WASHINGTON — Fifteen days after it began, a mini-war between Israel and Hizbullah guerrillas in south Lebanon has thrown US Middle East diplomacy into a crisis unforeseen even a week ago.
The scale of the bombardment, combined with a strong Arab perception that Washington has given Israel a green light in Lebanon, creates a difficult new dynamic for US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, particularly with Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. Mr. Assad, who early this week seemed to snub Mr. Christopher, has been slow to help broker an agreement to end fighting that has so far claimed nearly 155 Lebanese civilian lives.
Even if a ceasefire is arranged (prospects were dim at press time), Middle East experts say American misreadings over the past week have led to at least a temporary loss of diplomatic leverage in the region. The war, which has created 400,000 refugees, spawns the potential for further Islamic political radicalization in the region. The Egyptian Islamic group Gamaa Islamiya, which killed 18 Greeks in Cairo last week (saying it thought the target was Israeli), claimed the attack was retribution for Israel's attack on Lebanon.
"If our desire is to show we are the key player in international politics, we haven't shown it in this crisis," says William Quandt, who helped draft the 1978 Camp David accords. "We sat too long on the sidelines, thinking this [war] was good for [Israeli Prime Minister Shimon] Peres. Now we can't be taken as an independent broker."
The shift is sudden. After world leaders gathered at a US-led summit in Egypt last month to combat international terrorism, Washington and Tel Aviv were riding high. Assad, who did not attend the meeting, was written off by many diplomats as isolated and weak. But with Lebanon overflowing with refugees after what is widely characterized as a war against civilians, Assad this week had seven foreign ministers camped on his Damascus doorstep, including the French, who tried to undercut the American effort with their own Lebanon peace plan.
A United Nations resolution (opposed by the US) that condemns Israeli attacks on Lebanon was expected to be approved by the General Assembly late Thursday.
Eventually, Damascus and Beirut are expected to fall in line with Washington, which alone represents Israel, the strongest power in the region. But American pressure on Assad to stop Hizbullah raids on Israeli troops in the so-called "security zone" in southern Lebanon is seen as unrealistic.
"I don't think Christopher and his advisers ever understood Assad. They think he should be doing something to strengthen Peres," says a Washington-based Middle East expert. "[But] Assad doesn't agree with our assessment that the world begins and ends with the [Israeli] Labor Party."
American diplomats emphasize their patience with Assad, demonstrated by the 20 trips Christopher has made to Damascus during his tenure to advance the Middle East peace process. Washington feels it should receive something for the credit it has built with Syria. Analysts here, such as Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, say the US should not "settle for anything less than a commitment from Assad to dismantle Hizbullah's military capacity."
But Arab diplomats say Christopher is not dealing with an Arab leader like Palestinian President Yasser Arafat or King Hussein of Jordan, who eagerly sought a US-brokered deal with Israel. Assad is not a politician ready to "give concessions to Israel for old times' sake," says one Arab official with contacts close to the Syrian leader.
THE impact of Israel's high-tech bombing in Lebanon, which this week destroyed water and power centers and humiliated the Lebanese, has emotionally unified Arabs in a way not seen since before the 1991 Gulf war, which split Arab opinion.
The Lebanon crisis is allowing Assad to emerge as the only leader capable of standing up to what appears to Arabs as American partisanship. "Assad is gaining tremendous stature in the Arab world," says Mamoun Fandy of Georgetown University.
At press time, significant differences remained between Israeli and Syrian positions on ceasefire terms.
Under the 1993 agreement brokered by Christopher, Israel agreed not to fire into southern Lebanon if Hizbullah stopped launching Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. Yet the '93 agreement allowed Hizbullah to continue military operations in the so-called "security zone" because Lebanese civilians lived there under Israeli occupation.
Sources say stopping Hizbullah's quick-strike raids, which have killed 60 Israeli troops in southern Lebanon, is the principle Israeli concern - not the aging Katyusha rockets that, while loud and frightening, have not killed a single Israeli civilian in recent weeks.