Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Playing Russian roulette in the Middle East

One of the (ostensible) reasons some European countries opposed the American-led Iraqi war, in which many other European countries took part, was that none of it had any meaning if the Palestinian problem was not resolved. How it was to be resolved they did not precisely say, intoning instead the mantra of “peace process”. (Beware of the word “process”, my friends.)

At the same time, what was clearly setting back the peace process was the determined EU support given to Chairman Yasser Arafat. That the man really was the biggest stumbling block both to peace in the area and freedom for the Palestinian people can be demonstrated by the speed with which matters have moved since his death.

There was a meeting between Mahmoud Abbas, the new leader of the Palestinian Authrority and Ariel Sharon. There are indications that extremists on both sides will be reined in and, more to the point, Abbas is showing every sign of cracking down on the terrorist groups and militias in Palestine. Arafat could not or, more likely, would not do that.

Abbas has announced that the war of Israel is all but over. This is not yet an official position but the movement is in the right direction, even though we have a long way to go before the supposed goal of a relatively peaceful Middle East and the two states, both more or less democratic, will learn to live next to each other.

A long way to go and not everyone wants to get there. For there have been other news from that area. First of all, Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored, armed and financed and Lebanese-based terrorist organization, has threatened to assassinate Abbas if he continues with his policy of conciliation.

They are not joking. Hezbollah is recruiting members of the old Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade and is offering large amounts of money for the procurement of suicide/homicide bombers.

In Lebanon we see what might be the renewal of the civil war, the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri. Responsibility has not been established but it is worthy of note that Mr Hariri has been calling insistently for the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon and the disarming of the Hezbollah.

Many people are assuming that President-for-life Assad was responsible for the assassination, either directly or indirectly through Hezbollah.

The situation is, thus, very tense and the West ought to be presenting a united front against terrorists and those who sponsor terrorism. And is it? Is it, heck.

The EU is refusing to put Hezbollah on its terrorist blacklist. Why? Well, France, backed by Spain and Belgium, is blocking the move. President Chirac has told the Israeli ambassador that it was “a complex question”. Well, how complex, precisely?

Hezbollah’s credentials as a terrorist organization is not exactly in doubt. It is not only recruiting among the Al-Aqsa, but also funding the Palestinian group Hamas, distinguished not only by its suicide/homicide attacks but also by the help it gave Chairman Arafat, the PA and Fatah in the oppression of the Palestinian people.

France is not precisely finicky in the way it deals with terrorists and suspected terrorists, arresting, imprisoning and bundling people out of the country at the slightest suspicion. Guantanamo returnees have not been sighted again.

Spain is grappling with two widespread terrorist problems, the home-grown ETA and Al-Qaeda, whose cells seem to have honeycombed the country even before 9/11. Again, it has been arresting and raiding with little thought for niceties of procedure and few people have actually blamed the Spanish authorities.

Belgium? Well, one can never be really sure what the Belgian government is up to but, presumably, it is saying yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir to President Chirac, terrified as it is of the Flemish threat. (Flemish threat? Gosh, the Lebanese should be so lucky.)

Indeed, France has actually stepped up its pressure on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, possibly even ahead of the forthcoming election. So what’s with Hezbollah? Well, there is this problem: the United States would like to proscribe the organization, as would Israel.

That means, that the French are against the idea as is, presumably, the government of Zapatero. In other words the usual argument kicks in: it does not matter what the reality is, we are against whatever it is the Americans want. Oh yes, and, of course, France is anxious to show that she and she alone can secure Syrian withdrawal.

The latter seems a little unlikely. As for the former, well, these are dangerous games. More than that elusive transatlantic friendship is at stake. Iran and Syria will fight against any possibility of Middle Eastern democracy, either directly, or through their terrorist proxies. Where are the European states going to position themselves?

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