Last December, the US Congressional Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare warned of a coming Middle East war in which Syria, Iraq, Iran and the Palestinians would collaborate in an attack on Israel. While the warning has gone unheeded, the stage for that attack is being set.
The Middle East alliances forged by America and Europe against Iraq in 1991 have all but dissolved in the face of strengthening ties between Turkey and Israel. This in turn, together with the growing Arab belief that America cannot--or will not--force Israel to surrender more land for "peace", is contributing to the formation of a new regional front comprising Syria, Iran, Iraq and the PLO.
Israel and Turkey share a common interest in containing Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian ambitions, and seek a region free from Islamist revolution and terrorism. Over the past 18 months they have angered the Muslim world by signing military accords under which Israel is helping Turkey gather intelligence on Syria and Iran; Israeli warplanes are flying in Turkish airspace; Turkish Phantom jets are being upgraded in Israel; and joint naval manoeuvres were held off Syria in June.
Further fuelling Arab rage have been reports that Turkey, currently conducting cross-border operations against PKK Kurds in Iraq, plans to establish a security zone in the north of that country a la Israel's southern Lebanon buffer zone.
Although 99 per cent Muslim, Turkey has for 70 years been a secular state oriented towards Europe and allied with the West against the USSR. Iran has attempted to pull the country into its fundamentalist orbit by bankrolling last year's election campaign which lead to the victory of Islamist prime minister Necmettin Erbekan. The campaign has thus far failed, and Erbarkan stepped down last month.
SYRIA: The number one mutual enemy of Israel and Turkey, Syria supports Hizb'Allah and Islamic Jihad terrorism against Israel, and Kurdish terrorism against the Turks, and has territorial designs on both lands. Stated the Turkish vice president in April 1996: "Syria has aspirations to achieve 'Greater Syria'. These will be thwarted and, if there is a need for it, Syria will be taught the lesson it needs."
Syria has fought Israel in three wars (1948, 1967 and 1973) and remains an implacable enemy. Its involvement in the "peace process" hinges solely on whether or not it can regain the Golan Heights, lost to Israel after Syria's 1967 attack.
The Israel-Syrian talks have been jammed for months. On June 9, Syrian Vice President Abed al-Halim Haddam was quoted in Yediot Ahronot as saying Israel had shut the door on peace and there was nothing left to negotiate.
Also in June, Israel's Channel Two television reported that the Syrian Army recently completed a series of exercises to prepare for a possible all-out war against Israel. And IDF Chief of Staff Major-General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak told the Washington Post that the Syrians were planning what they hoped would be a surprise
attack. Channel Two said that while President Hafez el-Assad has not yet decided to actually use his military option, "the situation on the ground is that once the drills and preparations are completed, the time between a decision by Assad and execution by the Syrian Army will be very short".
IRAN: Long outlawed by the US, massive, non-Arab Iran is today travelling a rocky road in its relations with Europe too, after a German High Court in May linked the government in Tehran to the assassination of Iranian dissidents abroad.
But while increasingly isolated from the West, Iran is strengthening its ties with Russia. After meeting with Iranian Speaker of Parliament Nafegh Nouri in April, President Boris Yeltsin told the press: "We are now consolidating and cementing our ties with Iran, but in the near future we shall witness the deepening of our bilateral relations." (Al-Ahram Weekly, April 17-23)
Iranian-Syrian cooperation is also growing. In June 1996 Iran and Syria signed a major agreement for the codification of their military cooperation against Israel. Early this year both states pledged their continuous support for Hizb'Allah.
According to the Bahrain Tribune, massive Iranian war games which ended on April 25 saw some 200,000 Iranian troops conduct exercises from the northern Arabian Gulf to the Strait of Hormuz and the Sea of Oman. The name of the manoeuvres? "The Road to Jerusalem."
IRAQ: On another corner of the chess-board, Damascus is moving with Tehran to renew relations with their old foe, Iraq, now considered a natural partner in an alliance against Turkey.
