On May 30, 1967, King Hussein of Jordan arrived in Cairo. Although a victim of numerous recent coup attempts by Nasserites, the King embraced Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. The Egyptian-Jordanian Mutual Defense Treaty both leaders signed later that day brought Jordan into the fold, and thus removed the last hurdle in the Egyptian-Syrian designs for a regional war the Arab leaders believed would finally destroy Israel.
Arriving in Cairo on that fateful day, King Hussein had no illusion about the impending defeat Jordan would suffer in the imminent and inevitable war. Yet, Hussein knew he had no other choice: Had he not joined the Nasser-led campaign, he would have been overthrown. Hussein later described his motives for going to Cairo and the ensuing Six Day War: "The atmosphere that I found in Jordan, particularly in the West Bank, was one where, frankly, we had the following choice: either to act at the right time with no illusion of what the results might be but with a chance to do better than we would otherwise, or not to act and to have an eruption occur within which would cause us to collapse and which would obviously immediately result in an Israeli occupation of probably the West Bank or even more than the West Bank, and we never separated the West Bank from the rest of Jordan or the Arab world in anticipating such action. That was really the reason why I went to Egypt to meet Nasser to his surprise." The horrendous effects of the ensuing Six Day War King Hussein was talked into joining during that fateful visit still haunt the King of Jordan.
On July 29, 1997, some 30 years later, a wizened King Hussein refused a similar offer from President Husni Mubarak of Egypt to join a building regional arrangement in preparations for a forthcoming confrontation with Israel. This time, however, it is President Mubarak of Egypt who plays Hussein's 1967 role -- the facilitator of a far-reaching alliance that makes a regional war possible. On his July 29 sudden visit to Damascus, President Mubarak agreed to the formation of a new military alliance with Syria, Iran, and Iraq. And just like King Hussein of 1967, President Mubarak of 1997 believes he is compelled to join this regional order in order to avoid an Islamist eruption at home, particularly when the alternative is an Islamist guarantee for a unilateral cease-fire for as long as Cairo remains committed to the anti-Israel Jihad. However, irrespective of Mubarak's real motives, his actions in Damascus propel the Middle East ever closer to a regional war.
The significance of Mubarak's visit and ensuing momentous events is best comprehended in the context of preceding recent events.
The final dash to the current strategic maneuvering began in Tehran in early July with a myriad of high-level consultations. Most important were discussions between the ambassadors of Syria and Palestine (Arafat's representative) and the Iranian political and military leadership. Both ambassadors were provided with extensive briefings and analysis of "the sensitive situation" throughout the Middle East, and particularly the explosiveness of the current Palestinian situation. Both concurred with the Iranian conclusion that "armed struggle" was "the only way to liberate Jerusalem from the claws of usurping Zionists."
Follow-up strategic discussions took place in Damascus in mid July at the Vice-President level. The leading interlocutors were Iranian Vice President Dr. Hassan Habibi, who is responsible for strategy formulation, and Assad's Deputy Abd-al-Halim Khaddam. The Syrian and Iranian delegations reaffirmed their conviction that the Middle East is fast moving toward war for there is no other conceivable breakout from the deadlock. Both Tehran and Damascus also concur that it is imperative to consolidate a regional military alliance in order to be able to overwhelm Israel if the Arabs/Muslims are to prevail, let alone win.
Meanwhile, Tehran also discussed a host of bilateral measures to reinforce Syria's military power. One measure offered by Tehran is to contribute the almost 150 ex-Iraqi warplanes, most of them MiG-21s, MiG-23s and MiG-29s, to the Syrian Air Force. The Iranians, as well as seconded Syrian pilots, have been flying these aircraft sparsely and consider them in operational status. Moreover, on July 28, Syria and Iran signed a new agreement "on expanding air transport". The agreement regulated additional flights from various parts of Iran to Damascus -- in other words, provided a cover for an airlift.
Concrete measures were also undertaken to expand the alliance. Between early and mid July, high-level representatives from Iran, Iraq and Syria conducted several rounds of secret discussions in order to form a tripartite alliance. While Tehran is fully aware of the strategic imperative of maintaining on-land access to Syria and contribution the Iraqi armed forces can make to the war effort, Tehran has nevertheless remained apprehensive about the political rapprochement with Baghdad Damascus considers to be an integral component of the tripartite axis. Iran would prefer to reduce Iraq's political prominence, and thus rehabilitation. Therefore, Syria suggested to Iran that Egypt be brought in as a central members of a regional alliance and a counterbalance for Iraq.
