Mideast tensions

The killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon in a massive bomb blast on Monday sparked renewed tension in the region and led to the formation of new coalitions and opportunistic alliances that threaten to pour more oil on the flames. There is no evidence suggesting that Hariri’s assassination was the work of Syria. However, the prevailing mood among the Lebanese population has led many to point the finger at Syria. Even if there was no direct Syrian involvement in the murder, the fact remains that Lebanon is dominated by Damascus, which keeps troops in the country. It was to be expected that such a devastating act would trigger a huge public backlash since locals want a free, sovereign Lebanon. At the same time, Hariri’s murder was seen as a good opportunity by Washington and Paris to ratchet up pressure on Syria, already hit by US sanctions over its alleged support for terrorism and alleged interference in Iraq. The White House, which is seeking to perpetuate public fear of further terrorist attacks, has found ample pretext to justify the lingering presence of US troops on Iraqi territory and a chance to sustain its mantra over the so-called «axis of evil.» Furthermore, both the US and France have found in Syria a common bogeyman that could help them heal the cracks that were caused by the Iraq campaign. This bridge-building exercise is important in view of US President George W. Bush’s visit to Europe next week during which he will try to bring about a thaw in the icy relations between Washington and «old Europe.» For its part, Syria is turning to Iran for support. Tehran is also keen for some help from Damascus as the Shi’ite electoral victory in Iraq fell short of easing the tension between the US and Iran. The nascent Syria-Iran axis is trying to exploit the countries’ relations with Russia and China, both of which are quite uncomfortable with the West’s role in the region. These ad hoc partnerships may seem to serve Syria’s and Iran’s domestic and foreign agendas. On the other hand, they exacerbate tensions in the area and undermine diplomatic initiatives that could lead to a peaceful settlement. The threat of a full-blown crisis is imminent as anger is spilling over into violence. European governments must use all available means to promote a diplomatic breakthrough that will help tensions in the region to simmer down.

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