Ticking Clocks and ‘Accidental’ War

Alastair Crooke

An edited version of this article appeared in the October edition of US/ME Policy Brief, US/Middle East Project.

Whilst Washington looks at the Iranian prospects through the prism of a binary, to bomb or to acquiesce decision, facing President Bush over the remainder of his presidency, the actors in the region see the conflict as imminent and arriving in a roundabout way, through the backdoor – either via escalation of Western and Israeli tension with Syria; or from events in Lebanon, or a combination of both interacting with each other. All these key actors are convinced that conflict, should it occur, will convulse the entire region. They see the Wursmer ‘engineered’ war that ultimately will extend to Iran, as almost upon them; and they wonder at the silence from Europe and from informed observers in the US. Is it, they speculate, that everyone is so focused on Iraq, and so convinced that Iraq will be the arena in which the decision on Iran will be shaped, that they have forgotten to attend to the backdoor that David Wurmser (until last month Dick Cheney’s Middle East adviser) already has a foot around?

In an article in Salon.com on September 19, Steven Clemons describes a debate at a recent Washington dinner party attended by eighteen people at which “Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft squared off across the table over whether President Bush will bomb Iran”.

Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor to President Carter, Clemons writes, said he believed Bush’s team had laid a track leading to a single course of action: a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Scowcroft, who was National Security Adviser to Presidents Ford and the first Bush, held out hope that the current President Bush would hold fire, and not make an already disastrous situation for the U.S. in the Middle East even worse.

The 18 people at the party, including former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, then voted with a show of hands for either Brzezinski’s or Scowcroft’s position. Scowcroft got only two votes, including his own. Everyone else at the table shared Brzezinski’s fear that a U.S. strike against Iran is around the corner.

Clemons, who moderated the debate, argues that the case presented in terms of a ‘binary decision’ – of whether to bomb or not to bomb – is unlikely to lead to the decision to bomb Iran, for various reasons, resting mainly on the US military’s known firm opposition to extending conflict to Iran – given the US overstretch already affecting the US forces.

In his final paragraph however, Clemons suggests that “we should also worry about the kind of scenario David Wurmser has floated, meaning an engineered provocation. An ‘accidental war’ that would escalate quickly and ‘end run,’ as Wurmser put it, the president’s diplomatic, intelligence and military decision-making apparatus” – or, in other words, circumvent the evaluation process by creating an escalating crisis that would pull the US into conflict whose trajectory ultimately would be Iran.

The view from those most likely to be affected by such an ‘accidental’ war — Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah — is that conflict is imminent, and that any one of a number of regional ‘ticking clocks’ may be ‘engineered’ as a provocation that would by-pass the Pentagon chiefs of staff arguments against expanded conflict; and trigger war. All of these actors have been preparing flat-out against this expectation.

They see the circumstances of the Middle East as one of hair-trigger instability and escalating tensions. Equally significantly, there is a heightened inter-linkage between the various crises that suggests, as in 1912-14 in Europe, that some unexpected and relatively insignificant event – a ‘Sarajevo moment’ – could ignite currents and dynamics over which major states and movements would have little influence.

Iran, as well as leaders such as Hassan Nasrallah and Khaled Mesha’al, see the signs of preparations for conflict taking place in Israel. Major General Wolfgang Jilke, the Austrian commander of the UN Observer Force deployed on the Golan Heights – the disengagement line separating Syria and Israel – voiced his concerns in an interview with Der Spiegel on September 29, over the continuing military build-up on the Israeli side of the 75-km long buffer zone.

Jilke alerted public opinion to the danger of clashes breaking out due to Israel’s unprecedented concentration of troops and military build-up in the Golan Heights. He stressed that contrary to what is currently being reported in the Israeli press, the Syrian side has not enhanced its troops’ deployment and has remained absolutely quiet, whereas the Israeli side is going into the fourth month of continuous build-up, involving a massive surge of military exercises and an enormous construction activity. Furthermore, the Israeli army is digging many kilometers of trenches, which according to General Jilke, are clearly aimed at preparing for a military offensive involving heavy artillery and air force.

