Powell seeks to prevent wider war

Broader goal intertwined with mission to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace

April 16, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's feverish diplomacy in the Middle East is intended as much to avert a wider conflict in the region as to find a formula for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

With tensions dangerously high in the Middle East, the United States fears that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could fracture Israel's tenuous ties with some of the Arab world and in time ignite a regionwide war.

The risk of growing instability in the Middle East was a key reason why President Bush dispatched Powell to try to broker a truce and lay the groundwork for renewed peace talks.

The signs of a possibly spreading conflict are growing, analysts say. As Israel's assault on the Palestinian territories continues, Arab rage is putting pressure on moderate Arab governments to do more to help the Palestinians.

In late December, Israel seized a shipment of arms from Iran destined for the Palestinian Authority. Hezbollah, the Iranian- and Syrian-backed guerrilla group in Lebanon, has staged attacks in recent weeks against Israeli forces along Lebanon's border with Israel. And Iraq's Saddam Hussein has given support to Palestinian fighters.

One feared scenario is that Israel will retaliate against Hezbollah's provocations by attacking Syria. Damascus might then try to enlist the help of Egypt, thus shattering the 23-year peace between Israel and Egypt.

Neither the administration nor outside analysts say they think a major war is likely anytime soon. But they express concern that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is planting seeds that could lead to a wider war over time.

A White House official said alarms would sound if there were a serious break in ties between Israel and the two Arab nations it has signed peace treaties with - Egypt and Jordan - or if the Arab League withdrew its offer of normal relations with Israel in return for a pullout from land Israel has occupied since the 1967 war.

"We want to keep the pillars of peace in place," the White House official said, referring to the peace accords Israel has with Egypt and Jordan. Without them, "a wider conflict could be more likely in the longer term."

In his speech early this month announcing Powell's mission, Bush issued a warning "to those who would try to use the current crisis as an opportunity to widen the conflict: Stay out."

Yesterday, Powell reinforced that message in visits to Beirut and Damascus, where he called on Lebanese and Syrian leaders to rein in Hezbollah.

"There is a very real danger that the situation along the border is widening the conflict throughout the region," the secretary of state said in Lebanon. "It is essential for all those who are committed to peace to act immediately to stop aggressive actions along the entire border."

Hezbollah claims credit for having forced Israel to end its occupation of southern Lebanon in May 2000, after a prolonged war of attrition against Israeli troops and rocket attacks against communities along Israel's northern border.

After the withdrawal, Hezbollah claimed the right to continue attacks. It noted Israel's continued occupation of a small area on the edge of the Golan Heights called Shebaa Farms. Hezbollah, Lebanon and Syria dispute the United Nations' declaration that Israel's pullout in Lebanon was complete.

Syria, which controls Lebanon, is believed to be allowing Hezbollah attacks to continue as a way of keeping pressure on Israel without becoming embroiled itself in a new conflict with the Jewish state. The two nations have not fought a war since 1973. But Syria continues to press for the return of the strategic Golan Heights plateau.

But Syria is arrayed against a militarily superior foe. Israel has warned that the Hezbollah attacks could provoke a forceful retaliation against Syria or Syrian forces in Lebanon.

With a relatively inexperienced president, Bashar Assad, Syria is more of a mystery than when it was ruled by his father, Hafez el Assad.

"We don't know what is going on inside Syria - who is making decisions and what their calculations are," said Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.

A war between Syria and Israel would put pressure on Egypt to sever relations with Israel and to send its sizable armed forces to the defense of a fellow Arab state. President Hosni Mubarak is working to try to prevent such a scenario, though the possibility is being mentioned in the government-owned Egyptian newspapers.

"Egypt should avoid any Israeli or Arab attempts to drag it into war," columnist Hassan Nafaa wrote in the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly.

"Yet it cannot refrain from taking up arms if Israel launches an attack on Syria or begins collective deportation of the Palestinians."

Other Egyptian commentaries, translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, warn Syria and Yemen against trying to drag Egypt into a war.

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