Iraq was brought into the June 1996 Iran-Syria agreement with the establishment last August of a joint, tripartite command specifically designed for waging war against Israel. On June 22 this year, Iran called for even closer ties with Iraq and invited Saddam Hussein to an Islamic summit set for December in Tehran.
On May 19, a Syrian trade delegation visited Baghdad, during which a number of bilateral trade contracts were signed. The head of the Arab and international relations committee in the Iraqi National Assembly, Sa'd Qasim Hammudi, said it was in the interest of the Iraqi and Syrian people that ties between them return to normal so that they would not be limited to trade and economics.
And in what observers called an extremely significant move, Syria recently opened a number of border crossings long closed between itself and Iraq.
THE PLO: On June 10 the Jordanian press reported that Arafat had written to Saddam Hussein to apologise for not visiting him since the end of the Gulf War, during which the PLO supported Iraq.
Arafat also reportedly conferred secretly in Amman with Iraq's ambassador to Jordan in what was the first known Iraqi-Palestinian meeting in at least three years.
On June 22, the Gaza-based newspaper Al-Hayah al-Jadidah announced that efforts were underway to arrange for Yasser Arafat to pay "an extraordinary and substantive" visit to Damascus in the near future "within
the framework of Arafat's efforts to complete the Palestinian-Arab link of coordination."
The paper disclosed that Arafat had "exerted important mediation efforts in the recent Syrian-Iraqi rapprochement."
Matters are also improving between the PLO and Iran. On June 24 The Jerusalem Post reported that the PLO Authority, "which only last year attacked Tehran for supporting terrorism and trying to overthrow PA chairman Arafat, has significantly improved relations with Iran". The PA's change in attitude toward Iran reportedly began before the May election of Mohammed Khatami as the Islamic republic's new president. Khatami is said to regard Arafat as a personal friend.
Other PLO figures have visited Iran in recent months.
EGYPT: Even as Iran, Iraq, Syria and the PLO gravitate towards each other, Egypt remains eager to regain its primacy in the Arab world. To this end President Hosni Mubarak is working to coordinate Arab strategy even as he makes every apparent effort to restart the stalled Israeli-PLO talks.
On May 4, after meeting Syria's Assad, Mubarak made surprise visits to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, on what Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa called "the beginning of a vast consultation in the Arab world aimed at uniting the positions" against Israel.
Within weeks of launching this search for allies, Egypt sent presidential advisor Osama el-Baz (who under President Anwar Sadat had been virulently opposed to peace with the Jewish state) to Israel to try and get the Oslo process back on track. So far he has not succeeded.
On June 4, CNN reported that, with Israeli-Arab talks dead in the water, the Arab arms race has taken on a new urgency. Ironically, noted correspondent Walter Rodgers, the Oslo process has fuelled the arms race by giving Arab countries newly in favour access to Western arms. Negotiations and the arms race have continued in parallel. But with Oslo in tatters, and the purchase of weapons increasing apace, the region is now "sliding back to instability and conflict".
Al-Watan al-Arabi revealed in a May 30 report (translated by IMRA) that Syrian vice-president Haddam and foreign minister Farouk a-Shara recently visited the Gulf States to discuss three issues: the details of the Israel-Turkey military pact; "the danger which [Turkey's incursion into northern Iraq] brings to Syria and the Arab world"; and financial assistance from wealthy Gulf states to fund Syrian weapons purchases from Russia and North Korea.
Leaving the Gulf, A-Shara flew directly from Kuwait to Moscow for what he called the most successful talks with Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov in recent years.
On June 26, as Israel and Turkey conducted their joint naval exercises off the Syrian coast, the eight-member Damascus Declaration group, comprising the Arab members of the US-led military coalition against Iraq, ended a two day meeting with calls to respect Arab decisions to freeze normalisation and regional cooperation with Israel, and to hold Israel responsible for the collapse of the Middle East peace process.