Rice Seeks to Rally Moderate Arabs to Curb Iranian Ascendancy

The nub of the new Bush administration’s Middle East venture, on which US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice embarks Tuesday, Oct. 3, is an effort to lure Syrian president Bashar Asad over to the moderate pro-US Arab camp. This is pivotal to the main item on the agenda of her conference with six Arab foreign ministers in Cairo Tuesday, which is: How do we hold back the Shiite offensive to rule the Muslim world?
This weighty item breaks down into six components:
1. It requires a US-Arab consensus for halting Iran’s nuclear program before the attainment of a weapons capability, and at the same time curbing the spread of Iranian influence in Iraq. US strategists have concluded that the moderate Arab leaders are at least as worried about this as America and have reached a point where they are ready to tackle the problem – certainly more than European leaders, who are beginning to fight shy of economic sanctions against Iran.
2. Rice will seek Arab backing for a fresh US effort to come to terms with Iraqi Sunni elements – in the first instance to cut down Sunni sectarian attacks, and in the second, to stamp out al Qaeda’s terror in the country. (Since al Qaeda’s Iraq commander Abu Musab al Zarqawi died in a US bombing attack in June, his networks have been disintegrating.) An American rapprochement with Iraq’s Sunni Arabs would entail drawing away from the Shiites.
3. Cutting the Hizballah down to size – a tall order since the Lebanon war. While Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert insists the conflict was an Israeli success, official Washington makes no bones about its ending in failure for Israel and its armed forces. For the first time in the Bush administration’s relationship with Israel, the United States is turning to Arab rulers to pick up the pieces.
4. One of those pieces to which Washington attaches extreme urgency is propping up the Siniora government in Beirut. In Cairo, she will be bidding for a combined US-Arab effort to prevent Hizballah from toppling Fouad Siniora. The danger is imminent. Hizhallah has whipped together an opposition bloc with Lebanese parliament speaker, Nabih Berri and his Shiite Amal, and a powerful Christian faction headed by General Michel Aoun. They are united in their ambition to sweep the anti-Syrian government out of office. Siniora’s downfall would spell the collapse of the entire Lebanon strategy to which the Bush administration fully committed after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. The US has since invested heavily in building up a different reality in Lebanon and most recently patched together UN Security Council Resolution 1701 to halt Israel-Hizballah hostilities on Aug. 14 and bring a UNIFIL-European peacekeeping force to police Lebanon’s southern border with Israel.
According to debkafile‘s sources, the US Secretary hopes the Saudis and their fellow oil-rich emirates, which have spent large sums on Lebanon’s reconstruction, will have a vested interest in preserving Siniora in office and preventing a pro-Iranian, pro-Syrian administration attaining power in Beirut.
5. Rice will be looking for Arab help in snapping the Tehran-Syrian connection and drawing Asad into the Saudi sphere of influence.
6. She will also be promoting an American-Arab plan to undermine Hamas up to and including its removal from power in the Palestinian Authority. (See item on Hamas-Fatah clashes).
debkafile‘s Middle East sources stress that by sending their foreign ministers to this vital conference in Cairo, the six Arab rulers are signifying their support for a joint initiative with the US and their acceptance of its urgency. They are also intimating that they need American help and support to find ways out of the gathering menaces to the region.
At the same time, it is a long way from consensus to action. It is far from certain that the innately cautious Arab moderates will agree to go so far as to spell out an unambiguous anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite policy. Furthermore, the boots on the ground in the Middle East today are primarily Iranian, Syrian, Hizballah and Hamas. They therefore hold the advantage when it comes to torpedoing any decisions reached at the Cairo conference.

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