In Mideast war, stakes keep rising

A series of landmark wars shaped the modern Middle East. Will the the Israel-Hizbullah conflict reach that scale?

The Arab-Israeli Conflict of 1967. The Yom Kippur War of 1973. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon of 1982.

And now, 2006?

As the fighting between Israel and Hizbullah passes the one-month mark, it has grown from a skirmish into a swirling conflict with a geopolitical impact that could rival the iconic wars of modern Middle Eastern history.

At stake may be the US push for democracy in the region, the influence of radical Islamists in surrounding states, and the progress of Iran's nuclear program – not to mention the futures of both Israel and Lebanon.

"A fight that started as a dust-up between a local power and a nonstate actor may have developed into something with larger repercussions for everyone involved, including the United States," says Ellen Laipson, former vice chairwoman of the National Intelligence Council and current president of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.

As conflict rages, diplomacy crawls

The conflict's historical footprint may hinge on the outcome of this week's frantic diplomatic maneuvers. On Monday, President Bush called for quick UN approval of a cease-fire resolution, telling reporters at his Texas ranch that "we all recognize that the violence must stop."

But even as he called for peace, Bush resisted Lebanese demands that Israel immediately withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Such a move would allow Hizbullah time to regroup, Bush said. On Tuesday, Arab leaders were set to meet with Western diplomats to amend the plan.

The president's push for a cease-fire represents something of a change in US diplomacy towards the region. But it has taken weeks to reach this point – weeks in which civilian casualties have mounted on both sides of the fighting.

Under the US plan, a second UN resolution would approve deployment of an international force to the Lebanese border region.

"Whatever happens in the UN, we must not create a vaccuum into which Hizbullah and its sponsors are able to move weapons," said Bush.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has described the fighting as the "birth pangs" of a new Middle East. To the US administration, the conflict may be an opportunity to damage and discredit Hizbullah and its state sponsors, Syria and Iran.

But the US decision to, in essence, allow Israel time to continue its assault has sounded harsh to much of the Middle East. Anti-Americanism in the region was already on the rise, said Hisham Milhem, Washington correspondent for the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar.

Now, "it is the new religion in the Middle East," said Milhem at a recent conference at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Hizbullah and its backers may see the conflict in the same terms as the White House: an opportunity to mold the region in their own vision.

Just by fighting Israel and surviving, Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah and his fighters appear to have gained immense prestige among the surrounding Arab nations. The group's popularity threatens both Israeli safety and the Sunni Arab governments of the region, many of which have followed a policy of accommodating Israel's presence. A further spike in anti-Israeli sentiment could bode ill for the region's long-term stability.

"With conflict continuing, the radicalization of the Arab masses is going to become more pervasive, the sympathy for Hizbullah more extensive and, as a consequence, the prospects for a favorable outcome beyond some sort of ad hoc solution will be reduced," said former National Security Advisor Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski at a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies press briefing.

Meanwhile, some analysts have gone so far as to describe the current conflict as the possible beginning of a third world war or a much-anticipated "clash of civilizations."But other experts say such predictions are almost certainly overblown. It remains unclear, for instance, how much involvement Iran has had in Hizbullah's assaults. Islamists are far from a united movement, given that Al Qaeda is dominated by Sunni Muslims, while Hizbullah consists of Shiite radicals.

Same game, different players

As has often happened at key moments such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Middle East fighting has become entangled in America's larger geopolitical problems.

Back in 73, the problem was the cold war, as the US and Russia eyed each other nervously to see how the other would react to the fighting. In 2006, the conflict is aligned around Iran and its nuclear program.

In 2002, when Iran's undeclared nuclear activities were exposed, Iranian officials retreated to buy time and devise a new strategy, according to George Perkovich, nuclear proliferation expert and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

But as the US became mired in Iraq, the mullahs reversed their strategy. Since 2005, they have been on a "robust counter attack with only a few pauses," writes Perkovich in a recent report.

On August 6, for instance, Iran defied UN Security Council demands to suspend nuclear enrichment activities or face economic sanctions.

Meanwhile, Hizbullah's actions may be a signal of the chaos Iran can command.

"Attention and energy are diverted from the UN effort to isolate Iran, and the idea of accommodating Iran rather than confronting it starts to seem the least bad among no good policy options," writes Perkovich.

Iran's ultimate goal may be to become, not just a nuclear power, but the dominant indigenous power in the region.

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