Attacks in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria could spark a wider conflict
Old wounds are opening up between South Korea and Japan. India and Pakistan are at loggerheads owing to the latest developments in Kashmir.
Different parts of Asia have been embroiled in crises for a few months now. Living in a digitally connected world that we do, it is no longer possible to sweep crises under the carpet of diplomatic civilities. Residents as well as people elsewhere become aware of incidents as they unfold. Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms have become suppliers of information and battlegrounds where views are shared and debated, many a time aggressively.
Old wounds are opening up between South Korea and Japan. India and Pakistan are at loggerheads owing to the latest developments in Kashmir. US and China, the world's top two economies, are fighting a duel of their own. And the streets of Hong Kong have become a ticking time-bomb, presenting a strong test to Xi JinPing, the strongest Chinese president since Mao Zedong.
Meanwhile, crisis in the Middle East hasn't abated much, either. The issue of stalled Iran nuclear deal still looms large over meetings, especially since Tehran impounded oil tankers. It was reminiscent of the hostage crises in the past and the price that needed to be paid to resolve the issue. The world has, however, succeeded in holding its breath after concerned parties said they did not want to be dragged into a war, which would be costly and difficult to contain. Moreover, there has been a growing conviction that Iran, which can destabilise the situation in the Hormuz Strait, would not go so far as to close it. It knows that such a move will lead to the establishment of a broad international front against it that would include the European powers that are keen on salvaging its nuclear deal.
The Middle East returned to the forefront of international concern when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that Israel struck Iranian military bases in Iraq. He said that he had ordered his military to act freely to thwart Iran's hostile plans. He also added: "I don't grant Iran immunity anywhere. It is trying to establish bases against us everywhere. In Iran itself, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen."
Netanyahu's frank comments about targeting Iranian military infrastructure and Popular Mobilization Forces targets in Iraq surprised many observers. They had expected Israel to remain vague over its role in the "mysterious blasts" that took place in Iraq. Furthermore, the acknowledgment could embarrass the United States, whose forces stationed in Iraq control the country's airspace.
The PMF had held the US responsible for the blasts. A day after Netanyahu's comments, Iraqi Shiite religious authority and resident of Iran's Qom, Kazem Al Haeri issued a fatwa that bars the continued deployment of American forces in Iraq. The edict renewed debate in Iraq that Iran may opt to retaliate to harsh American sanctions against it by attempting to expel US forces in Iraq, either through a parliamentary order, if possible, or through attacks carried out by "unknown" groups.
On the ground, Netanyahu's declaration means that Iraq is officially a legitimate target of Israeli strikes that are aimed at countering Iran's military entrenchment in the region, and which were originally limited to Syria. In reality, the Russian military presence in Syria has led to the containment of the war Israel was waging against Iran's entrenchment because it has led to the containment of Tehran's response to the strikes and which were being fired from Syria. The launching of Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Iraq has supported the claims of American-Russian consensus over Israel's right to defend its security against what it believes to be threats from Syria and Iraq.
The developments have gone beyond that with Israel launching new strikes against Syria, which led to the death of Lebanese Hezbollah members. This was followed up by drone attacks that crashed in Beirut's southern suburbs. The battlefield has expanded from Syria to Lebanon after it swept Syria and Iraq.
Israel's actions raise many questions: Does Netanyahu believe that now is the appropriate time to wage a wide-scale confrontation with Iran and its allies in countries where it is seeking to set up a permanent military presence? Does he believe that the period separating us from American elections is the appropriate time to wage such a confrontation? Does he believe that roles in the region are drawn by fire, not negotiations? Does he fear that the US will pull out its troops from Iraq and Syria and therefore, prefers to widen the confrontation before this happens?
Other questions have also been raised: How long will Iran continue to receive blows in Syria without retaliating through its allies? What about Hezbollah? How long will the party tolerate strikes in Syria and challenges in Lebanon without responding? What if this response led to a wide-scale war? What about Russia's stance? Who will Donald Trump administration in the US stand with? What if the wars swallowed up the region?
It is clear that the sanctity of borders in the Middle East has fallen. They are being violated by policies, rockets and drones in total disregard of international law.
Many crises are raging in the region we call the Middle East and some believe that even greater challenges are in store.
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper