IN THE aftermath of
the summer war in Lebanon, the Middle East is haunted by the
hubris of two self-declared winners. Israel and Hezbollah, which
did the actual fighting, are both licking their wounds. But Iran
is in a triumphalist mood, as the rhetoric of President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad at the United Nations last week confirmed. And so,
it seems, is Hezbollah's other foreign sponsor, Syrian President
Bashar al-Assad. Countries around the region are responding to
what they see as the new strategic menace from Tehran; witness
Egypt's announcement that it would soon propose its own nuclear
program. But Syria is more likely to trigger a new round of
armed conflict in the near future.
The threat stems
from Mr. Assad's overt resistance to the U.N. Security Council
resolution that ended the war. Among other provisions, the
resolution mandated the expansion of a U.N. peacekeeping force
along the Lebanese-Israeli border and prohibited any state from
helping Hezbollah to rearm. Mr. Assad has denounced the
deployment of European troops as part of the U.N. force; last
week he described it as a Western plot to divide the Arab world.
More significantly, he has threatened that any deployment of the
force along the Lebanese-Syrian border would be treated by
Damascus as hostile.
Mr. Assad's bluster
has successfully deterred the Lebanese and Western governments
from taking serious steps to stop the traffic of arms and
explosives from Syria to Lebanon. The scores of roads and tracks
crossing the border have been the principal routes for missiles
and other arms supplies to Hezbollah. They also carry the bombs
that Syria's agents have used in a continuing assassination
campaign against Lebanese politicians who favor the country's
independence from Damascus.
Mr. Assad knows that
if he attempts to supply Hezbollah with new weapons he will
invite an attack by Israel, which has vowed to prevent any
resupply. The Syrian president even referred to that possibility
in an interview published last week. But he appears undeterred.
In a speech last month he declared that Hezbollah's "victory" in
the war had ushered in "a new Middle East," one in which the
"enemy" Israel would inevitably be defeated by force of arms.
When U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan arrived two weeks later
to ask for Syria's cooperation in implementing the resolution,
Mr. Assad treated him to "a diatribe . . . depicting the Western
powers as bankrupt and powerless," according to a report by
Warren Hoge of the New York Times.
Annan emerged from that meeting to tell the world that Mr. Assad
had assured him that Syria would take steps to secure the
border. The many statesmen who have tried to do business with
the Syrian president in the past -- such as former secretary of
state Colin L. Powell or Egypt's Hosni Mubarak -- have
discovered that such assurances are not only worthless but
deliberately mendacious. Yet Mr. Annan and the European
governments deploying troops to Lebanon are essentially counting
on those words -- rather than firm measures of their own -- to
prevent a new crisis in which their own soldiers would be at
risk. That's a lot to expect from a callow and corrupt dictator
who believes he is on top of a "new" Middle East.