With Tehran's blessing, Damascus embarked on a series of secret and intense discussions with Cairo. The initial phase was completed around July 20, winning Mubarak's personal approval. On July 22, President Husni Mubarak revealed the Iranian interest in "military cooperation with Egypt" in order to confront the growing military ties between Turkey and Israel. In what was supposed to be a closed speech to honor graduates of the military and police academies, President Mubarak stated that Iran "has tried to establish military relations with Egypt." He added that although Egypt "cannot take an immediate decision on this matter because we do not rush into such decisions," Cairo would not rule out such a regional alliance.
The leak of what was supposed to be a closed speech by Mubarak was hotly denied by both Tehran and Cairo. However, on July 26, Tehran's key newspapers editorialized on what IRNA termed "improvement in Tehran-Cairo relations to counter the Zionist expansionist policies." Tehran's official media reported that "Iran believes that Israel is a usurper and an oppressive regime" and that the danger it constitutes to the entire region is rapidly growing. "More than any time in the past, Egypt now knows the real nature of the Zionist regime," Tehran explained. Moreover, "not only Egypt, but other regional countries should be invited to devise a collective and comprehensive policy to combat the tyrant Zionists and redress the grievances of the Palestinians, and all other Arabs." Tehran stressed further that "if all the oppressed, with Iran in the front line, join hands, Zionists will become increasingly vulnerable."
Significantly, these sentiments were also echoed by several Arab officials in Western Europe and the Gulf States known to be close to Cairo. These officials noted that they "would not be surprised" by the emergence of a regional military alliance including Egypt, Iran, Syria and other Arab states. These officials anticipate "a major [Iranian] rapprochement occurring with Egypt in the event of dramatic developments in the region, as these could result in extensive Egyptian-Iranian-Arab military coordination even before normal diplomatic relations between Cairo and Tehran are restored." As before, the estimates of these highly placed, well connected and well informed officials proved very accurate. Actually theirs' were no speculations but trial balloons floated on behalf of Cairo in order to test the reaction of Washington -- completely ignoring -- and the Arab World -- a warm yet tacit endorsement -- to the possibility of such an alliance materializing.
President Mubarak resolved to move fast. On July 29, he embarked on a sudden and brief visit to Damascus. The declared goal of the visit was the pursuit of "joint coordination between the two Arab states". These were issues of importance meriting lengthy discussions between the two leaders as well as several teams of senior officials. High on their agenda was exchanging views on regional developments that are affecting both the strategic stability and the future of the peace process. According to President Mubarak, the discussions did not challenge President Hafiz al-Assad's perception that there is "no hope for moving forward the Mideast peace process and establishing just and comprehensive peace in the region." Mubarak concurred, explaining that "the alternative to peace after a period of stalemate would likely be dangerous, not just for a single country, but for all countries in the region including Israel." Both leaders agreed on practical modalities for implementing the regional military alliance advocated by Iran.
On his way back to Cairo, President Mubarak made an unplanned stop in Amman. King Hussein left Israel's foreign minister David Levy in order to go to the Amman airport for brief and urgent consultations with Mubarak. The King received a briefing on the just finished discussions with Assad. Mubarak urged Jordan to join the emerging regional order, but King Hussein declined. Jordanian officials would later deny that President Mubarak had even discussed the Syrian-Iranian-Egyptian alliance with King Hussein.
A constantly recurring theme in the Arab-Iranian scenarios for a future regional war, is the role of the PLO as the instigator of fighting through provocations -- spectacular terrorism -- at the heart of Israel. Now, time was ripe for briefing the PLO leadership about the progress in the negotiations toward a region-wide military alliance and possible slide toward war. According to several high-level PA/PLO sources, Arafat was briefed by Egyptian officials about their plans. "Egypt, Syria, and Iran have formulated the final guidelines of a tripartite alliance that is expected to expand in the future and include Iraq," PA officials told the PA's primary organ Al-Hayah Al-Gadidah. The main achievement of the Damascus Summit was Mubarak's obtaining from Assad "concise and clear answers" for all of his questions concerning the Syrian-Iranian contingency plans. Mubarak was satisfied and affirmed Egypt's joining the alliance. Egyptian senior officials briefed their Palestinian counterparts that Damascus already initiated subsequent steps aimed to upgrade the tripartite cooperation plan into the level of a comprehensive alliance covering political, military, and economic dimensions. This alliance, the PLO was told, would dominate the strategic dynamics and posture in the Middle East.
