The Gulf: After the War

Securing Middle East Peace Involves Tackling Region's Longstanding Disputes

AS the guns fell silent in the Gulf war, the United States-led coalition turned to how best to move from an overwhelming military victory to a genuine regional peace. The seven months since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait have radically reshaped alliances, tattered the myth of Arab unity, boosted the power of the US and its Arab allies, and opened the door to the Soviet Union, Iran, and Turkey as key players in the region.

Of immediate concern are who will rule Iraq and how to ensure stability as the region's balance of power shifts. Kuwaitis will concentrate on rebuilding their country from scratch. The United Nations will decide on when to lift economic sanctions against Baghdad and how to help in the reconstruction of basic services.

Yet securing a postwar order will involve more than resolving the unfinished business of Iraq and Kuwait.

For those in the region, it means confronting long-standing problems such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, Lebanon's fragmentation, and a gap between wealthy and poor nations that has inflamed regional passions. It also means avoiding new security arrangements that smack of the imposition of Western interests.

The defeat of Iraq and the split in the Arab world seem to put Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia in the driver's seat as probable founders of a new Arab security force. Yet each government, to varying degree, faces pressures from its own population, as well as from other Arab states resentful of the prospect of renewed dependency on the West.

In Jordan and North African Arab nations - which had moved haltingly toward democratization - popular sentiments fueled by a historical sense of Arab humiliations pushed governments into neutral or pro-Iraqi stances. Now the question arises: Will there be reconciliation and a new search for Arab unity, or will those on the winning side opt for helping their friends and punishing their enemies?

What priority will be given to responding to Palestinian cries for self-determination? How will the UN's commitment to act be carried out, given anger at the Palestinian Liberation Organization for siding with Saddam Hussein? Will Israel grasp the opportunity to win an end to its state of war with Arab states in exchange for some give on its occupation of Arab lands?

And will the long-standing rift between the US and Iran finally be bridged? With their last-minute bid to win a political settlement, Iran and the Soviet Union aimed for a place at the negotiating table. The US accepts Moscow's role, and may be poised to deal with Tehran. And Syria seems positioned for a major role, despite the view by many that its regime is every bit as ruthless as Iraq's.

Arab coalition members are sorting out their postures this week as US Secretary of State James Baker III conducts shuttle diplomacy. Washington stands in a new relation to the region as the ally of major Arab states as well as of Israel. What it makes of these ties may hold the key to securing the peace and ultimately some form of stability in the Middle East.

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