Thursday, December 28, 2006

Beware attacks on Syria and Iran

The first few months of 2007 could see a major escalation of the war in the Middle East, with attacks on Syria and Iran. That’s the view of the respected investigative reporter Robert Parry who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s. He has talked to his intelligence sources and thinks that George W. Bush will be tempted to "double-down" his gamble in Iraq by joining with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair to widen the conflict beyond Iraq. According to Parry, Bush's goal would be to transcend the hopeless position in Iraq, where US troops are bogged down, by achieving "regime change" in Syria and by destroying nuclear facilities in Iran. The Israeli army and air force would carry the brunt of any new fighting with the support of beefed-up US ground and naval forces in the Middle East. Bush is now considering a "surge" in U.S. troop levels in Iraq from about 140,000 to as many as 170,000. He also has dispatched a second aircraft carrier group to the coast of Iran. According to Parry’s intelligence sources, the expanded-war option which has been discussed in one-on-one meetings among the principals - Bush, Olmert and Blair. Since the November 7 congressional elections, the three leaders have conducted a round-robin of meetings that on the surface seem to have little purpose. Olmert met privately with Bush on November 13; Blair visited the White House on December 7; and Blair conferred with Olmert in Israel on December 18.

All three leaders are in a corner and desperate acts may seem to them the only way to recapture lost political legitimacy. Bush has lost control of Congress to the Democrats, largely as a result of the failure of the Iraq war; Blair is on his way out, also weakened by Iraq as well as domestic failures while Olmert has never recovered from Israel’s failure to smash Hizbollah in Lebanon. Bush has rejected advice from the Iraq Study Group to bring Iran and Syria into talks as part of the withdrawal strategy. He has continued to insist on "victory" in Iraq and now talks about waging a long war against Islamic "radicals and extremists," not just the original goal of defeating "terrorists with global reach". Blair last week called for "moderate" Arab states to isolate Iran in a further ratcheting up of the rhetoric. At his news conference on December 20, Bush suggested, too, that painful decisions lay ahead in the New Year and said that America had to demonstrate to the enemy that "they can't run us out of the Middle East, that they can't intimidate America". He added: "I'm not going to make predictions about what 2007 will look like in Iraq, except that it's going to require difficult choices and additional sacrifices, because the enemy is merciless and violent." So rather than scale back his neo-conservative dream of transforming the Middle East, Bush argued for an expanded American military to wage this long war. There is evidence that the White House has toyed with the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities but were overruled by the generals, who feared the consequences for US troops around the world. The joint chiefs of staff apparently also sense the end of the Bush era and want to keep their distance after having their fingers burnt in Iraq. They are also resisting the sending of more troops to Iraq without a clear strategy. But Bush is the commander-in-chief and the generals will ultimately have to do as they are told. One suggestion, according to Parry, is that the sending of more troops will be accompanied by a provocation that can be blamed on Iran or Syria, giving the excuse for a pre-emptive strike against those countries. The consquences of such an act will be far-reaching and totally unpredictable.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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