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Experts say U.S. help is key in containing the violence
San Francisco Chronicle


July 14, 2006

As the fighting in the Middle East threatens to expand into a regional crisis, only one power seems to be able to contain the conflict, experts say: the United States.

"No one can do it except for us," said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. "If we don't do it, this thing can become a broader regional conflict."




After mostly watching from the sidelines as Israeli troops attacked Hamas strongholds in the Gaza Strip in recent weeks, the White House weighed in Thursday with strong support of Israel's attacks on Lebanon and a warning to Syria to rein in Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon and Hamas militants in Gaza.

But some experts say President Bush's diplomatic options may already be stretched too thin to mediate effectively and prevent major bloodletting.

The United States' ability to mediate as Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah "show that (they) can inflict greater harm on the other, and (are) not afraid of the harm that can be inflicted on them" is thwarted by Washington's lack of influence over any of the participants other than Israel, said Robert Malley, an expert on the region with the International Crisis Group.

"The real awkwardness is that the United States doesn't have leverage over (most of the warring) parties. It also has no contact with them," said Malley, who was a key member of then-President Bill Clinton's negotiating team at Camp David in 2000.

The United States considers both Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist organizations and refuses to deal with either of them. It is involved in a diplomatic standoff with Iran over that nation's nuclear program and has had no diplomatic relations with Syria since February 2005, when the Bush administration recalled its ambassador in an effort to pressure Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and to stop militants from crossing into Iraq.

"All they can do is engage in rhetorical diplomacy, asking parties to show restraint and telling Syria without talking to it that it needs to act responsibly. It only goes so far," Malley said.

Bush's support for Israel's actions also put on the line Washington's hopes the European Union would join it in condemning Iran's nuclear ambitions and North Korea's long-range missile test at the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, this weekend. Both the European Union and Russia sharply criticized Israel for its attack on Lebanon.

By siding with Israel, the administration is losing its standing with the Lebanese public and the fragile democratic government in Beirut - which once was Bush's poster boy for Western-style democracy in the Middle East, experts said.

"They believed that they were the center of the Bush administration's democratization program, and to suddenly have their international civilian airport bombed without much protest from the U.S. is pretty shocking for the Lebanese," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Clayton Swisher, an expert at the Middle East Institute who was in Lebanon last week, said the disillusionment with the United States there has been brewing for some time.

"Christians in Lebanon are trying to distance themselves from America and forging a Christian-Shia alliance," Swisher said, referring to Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group. "These things, they flash like wildfire in the region, much faster than the Bush administration can catch up with."

Yet, despite those limitations, experts agree that the United States is best fit to contain the conflict.

"As the people with the luxury of strategic thinking, we need to impose some sort of strategic vision ... because everyone else is flailing," Alterman said.

One way to help quench the conflict, he added, would be to use public statements to "get messages back and forth to Iran," which wants to establish itself as a regional superpower, and to talk to Hezbollah through the government in Beirut.

The administration also could urge Beirut to move Lebanese troops to the south of the country, where there currently is no government presence and Hezbollah fighters are in control, said David Makovsky, an expert on the region at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

This would reduce Hezbollah's influence in southern Lebanon, where Lebanese troops did not deploy because of the region's long-time occupation, first by Israeli troops, then by Syrian. "This is the moment in time to turn the crisis into an opportunity," Makovsky said.


E-mail Anna Badkhen at abadkhen(at)
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