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Syria, Iran stand to the side, watching

Mideast powers seen as behind kidnapping, using clash to their advantage
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iran’s warning against any Israeli retaliation on Syria and its taunts that Israel can’t hurt Iran highlight what many see as the real hand behind Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers.

At the White House and in Arab capitals, the belief is strong that the Mideast’s top two hard-line states, Iran and Syria, are playing a dangerous game to increase their influence. However, analysts say it could backfire and weaken Hezbollah, and by extension its two patrons.

“We would be idiots if we believed it was only about the Israeli captives,” Hazem Saghieh, a senior Lebanese columnist with the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, told The Associated Press.

“The issue, at the end of the day, is all about Syria and Iran, and Hezbollah is just giving them more trump cards,” Saghieh said.

Wednesday’s seizure of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah guerrillas came at a time of mounting tensions between the two Mideast powers and the West.

Iran is embroiled in a diplomatic fight with Europe and the U.S. over its nuclear program. Washington accuses Syria of sending insurgents to Iraq, interfering in Lebanon and hosting the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Syria is also believed to have been behind the collapse of a deal that would have led to the release of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas militants along Israel’s frontier with Gaza on June 25.

Iran and Syria, analysts say, believe the intensified violence will help strengthen their positions in their conflicts with the West and show they hold the key to a settlement of the Arab-Israeli issue.

The White House said Wednesday, hours after Hezbollah took the two Israelis, that it holds Iran and Syria responsible.

On Friday, French President Jacques Chirac implicitly suggested the two states might have a role in the expanding crisis, saying he has “the feeling, if not the conviction, that Hamas and Hezbollah wouldn’t have taken the initiatives alone.”

Moderate Arab governments like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia appear to have the same belief — though they haven’t said so outright because of a reluctance to show splits with fellow Muslim nations. Instead, it’s reflected in their mild criticisms of Israel’s air campaign in Lebanon and their indirect denunciations of Hezbollah.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Friday that Israel couldn’t hurt Iran in its campaign, declaring Israel and its Western supporters “do not even have the power to give Iran a nasty look.”

Earlier, he called Syrian President Bashar Assad and assured him that if Israel attacks Syria “it will be equivalent to an attack on the whole Islamic world and the regime (Israel) will face a crushing response.”

Ahmadinejad has often fanned anti-Israeli sentiment to bolster his image as a fierce opponent of the West, saying Israel should be “wiped off the map” and casting doubt on the Nazi Holocaust.

The Iranians “have an interest in fomenting as much trouble here as they can and think that it will benefit them somehow in terms of their ambitions in the region and ultimately how they resolve the nuclear question,” said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Mideast envoy.

“In the case of Syria ... they feel this makes them a factor, that people have to pay attention to them,” he said.

But they may have miscalculated.

In Lebanon, there is mounting resentment against the Hezbollah action, which has killed a tourism season many had expected to be one of Lebanon’s best.

If Hezbollah fails to win a prisoner swap for the soldiers and if Israel carries out its threat to push Hezbollah away from its border, the group will be blamed for the damage to Lebanon.

“Hezbollah will definitely emerge as a loser,” said Saghieh, the columnist for Al-Hayat. “It’s hijacked the country and is demanding the Lebanese pay with their lives for its actions.”

“The people and other political parties are going to demand that Hezbollah account for its actions since it has always claimed that its resistance offered us protection,” he said.

Paul Salem, director of the Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Hezbollah’s military presence in the south was seen by many Lebanese as a deterrent against any Israeli attack on Lebanon and even on Iran.

“But if you use your military power, you lose it,” said Salem. “It will no longer be a deterrent.”

While Iran doesn’t have a stake in seeing the violence end, Syria might “if they decide that it’s becoming more costly to them,” Ross said.

“That’s where the Saudis could play a major role,” by pressuring Damascus, he said.

Saudi Arabia has harshly criticized Hezbollah, without naming it directly, for escalating the situation, saying “uncalculated adventures” could precipitate a new Middle East crisis.