They read other signs: In a speech to mark Jerusalem Day on October 5, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, noted that in the last three weeks, Israel has expanded its over flight violations of Lebanon up to the Bika’a valley in the north “to an unprecedented scale at a time without war”.

These leaders in the region recall that it was the Israeli Prime Minister who, in spite of so volubly warning this summer of the risks that some extraneous incident on the border with Syria could cause a misreading of intentions sparking conflict between Israel and Syria, then, on September 6, launched an aerial incursion into Syria.

They watched also as the international community remained silent in the face of this fresh Israeli intervention. This, the same international community which was so quick to label Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers in July 2006, as an act of war justifying Israeli military response – even if some baulked at its scale – has remained silent at a similar act of war perpetrated against Syria.

This may, in the longer term, prove to have been the ultimate Israeli objective: Israel’s military experiment demonstrated that the diplomatic community was passive towards the Israeli action. The only condemnation came from North Korea and Iran. This may well in retrospect prove to have been a ‘Wurmser’ moment – a contrived ‘Sarajevo’: a testing of the likely International reactions to an ‘accidental’ war against Syria; or rather to a war that springs up unexpectedly from out of nowhere (fanciful stories of a hitherto unnoticed Syrian emerging nuclear threat), and from which point of ignition its architects’ confidently expect its flames may rapidly spread – to its ultimate target: Iran.

The Syrians saw on their radars the four Israeli aircraft that penetrated into Northern Syria from the Mediterranean; but they also saw the much larger numbers of Israeli aircraft that were flying in a holding position close to Cyprus. The Syrians had no intention of disclosing their anti-aircraft missile capacities to Israel; and the intruders continued without hindrance to drop munitions and their long-range fuel tanks without pressing any serious attack. The four aircraft then circuited to re-join the larger group still flying a holding pattern off Cyprus, before all returned to Israel as a single formation.

The Israeli objective remains a matter of speculation (no-one seriously credits the stories of North Korean nuclear malfeasance); but the general conclusion is that Israel was only ready to run such a risk against unknown air defenses either to test reactions; or, given the size of the numbers of aircraft off Cyprus, to destroy some target – possibly Syria’s long-range missiles – that for whatever reason they were unable to find, or destroy. The decision to risk such a mission, as Hassan Nasrallah noted in his October 5 speech, seems related in one way or another, to the prospect of future conflict — a prospect, European reactions suggest, that faces few impediments.

Observers here note again that some European states will have seen the attack on their radars (the UK has a sovereign base on Cyprus, and Germany has its warships off the coast of Lebanon), even though the incursion took place at very low altitude. Yet nothing was said.

This event however is only one among a series of ticking clocks, any one of which can be the one set to initiate the first stage of a widening conflict:

(i) Lebanon: The most immediate ticking clock is the need to nominate a new president in a process whose first step begun on September 23. Without a valid nomination approved by a 2/3 quorum of the Lebanese parliament as required by the constitution, the presidency, by default, falls to the government led by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora in a caretaker role – an outcome which both the incumbent president and the opposition have declared to be unacceptable.

The impasse between the government and opposition over the election, and the basis on which it should be conducted, has drawn the US administration into taking an ever more partisan stance – for example, by restricting the travel, and threatening the confiscation of assets of those who are considered to ‘undermine’ the legitimacy of the pro-Western Siniora government, and by hinting that US legislation may impact the candidature of General Aoun, the most well-known Christian contender for the presidency – a threat ‘justified’ on his alliance with Hezbollah, which the US describes as a terrorist organization. The US has made it plain that it will not accept a president emerging from the opposition coalition, which it regards to be pro-Syrian.

