The assassination of Hezbollah's top commander Emad Mughnieh in a car bombing in Damascus on February 12, and its substantial repercussions, raise a big question: Are we on the verge of a new war?
With Mughnieh's murder, its timing, location and method, as well as with the subsequent threats by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah against Israel, it seems that our region is on the threshold of a possible war.
Nasrallah threatened Israel with an "open war" and vowed to avenge the death of Mughnieh, which he believes will bring about major changes in the Middle East and "mark the beginning of demise" of the Israeli state.
Addressing his supporters, Nasrallah said: "I swear to God that Mughnieh's blood will not go in vain," and predicted the disappearance of Israel. This is a clear sign that a war will break out in the region. The rising tensions and security concerns in the region will probably lead to more divisions between Arab countries.
Mughnieh's assassination drew different reactions from Arab governments, which are deeply divided between two camps - the American camp and the Iranian camp. Meanwhile, the Arab street appears to be even more deeply entrenched in its divisions.
For instance, Kuwait saw a sectarian divide over the assassination of Mughnieh after two Shiite parliament members held a ceremony to eulogise Hezbollah's slain commander.
The ceremony drew condemnations from Kuwaiti's majority Sunnis, who accused Mughnieh of the 1988 hijacking of a Kuwait Airways flight that left two Kuwaiti passengers dead, and the assassination attempt on the Kuwaiti Emir in 1985.The Kuwaiti government criticised those who took part in the rally amid popular calls for stripping the membership - even citizenship - of the two Shiite MPs, especially given that the government had earlier stripped Sulaiman Bu Gaith, a top Al Qaida leader, of his citizenship.
The repercussions of Mughnieh's killing spread across Kuwait, Lebanon, Tel Aviv, Baghdad, Damascus, Washington and Tehran, which reacted differently to the fiery statements of Nasrallah who declared open war against Israel under new game rules.
Nasrallah made it clear when he spoke about a borderless war after Israel crossed the borders and killed Mughnieh in the Syrian capital, outside the natural battlefield.Speaking of a war that goes beyond geographic borders brings us closer to a war scenario being drawn up in the region.
In Lebanon, the political rift is deepening between the pro-government group and the Hezbollah-led opposition.
This is reflected by the exchange of accusations between the leaders of both sides.The pro-government group refers to the opposition as evil gangs and dark forces affiliated to the Syrian regime, while the opposition in turn brands their rivals as Washington's allies.
The conflict between the two sides was manifested clearly on February 14 when the Lebanese were divided into two rallies, one gathered in the Martyrs Square to commemorate the third anniversary of the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, while the Hezbollah supporters took part in Mughnieh's funeral.Even more, the failure of the Arab plan to resolve the presidential crisis is another source of concern.
Also, the calls by the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments on their citizens not to travel to Lebanon, as well as the threat to bomb the Kuwaiti embassy in Beirut and the closure of two French cultural centres, will contribute to the deteriorating situation in the already paralysed country.
Change in rules
Mughnieh's assassination would only accelerate the confrontation with Israel and the US, which changed the rules of the game. Backed by General Michael Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah believes that victims of aggression have the right to defend themselves, while Nasrallah insists that Mughnieh's assassination will mark the beginning of Israel's elimination.
This was reiterated by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohammad Ali Jafari, Commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards, who sent to Nasrallah a cable of condolences describing Israel as a cancerous cell that will be removed by Hezbollah.
Moreover, US President George W. Bush has fanned the confrontation by imposing new punishments on Syrian officials, including Rami Makhlouf, cousin of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
Bush also doubled the US financial support to $14 million for the international tribunal into the Hariri killing, while Syria said it had many options to retaliate against the US penalties. Iran expressed its anger at Mughnieh's assassination by sending an official delegation, led by Iranian Foreign Minister Manocher Mottaki, to attend the funeral, and by sending cables of condolences to Nasrallah.
Meanwhile, Tehran announced that the Iranian president would visit Baghdad, which is under "the US protection", and cancelled a meeting of Iranian experts with their American counterparts.The situation escalated between the two countries after the US accused Iran of supporting armed groups in Iraq, which may lead to increasing violence that coincides with the withdrawal of some US troops from Iraq in the summer.
If the cycle of violence in Iraq captures the headlines in the US media again, the chances of Republican candidate John McCain winning the presidential race will weaken. So, the question arises: Will Mughnieh's assassination be a ticking time bomb that threatens the region with a devastating war to determine the results of the struggle between the US and Iranian projects?No matter what the outcome of this struggle will be, Arab territory will be the battlefield and the Arabs will be the victims.
* Published in the UAE's GULF NEWS on February 25, 2008. Dr Abdullah Al Shayji is a Professor of International Relations and Head of the American Studies Unit