the Arab world.
The Saudis are also concerned that if a pro-American government
comes to power in Iraq and allows US companies to exploit the
country’s huge oil resources, America will become far less
dependent on Saudi oil for its energy needs.
FEW Arab leaders have fought as hard to find a diplomatic solution to the Iraqi crisis as President Mubarak.
For Egypt the war has already had a considerable economic cost, with the Government estimating that it will lose between $6 billion and $8 billion, mostly in lost tourism revenue. Although there will be some compensation — the World Bank is finalising a $1 billion loan and the US has promised $2.3 billion in aid — the war could not have come at a worst time.
The Egyptian economy is at one of its lowest points in years. The Egyptian pound has lost nearly 20 per cent of its value since the beginning of the year, and inflation and commodity prices have shot up.
Anger about the economy has been compounded by the widespread belief that while Egypt publicly opposes the war, it has provided secret support.
Since the beginning of the war, the largest demonstrations in a generation have taken place in Cairo. They have also featured rare direct criticism of Mr Mubarak, once a taboo, and demands for political reforms.
If the war ends quickly, Egypt should be able to placate the
Opposition fairly easily. It has proved skilled at co-opting
opposition forces. But there may be external factors to worry
about. Several neo-conservative allies of President Bush,
including Richard Perle and James Woolsey, the former CIA chief,
have publicly expressed a desire to destabilise Mr Mubarak.
IN ROBUSTLY opposing the American-led invasion of Iraq, Lebanon has echoed its political master, Syria.
But Lebanon’s stance against the war has caused a diplomatic rift with Kuwait, the Arab world’s lone supporter of using military force to unseat Saddam Hussein.
Crucially, Kuwait is one of the largest donors of financial aid to Lebanon and has played a major role in the multibillion-pound reconstruction programme in the past decade after the 1975-90 civil war.
Some Lebanese political figures have harshly criticised Kuwait’s support for the war, prompting a backlash from Kuwaitis, who accuse the Lebanese of being ungrateful.
The diplomatic rift is threatening a $500 million loan from Kuwait to Lebanon.
Professor Nizar Hamzeh, of the American University of Beirut, said that Lebanon could not afford to alienate Kuwait and its other benefactors in the Gulf. But he added that Lebanon’s loyalty would remain with Syria.
Lebanon’s fate in the post-Iraq war climate is hinged to that of Syria and Washington’s future designs on the regime in Damascus. With 15,000 Syrian troops deployed in Lebanon, Damascus dominates the political process in its tiny neighbour.
Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst, said that Lebanon was a curious case in terms of winners and losers in the Iraq conflict. “Lebanon is a potential winner if the developments in the region eventually lead to less Syrian control over the country.
But also a loser if the Syrians feel threatened and decide to retaliate through Lebanon,” he said.
Lebanon’s chief source of instability is in the south, where
fighters of the Hezbollah organisation are deployed in strength
along the border with Israel. Many Lebanese fear that Israel may
take advantage of a swift war in Iraq to mount a military
operation to try to wipe out its arch enemy.
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