By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Iraq’s Arab neighbors are worried about what happens when American forces depart the country. With Iranian influence and power on the rise and an escalating civil war in Iraq, the Arab countries are understandably concerned.
Those concerns are particularly acute in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. With the exception of Bahrain, all of these countries have a Sunni majority. They are concerned about an Iraq ruled by a Shia-dominated government with close ties to Tehran. In an effort to ensure that the post-American period in Iraq is not chaotic and detrimental to their own internal stability, several Arab governments have committed to help stabilize the situation in Iraq.
The proposal is called “Iraq for Land.” The United States has hoped for some time that the “moderate” Arab states (primarily Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) would use their influence among Iraq’s Sunnis to lessen the violence and convince them to participate in the unity government. That influence, in conjunction with increased American special operations in the volatile Al-Anbar governorate, is expected to have an impact in defeating the Sunni insurgency and on al-Qaeda-in-Iraq’s capabilities.
In return for their assistance, representatives from these Arab countries expect the United States to broker a restart to the Middle East Peace Process, ultimately leading to an agreement in which the Israelis withdraw from all Arab lands seized in 1967. This means the Golan Heights and Shabaa Farms (Syria), and the Gaza Strip and West Bank (Palestinians).
This might work, except…
In Lebanon, the Shebaa Farms issue is fiction perpetuated by Syria and Hezbollah, and at times by the Lebanese government. The real player here is Syria. Neither Lebanon nor Hezbollah has control over their own destinies; final approval for any moves will be granted in Damascus and Tehran.
Syria wants the return of the Golan Heights. Israel has been reluctant to return what has been for decades considered militarily strategic territory for Israel’s security. However, with advances in weapons technology, the Heights have lost their “high ground” importance. Israel will demand that Iran and Syria cease their support for Hezbollah, and likely ask for some international guarantees or confidence-building measures.
On the Syrian side, there has been disagreement on what actually constitutes the 1967 border, depending on which day in June of that year is used to determine the borders. It is not a simple process; it determines whether or not Syria has access to Lake Tiberias.
As for the Palestinians, the ultimate issue remains the future of Jerusalem. Israel cannot legally, and will not politically, withdraw to the 1967 borders and turn the area over to the Palestinians. Although previous negotiations have come close to a resolution of the Palestinian problem, there has never been a solution for Jerusalem.
A major problem in dealing with Palestinian issues is that there is no one group that speaks for all the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority is split into factions and there is a civil war developing between the Fatah faction led by President Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas faction led by Prime Minister Ismail Haniya. Haniya has stated as recently as December that Hamas will not recognize Israel.
That said, overall, the “Land for Iraq” proposal deserves serious consideration. The Arabs are not asking for a settlement to the issues in return for their assistance with the situation in Iraq - they are asking that the talks be restarted. While this is certainly possible for the Syria/Lebanon track, progress on the Palestinian track will be difficult to achieve, but worth a try. For the United States, any help in Iraq will be useful.