Arab and Islamic states are putting aside differences to mobilise against their common foe

Driven by Syria and Iran, the strengthening of bilateral and multilateral alliances among Arab and Muslim states forms an ever more dangerous security situation to Israel's north, east and south. Virtually ignored by the mainstream media, the development of an anti-Israel "Eastern front" is changing the political and military face of the Middle East.

The players in the unfolding drama are Syria, Iran, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, with Saudi Arabia and Syrian-occupied Lebanon on the fringes. Behind the scenes, Egypt--which must tread cautiously because of its peace treaty with Israel--appears to be pulling some of the strings. And if Iran has its way, fellow pariahs Libya and Sudan will emerge from the wings to join.

While suspicions and rivalries persist, unheard-of rapprochement has been reached between traditional foes as they line up against their common enemy. Dictators have made visits or approaches to rival capitals for the first time in years, or are seeking to persuade allies to put aside differences with third parties. Former foes--Syria and Iraq, Iran and Iraq--are in the process of burying the hatchet.

Iran is planning joint military manoeuvres with Syria and Iraq, according to the Iranian paper Al Keyhan, which also reports that Iran has agreed to come to Syria's aid in case of Israeli aggression. (Mideast Dispatch, August 15). In what may be the most significant reported development so far, Iran has agreed to return Iraqi prisoners and jets captured during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in return for Iraqi permission for Iranian troops to cross its territory to go to Syria's aid in the event of an Israeli attack (Al-Siyassa, Kuwait, Aug 12)

Israel-Turkey ties

The catalyst in this process is Israel's military co-operation and mutual defence pact with Turkey, which has infuriated the Arab world, in particular Syria, Iraq and Iran, each of which has reason to dislike and fear the powerful giant on their northern border. Next month's scheduled Israeli-Turkish joint naval manoeuvres in the Mediterranean will only exacerbate the situation.

Writing on the improved ties between Iraq and Syria, Iran's Abrar newspaper reported on July 29: "But the more definite impact of Iraqi-Syrian closeness should be seen within the context of the region and in relation to Turkey's security-military pacts with Israel. And it seems that the more Turkey and Israel come closer to each other, the stronger the reality of the security dangers of such a closeness is seen in Baghdad and Damascus--a reality that will spark even Cairo's reaction, despite its friendly [sic] relations with Israel."

Where does the US stand?

As the targets of US sanctions, Iran and Iraq are meant to be off-limits. Syria too is on the State Department's list of regimes to be isolated because they sponsor terror. After America's key Mideast ally, Egypt, began cosying up to Damascus, Egypt's Al Sha'b newspaper reported on July 29 that "Washington has notified Egypt through a Gulf country that the US administration will impose firm sanctions through international organisations on any country in the region that establishes alliances with Iran directed against Israel "

When it comes to the Palestinians, however, the US has taken a kid-glove approach. PLO chairman Yasser Arafat has been at pains of late to restore long-strained ties with Syria, Iran and Iraq, yet Washington continues to defend him as a sincere peacemaker. In reaction to PM Binyamin Netanyahu's remark early last month that the Palestinian Authority was behaving "like a regime facilitating terror, like Iran or Iraq or Libya", State Department spokesman James Rubin retorted: "It is hard to fathom how one could compare Chairman Arafat to [Libya's] Colonel [Muammar] Gaddafi. Chairman Arafat was on the White House lawn with the president. He signed a peace agreement with the Israelis. We regard him as a partner in our effort to find peace in the Middle East. Colonel Gaddafi is an international outlaw."

The next big step in the establishment of anti-Israel Arab-Muslim unity is likely to occur during the upcoming Organisation of the Islamic Conference summit in Tehran. Iran has gone out of its way to invite Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to attend.

Also, attempts are underway to achieve as wide as possible a boycott of a major regional economic summit in the Qatari capital, Doha, because of Israel's participation. The conference is one of a series meant to lead to the formation of strong economic ties in the Middle East--the supposed fruits of the Oslo process. A successful boycott would be a clear signal that the process of Israel's gradual acceptance by Arab states has ended.

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