Peace talks between Israel and Syria underway as Iraq proxy war continues

The US – Iran shadow war in Iraq is the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East, argues

Soldier in Iraq

The US – Iran shadow war in Iraq is the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East, argues Henry Smith.

Last week, Syria and Israel admitted to holding talks aiming for a ‘comprehensive peace’ in Istanbul, enlisting Turkey as a mediator. How much has been agreed is unclear but each side appears set on their desired outcomes for the talks.

The Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has commented that “It is always better to talk than to shoot”, but talks between the two countries have failed before. Israel demands that Syria cut ties with groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, while Syria wants its sovereignty over the Golan Heights returned, following its capture by Israel during the 1967 war.

But despite the significance of talks between the two most heavily armed countries in the Middle East, the main destabilising influence of the region lies elsewhere – the war that America and Iran have been waging by proxy on Iraqi soil and, increasingly, in Lebanon.

Each side is seeking to decrease the other’s influence in the region, but Iran appears to be the victor in Iraq and thus America is stepping up its efforts in Lebanon to counter Iranian influence on Hizbullah. In Iraq both sides were keen to blame each other for the violence that had been waged by rival factions and militias.

Iran has played a crucial role in negotiating the recent ceasefire in Sadr City. Whilst this is a positive outcome for the two million inhabitants of the Mehdi Army’s stronghold, America appears more intent on using it as support for the idea that Moqtada al-Sadr is orchestrating his army from Iran.

America also appears to have rejected Iran’s overtures for cooperation in bringing stability to Iraq. According to the daily independent newspaper the Christian Science Monitor, General Petraeus (Chief of US Central Command) was sent a conciliatory note by General Soleimani (Head of Iran’s Qud force) reportedly stating: “We must all work together – Iraq, Iran and the United States – to stabilise the situation.” More surprising was his description of Sadr as “the biggest threat to peace in Iraq.”

Whilst the authenticity of these claims has been doubted, what is not in doubt is that Iran is expected to exert more and more influence in Iraq; Ahmadinejad’s recent visit was not in stealth as is the American way and Iranian exports to Iraq now exceed $2billion a year. America appears to be aware that it is failing to counter Iranian influence in Iraq and is turning to Lebanon.

In the past fortnight Lebanon has experienced its worst violence since the fifteen year civil war. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbullah leader, referred to the government’s orders to destroy Hizbullah’s secure phone line as a ‘declaration of war’. Their response was in keeping with this label, showing that its military clout was superior to that of the national army – taking large areas of Beirut and surrounding the residence of Jumblatt, leader of the pro-Western Druze (a Muslim sect).

Bush stated on the eve of his Middle East tour that America would ‘beef up’ the Lebanese armed forces to counter Iranian influence and disarm Hizbullah, claiming that Hizbullah had turned on the Lebanese. This point may resonate domestically, as Hizbullah had pledged never to use its weapons internally, only externally (a defence against Israel). Bush continued this mantra in Saudi Arabia, pledging support to conservative Arab countries against the spread of Iranian influence.

This spread appears to be a fear shared by many. Jumblatt stated from his besieged home: ‘The Iranians chose the moment America is weak in the Middle East. The balance of power has completely changed in Lebanon and now we wait to see what new rules Hizbullah, Syria and Iran will lay down.’ Meanwhile, talks have been held in Lebanon in response to the recent violence. A deal has been struck in which the head of the army has been chosen as president by consensus.

Commentators would agree that the army is the one institution in Lebanon that stands above the sectarian divides. However, the government has conceded more to Hizbullah than it wanted to, a small victory for Iran. Although the territory for the proxy war has changed, and will keep changing, the pattern of violence has not, and ordinary civilians are still the ones that suffer as war is waged out of Tehran and Washington.