More ominously for observers, some March 14 (pro-government supporters) seem unperturbed at the impasse; disinterested in finding a solution and unwilling to seek any compromise, leading to speculation that they are awaiting some broad regional changes that would significantly weaken Hezbollah and Syria’s ability mount a challenge to the government coalition.

Equally, one foreign representative known to be close to the US policy thinking, has been linking the outcome of the presidential elections in Lebanon explicitly to the wider US objective of confronting Iran, warning forcefully in gatherings with Lebanese politicians and Arab ambassadors that reconciliation amongst the Lebanese is forbidden, because they should understand that they are at war with Iran. At the same time rumors abound of arms accumulating and of training camps sponsored by various political factions.

If the impasse continues, President Lahoud may decide to nominate a parallel prime minister who, in turn, would appoint a parallel government. Two governments, both claiming legitimacy, and a division of Lebanon into spheres of of control is a real possibility.

Were two governments to be established in Lebanon, especially at a time when Syria is again at the front of US, Israeli and European demonization, what will be the reaction of the US? Will Syria be held responsible for ‘bringing down’ the Siniora government? Will Israel see an opportunity to strike again at Hezbollah, in the context of escalating tensions with Syria? What would be Syria’s reaction be to Israeli intervention? What would be the response of Iran? And finally, how will this impinge on the quarter of a million Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who have become increasingly radicalized?

(ii) Syria: Syria is aware that its efforts to promote an engagement with the West have been dogged by a stronger dynamic seeking to demonize it, and to confine it within the ‘axis of evil.’ It is aware also that some Western policymakers see it as the weak link connecting Iran and Hezbollah.

Hassan Nasrallah is not be alone (See Joshua Landis’ Syria Comment of October 6), in pointing up as he did in his October 5 speech, a pattern of assassinations of pro-government figures in Lebanon that seem to put the so-called pro-Syrian opposition on the defensive whenever it is gaining power, or an initiative to solve a political problem is being launched.

Nasrallah’s carefully coded remarks suggest that Syria could not be putting it, and its allies in Lebanon, on the defensive so repeatedly – and always at a most critical moment. He listed a sample of three assassinations when the timing could hardly be worse from the perspective of Syria or of Hezbollah. Nasrallah plainly felt confident enough – “it is no longer a hypothesis” – to publicly declare his belief that Syria is innocent in all of Lebanon’s political assassinations. In the past, he was always cautious whenever he commented on this sensitive issue, allowing some ambiguity in his position. But by clearly siding with the Syrians today, he is siding against some prominent Lebanese who feel very strongly that ‘Syria did it.’ He is of course also going against conventional European opinion that invariably rushes to hint at Syrian responsibility.

The speech reinforces the sense of moving towards confrontation in Lebanon.

(iii) The Salafis: This is another ticking clock that might literally explode at any moment. The conflict with the Salafi group, Fatah al-Islam, based in Nahr El-Bared, north of Tripoli in Lebanon, has ended, but it is clear that there are a number of other Salafi groups operating in Lebanon which are drawing on components of Lebanese popular support centered around Tripoli – an overwhelming Sunni area where Salafi’ism has become established amongst poorer young Muslims.

Salafi groups are equally strong in Syria and in Jordan. It seems that a number of these Salafi groups that are in place are no longer combat units of the type we have seen in Nahr El-Bared, but are smaller sabotage units of 3-5 man cells. An unforeseen ‘Sarajevo-type’ assassination might unleash currents and dynamics that would be difficult to control at this time in the region.

(iv) The ticking clock in Iraq: Iranian officials understand that the message being relayed from US commanders to the administration in Washington is that to the extent they have an ability to tamp down violence, the only justification for the troop surge is to provide the space for political reconciliation by Iraqi politicians.

