The War's New Opportunities


This blog's favorite free-lance Middle East correspondent, Michael Totten, writes:

Obviously Hezbollah started this and Hezbollah is the main problem. Not only did they drag my second home into a war, the bastards also threatened me personally. So I hardly see the point in telling you what I think about them right about now. I'll get to them later.

I sympathize one hundred percent with what Israel is trying to do here. But they aren't going about it the right way, and they're punishing far too many of the wrong people. Lord knows I could be wrong, and the situation is rapidly changing, but at this particular moment it looks bad for Israel, bad for Lebanon, bad for the United States, good for Syria, and good for Iran.

I'm not so sure. The news today that leading Arab states have actually condemned Hezbollah and that Iraq's Sunni minority is now hoping that U.S. troops will stay longer adds to the changing dynamic in the Middle East. What we may be seeing is a nascent, wider regional war between Sunni and Shi'a, triggered by Iraq, fomented by an increasingly belligerent Iran, and portending what could be a far more explosive and long-lasting Muslim civil war. This is to over-simplify, of course. There are many nuances here. Syria and Iran are uncomfortable allies ideologically. But if the Syrian regime needs Islamism to cling temporarily to power, I guess they'll use it. All of this is troubling and dangerous, but also clarifying and, as with all such developments, subject to improvisational and tactical exploitation. Maybe the new closeness between the Iraqi Sunnis and the U.S. could be the critical breakthrough for a national government that can restrain the Shiite militias. Maybe the growing power of Iran might prompt the Saudis to be more cooperative with the U.S. on critical intelligence matters. Maybe, as my colleague Joe Klein speculates, this is really about an internecine power struggle in Iran between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei:

If this was an Ahmadinejad ploy, it might well backfire. The Israeli response has seriously damaged Lebanon economically. The Lebanese patchwork of constituencies that governs the country may now conclude that it can no longer tolerate a heavily armed Hizballah substate in the south. And if it can be proved that Iran instigated the mess, the members of the U.N. Security Council might be nudged toward a tougher stance on the nuclear issue—and the threat of international sanctions, which could have terrible consequences for Iran's oily economy.

I guess what I'm saying is that the situation is far too fluid to come to any quick decisions, or to prompt any hasty actions. But it may yield new openings we can exploit. This is when subtle statecraft can be most effective. Over to you, Zalmay.

(Gaza photo by Hatem Moussa/AP.)