Other Middle East targets?

People in Syria and Lebanon are wondering if they, in addition to Iraq, may be targets in America's and Israel's "war on terrorism."

The chorus of European and Middle East opposition to President Bush's proposed regime-changing strike against Saddam Hussein's Iraq has induced a bad case of war jitters in the East Mediterranean neighborhood.

On Aug. 24, Syria's information minister called US accusations that Iraq is developing weapons of mass destruction "absurd," and charged that US threats target the "whole Arab world."

Anti-Iraq hawks in Washington frequently complain about terrorist activities in both Syria and Lebanon. Indeed, both countries harbor guerrilla groups, although they have actively proclaimed their cooperation with the US against Al Qaeda.

But editors of Syria's semi-official newspaper Al Baath and several other Middle East media claim that noises from Washington mean that Israel, backed by the US, will launch "preemptive" war on Lebanon and Syria, perhaps before any US-Israeli strike on Iraq. The object would be to "neutralize" old strongholds of the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah guerrilla movement and remaining Palestinian bases.

In Lebanon, Islamist interlopers commanded or influenced by Al Qaeda have been challenging Yasser Arafat's loyalists in the Palestinian refugee camps, where neither Lebanese forces nor Syrian Army units in Lebanon exercise any sway.

One widely held view among Middle East Arabs is that President Hussein's ouster by the US is part of a plan to strengthen Israel by creating puppet regimes in the Middle East, including in Syria and Lebanon. Lebanese commentators argue that the US could use pressure, followed by war against Iraq, to coerce other Arab countries either to support US armed action or face the Pentagon's wrath, on the grounds of being a threat to joint US-Israeli interests in the Middle East.

Reality, as seen in Lebanon and Syria, is light-years distant from the vision of Washington hawks. Most Lebanese are intent on restoring tourism and investment, and a peaceful return to the prosperity and relatively liberal democracy Lebanon once enjoyed.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and senior officials condemned the Sept. 11 attacks. They and Lebanon's senior partner, Syria, have helped the US detain and question people with ties to Al Qaeda and freeze assets of suspected Islamist extremists. Terrorist training camps in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley long ago moved to Afghanistan. Some suspected terrorist assets in Lebanese banks have been frozen. Last October, security forces thwarted planned extremist attacks on the US and British embassies in Beirut. Syria has arrested and extradited to Jordan at least one key Al Qaeda operative, and interrogated another wanted by the US.

The big problem for Washington is that Lebanese governments consistently support Hizbullah as a legitimate "resistance" organization. It helped push Israeli forces out of the country's devastated south in 2000. It operates schools, orphanages, and other welfare and charitable activities. Beirut officially ignores Hizbullah's alleged terrorist operations in Latin America and elsewhere abroad, both alone and in tandem with Al Qaeda.

US prestige is at a new low in the region because of America's perceived pro-Israel bias.

Should a new Middle East war occur, US cultural interests in Lebanon and Syria – such as the nearly 150-year-old American University of Beirut, the Lebanese-American University, and the Fulbright scholarship programs – might suffer (although most of these have been popular enough with the locals to survive past conflicts).

There are lively debates in Lebanon, and even somewhat in the far more rigid Syria, about democracy and human rights. In Lebanon, the Maronite Christian minority agitates and lobbies for the departure of Syria's 30,000 troops in the country. More discreetly, Maronites talk up their wished-for departure of Hizbullah.

President Lahoud, himself a Maronite, rejects such calls. He condones continued "resistance" against Israel's disputed military presence in a mountainous border district called Shebaa Farms, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights of Syria.

This volatile situation should require Washington and Jerusalem to curb war threats and renew efforts to relaunch negotiations for a comprehensive peace in the entire area.

• John K. Cooley is a former Monitor Middle East correspondent. The third, updated edition of his book 'Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism' has just been published by Pluto Books.

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