The Iranian fear is that the US might toy with engineering a new political leadership in Iraq, and is aware of US talks with Ba’athists and tribal leaders that have taken place in Jordan about the prospect of forming a new administration to replace Malaki’s government. The arming of the tribal leaders in Anbar, who are not the resistance – even if some of their tribal members are participants – is seen by Iran as a seeding of the ground for a longer-term civil war. These tribal leaders hate the Shi’i, loathe Iran and detest the Islamists who threaten to undermine the traditional structures of power.

For the Iranians, dispossession of the Shia in Iraq by the US – especially dispossession in favour of the Ba’athists – would be a red line. To cross it would result in a very different posture by the Shi’a militia and forces in Iraq against US and coalition forces there.

Iranians are also well aware that some spokesmen in Iraq are seeding stories of Iranian culpability in the killing of US troops.

(v) Pakistan: President Musharaf teeters at the edge of loosing control in Pakistan. He is facing widespread popular hostility for his closeness to the US and at the same time, the disapprobation of the US for not doing enough in the North West Frontier Province and in Waziristan against insurgents. The US and NATO seem likely to take independent action in the tribal areas. This risks bringing down Musharaf’s administration.

(vi) Turkey: As the Kurdish internal insurgency continues, sentiment in Turkey is pushing for military incursions into northern Iraq. So far, these have been held at bay by US military action against the PKK within Iraq. The PKK, however, are unlikely to be easily defeated in their mountainous terrain by US special forces, and conflict between Turkey and this group seems likely to break out sooner or later.

(vii) Instability in the West Bank: The present situation is probably unsustainable beyond the short term; either we will see a move towards negotiations between Fateh and Hamas, or we will see the events that were witnessed in Gaza coming to the West Bank, although in a slightly different form. It is wrong to assume that Hamas is powerless in the West Bank. In the last parliamentary elections in January 2006, Hamas won 4 seats to Fateh’s 1 in Rammalah; 4 seats to 2 in Nablus; 9 seats to 0 in Hebron and aggregating overall West Bank cities, Hamas won 30 seats to Fateh’s 12.

The West Bank clearly is different to Gaza in that Israel is deployed on the ground in the form of checkpoints and military outposts, but Hamas’ ability to raise the pressure in the West Bank should not be underestimated.

The US initiative to hold a conference penciled in for New York in November on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is largely discounted in the region. The senior Hamas leadership view this as a maneuver aimed principally at tying moderate Arab states support to Israel as part of the preparations for more aggressive action against Iran and Syria, rather than having a Palestinian state as its central purpose. Hamas has concluded that its central purpose is to provide cover for Arab states to be brought into coalition with Israel without unsettling their domestic populations too greatly. The assumption is that this conference could indicate the possible timing of conflict, which might follow soon after the sealing of a coalition.


  1. Mark Pyruz wrote:

    Don’t expect the Iranians to be provoked into firing the first shots of a war between the US and Iran. It is doubtful that the powder kegs outlined here are sufficient to ignite a war directly involving Iran. These scenarios pale in comparison to the 2nd Lebanon War, yet that didn’t come anywhere close to expanding over to Iran. Even the recent IDF/AF action into Syria does not possess the brazen aggressiveness of the supersonic sweep over the Assad residence, that took place back then. For a war to cross over the Iranian doorstep, the same type of aggressive assertiveness that characterized the opening phase of OIF will be necessary.

  2. […] Ticking clocks and ‘accidental’ war By Alastair Crooke, Conflicts Forum, October 14, 2007 […]

  3. […] Ticking clocks and ‘accidental’ war. Whilst Washington looks at the Iranian prospects through the prism of a binary, to bomb or to acquiesce decision, facing President Bush over the remainder of his presidency, the actors in the region see the conflict as imminent and arriving in a roundabout way, through the backdoor – either via escalation of Western and Israeli tension with Syria; or from events in Lebanon, or a combination of both interacting with each other. All these key actors are convinced that conflict, should it occur, will convulse the entire region. (Alastair Crooke, Conflicts Forum) […]

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