CAIRO — THROUGHOUT the Middle East, Arab leaders resigned to the inevitability of war are fearful of the profound changes such a war could unleash. ``This area will not be the same as before,'' says Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid.
``This crisis will have a ripple effect,'' agrees a Western diplomat in Damascus. ``The established order is being challenged.... A lot of regimes are going to be shaken.''
Arab analysts point to probable short- and long-term effects of war that could radically alter the region's military, economic, ecological, and political balance.
The most obvious consequence would be the physical and human losses in Iraq, expected to be the target of overwhelming air-strikes by the 2,500 jet fighters gathered in the United States-led multinational force, by missiles launched from ground and sea, and perhaps by a massive ground assault.
Never in the history of warfare has such destructive power been concentrated on such a focused target. Many of the weapons, such as cruise missiles and other advanced munitions, have never been used on human targets.
While their effects on human life are hard to gauge, many experts estimate that in the event of a protracted conflict, Iraqi casualties could range into the tens of thousands - not least because military facilities in densely populated central Baghdad will be among the first targets.
``That's the logic of war,'' says a senior Egyptian military source in Cairo. ``War is war.''
Hostilities could also have dramatic economic effects by increasing the price of oil and - in the worst-case scenario - jeopardizing long term supplies.
Some economists predict that a conflict could send the price of oil to $80 per barrel - far more than twice its current price. If Iraq makes good on its threats to burn out Kuwait's oil wells and contaminate Saudi supplies, prices could skyrocket, devastating third-world and East-European economies and perhaps plunging the West into a depression.
Torching Kuwait's oil wells could also produce devastating ecological consequences, warns a report issued recently by Germany's Max Planck Institute.
According to the report, oil fires could create huge clouds of soot that would enshroud much of the Middle East in darkness and cool the world climate, endangering harvests and food supplies.
``The burning of so many oil wells could mean a global, certainly regional, climatic and environmental catastrophe,'' according to Prof. Paul Crutzen, director of the institute's division of atmospheric chemistry.
Politically the conduct of the war and its longer-term effects will depend heavily on whether Israel plays an active role in the conflict.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has threatened to launch missiles against the Jewish state, and although the US has urged the Israeli government to show restraint in such an event, Israeli Cabinet minister Ehud Olmert insisted on Jan. 13 that ``it was a long tradition of Israel never to allow anyone to fight for us.''
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa has said Damascus will ``stand very firm'' with any Arab country, including Iraq, attacked by Israel. Egyptian and Jordanian officials have been deliberately ambiguous about their positions, but the coalition would be badly strained should a campaign to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation develop into the sixth Arab-Israeli war.
Even if Israel is not involved, a US victory could unleash a wave of political radicalism, threatening Arab regimes friendly to the US and complicating President Bush's hopes for a ``new international order,'' local and foreign analysts agree.
``The backlash of war will allow Muslim fundamentalists to surface and become the dominant force in Jordan, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia,'' says Palestinian editor Hana Seniora. ``The US would be unleashing a genie. You don't know what the repercussions will be.''
The Christian-Islamic overtones of any war between Iraq and the US could cause an explosion of fundamentalism in North Africa.
``If there is a war, many Arab regimes will not be able to stay before their peoples,'' adds Jordanian Prime Minister Mudar Badran. ``There would be deep-rooted and fundamental changes... The US would lose these friendly regimes.''
Among regimes friendly to the US, the threat appears greatest in Gulf states and Jordan. Any unrest in Syria could be controlled by the security and armed forces, diplomats there say. Even in Egypt, where support for the government remains solid, war could produce ferment.
The backlash could also threaten nascent movements toward political and economic liberalization that have led to parliamentary elections and free-market reforms in countries ranging from Jordan to Algeria.
``One should not underestimate at all the backlash of a war,'' says Mohammed Said Ahmed, a leading Egyptian intellectual.
The mood of Arab frustration would be exacerbated if, after the war, Israel and the US resist pressures to bring the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to an international Middle East peace conference.
One side effect of the frustration produced by the defeat of an Arab regime by Western forces would likely be a proliferation of terrorist attacks against pro-American Arab regimes as well as Western targets such as embassies, airlines, and military bases.
``The Arab street will see in Iraq another victim of an imperialist-zionist plot,'' says Mr. Ahmed. ``It need not start at once, but there will be widespread terrorism for a start. Destabilization will be widespread throughout the region, including Egypt.''
``The frustrations would be transferred onto the United States,'' says Charles Kimball, professor of religion at Furman University, South Carolina. ``People will talk in terms of what the US did to the Arab people.''
This will have a profoundly negative effect on Arab attitudes to the US, warns former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Qasem.
``An American victory at the end of the day will mean no oil, no credibility, no humanity, no morality,'' says Mr. Qasem. ``This is the irony of American gunboat diplomacy. Your victory is your total loss.''
Searching for a silver lining in the storm clouds of war, Arab sources point to one likely beneficial result of the Gulf crisis - renewed efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
``Things will have to move and move fast,'' says a senior Egyptian official. ``When the international community prevails as it is prevailing today, it will have to prevail on another issue - the Palestinian issue.''
Western diplomats in the region agree. Without supporting Saddam's notion that the Gulf crisis should be formally linked to a resolution of the Palestinian issue, they point to the strong pressures that will emerge to deal with the Palestinian issue after the crisis.
``The international community will have to address the sense of past injustices in the Arab world, especially the Palestinian question,'' says the Western diplomat in Damascus. ``The great by-product [of the crisis] will be much more determined, incisive thinking on the Palestinian question.''