Friday, July 28, 2006

Syria, Iran Made Defense Pact Before War

Eli Lake, The New York Sun:
Signs of a regional war engulfing the Middle East began to arise yesterday, with Israel entering its third week of war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Al Qaeda's top deputy promising reprisals.

Israeli strategic planners here say they are closely watching whether Iran will deliver on President Ahmadinejad's promise last week to make an announcement that would neutralize Israel's nuclear threat. READ MORE

During a briefing yesterday, an Israeli analyst also said it is believed that on June 16, nearly a month before Hezbollah's cross-border raid on Israel, Iran and Syria signed a mutual defense treaty following a meeting of their defense ministers.

The agreement, signed between Iran's defense minister, Mustafa Najjar, and his Syrian counterpart, Hasssan Turkmani, at the time was described as a "military cooperation agreement" by the London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute.

The paper quoted a statement from Mr. Turkmani as saying, "We are examining ways to counter these threats, and are establishing a joint front against Israel's threats." According to Israel and America, both countries are funding and facilitating the shipment of missiles to Hezbollah.

The prospect that Iran would come to Syria's defense should Israel bomb Damascus in retaliation for Hezbollah strikes came into focus this week after Iran's ambassador in Beirut promised to counter an Israeli attack on Syria with "full power."

While that statement was disavowed the next day by an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Israeli officials are saying the prospect of Iran becoming directly involved in the war between Israel and Hezbollah was one reason the Jewish state has refrained from striking Syria, whose territory has been a landbridge between Hezbollah and southern Lebanon.

"I think there is some kind of Iranian-Syrian defense treaty," the deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Patrick Clawson, said. "We don't know if they would enter the fray, or the details of the treaty. I think Iran's president would very much like to agitate to act on Syria's defense and send Iranian armaments to Syria." Mr. Clawson added that ultimately it was Ayatollah Khamenei's decision to make, not Mr. Ahmadinejad's.

Meanwhile, early signs that Sunni Wahhabi Muslims might stay out of the fight in Lebanon were shattered yesterday after Al-Jazeera aired a video of Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, promising his terror organization would "attack crusaders and Zionists."

In that message, Al Qaeda's deputy appeared alongside a photograph of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the dead Al Qaeda leader whose war against Shiite civilians in Iraq led Mr. Zawahiri to criticize his tactics.

Last week, The New York Sun reported a fatwa declared by a senior Saudi sheik ordering the faithful not to pray for, support, or join the Shiite Hezbollah.

Israel's war Cabinet met yesterday in Tel Aviv and decided to call up another 30,000 reservists. However, Defense Minister Amir Peretz also said the Jewish state had no plans to either attack Syria directly or expand the operations and bombing sorties on Lebanon. Despite the Israeli response, 78 rockets landed in Israel yesterday.

One factor in the building pressure for a wider war in the region is the failure of world powers Wednesday to reach an immediate cease-fire agreement after the White House for the most part rejected a proposal to stop the violence that was floated at a meeting of top diplomats in Rome.

President Bush has said he will not settle for an agreement that fails to address the root problem of Hezbollah, a position the Israelis have interpreted as a green light to continue their offensive against the militia's bases in southern Lebanon.

America's allies in the Arab world may be starting to turn in light of the failure to stop the war. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday declared, "Saudi Arabia warns everybody that if the peace option fails because of Israeli arrogance, there will be no other option but war."

On Sunday, the Saudi foreign minister said he was hopeful about efforts to reach an immediate cease-fire after a meeting with Mr. Bush. At the beginning of the conflict on July 12, Saudi, Egyptian, and Jordanian officials were critical of Hezbollah.

Today, President Chavez of Venezuela will arrive in Tehran for a three-day visit after securing an arms agreement with Russia that met criticism from the State Department for the prospect it would destabilize South America.

Mr. Chavez is set to meet with Mr. Ahmadinejad and other top Iranian officials. For the last two years, the Venezuelan president has said he feels an American attack on his country to be inevitable.