July 31 is a major date on the Syrian calendar: The Armed Forces Day is a sacred day for the Ba'ath elite, particularly the former senior officers at the top, including President Assad, if only because the military is the prime guarantor of their survival in power. However, on July 31, 1997, the key note speech for the Syrian High Command was delivered not by Hafiz al-Assad but by the Chief of Staff, General Hikmat al-Shihabi.
It was a very important speech, anticipating a major war for the liberation of the Golan Heights. "Syria will not give up a grain of its soil. Our Armed Forces will fulfill their obligation, and will return the Golan to us unless this is attained through peaceful means," Shihabi declared. Syria outrightly rejects any framework of peace that does not have the complete return of the Golan as a precondition. Since such a plan does not exist, war is increasingly likely. Shihabi is very confident about the prospects of such a war. "Israel is afraid of the Syrian Army because it is aware of the heavy losses it can inflict in case of a conflict. The [Syrian] Army is ready to confront all of those who threaten the security of Syria and Arab security as a whole." This was a subdued introduction of the regional factor. Shihabi stressed that the likelihood of war was growing. "The daily provocations of the Netanyahu government against the Arabs create tension, and lead the region into a dangerous escalation, that no one can predict its dire consequences and outcome." Damascus has no doubt about the successful outcome of such a confrontation. "Israel will pay heavy price if it acts stupidly and attack Syria," Shihabi stated again.
The most important point in Shihabi's speech was his explanation why President Assad was not delivering the main address. President Assad, Shihabi told the audience, was in Tehran on a major surprise and supposedly secret visit. The objective of this visit is to discuss "the strategic relations" between the two states. Assad's visit will comprise of two days of intense meetings. According to Syrian officials, Assad's visit was necessitated by sudden developments of such importance that the Iranian leadership had been informed of Assad's impending visit only a few hours before Assad and his entourage flew to Tehran.
The unique importance of Assad's visit is reflected by the sheer size of the Syrian delegation. Assad brought with him some 300 senior officials -- including most of the Syrian cabinet, as well as senior military officers, security and intelligence officials -- who arrived in three aircraft. Iranian officials explained that Assad's visit would concentrate on addressing "central regional issues [and] Tehran-Damascus ties" in the context of formulating proper responses to "the aggressive acts of the Zionist entity". Arab officials (mainly Egyptian and Palestinian) were briefed by their Syrian counterparts that the Tehran Summit would be "of utmost importance, especially in the current conditions experienced by the region."
The highlight of the visit, which made it necessary in the first place, was Assad's breaking the news of Mubarak's agreement to join the alliance with Iran as a key member. As a major power, Egypt will more than counterbalance Iraq -- an Iranian concern. The huge Syrian delegation then went to work, addressing with their Iranian counterparts all practical aspects of the new strategic reality -- the forthcoming escalation and, possibly, war.
Appearing on Iranian and Syrian TV, Iran's most senior leaders left no doubt about the theme of their summit with President Assad.
Israel "is an illegitimate entity ... and its nature is against peace," Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i, Iran's Spiritual Leader, told President Assad in a meeting shown on Iranian TV. It is therefore imperative for the Arab States to "correct their stance towards [Israel] and the so-called Middle East peace process" considering it has already "proved to be fruitless and an illusion." Instead, Khamene'i urged the entire Muslim World to unite and better coordinate a joint effort to "confront threats by their enemies" -- namely, Israel and the United States.
Iran's outgoing President, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani was even more explicit in a statement carried by Syrian TV. "The circumstances of the region require a Syrian move," he told Assad. Hashemi-Rafsanjani alluded to the summit's milestone achievements by referring to a joint Iranian-Syrian "initiative" the leaders discussed. "We consider this initiative important to carry out an Arab-Iranian action that faces head on the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim alliance headed by Israel and the United States." [sentence as received -- YB] Hashemi-Rafsanjani added that during the summit, the Iranian leaders "stressed the need for [armed] struggling against the Zionist regime," and promised Syria and all other participating Arab states and organizations all-out support.
By late July 1997, Iran and the Arab World have been convinced that conditions throughout the Middle East are uniquely conducive for a major onslaught on Israel. The prevailing Arab perception is that of a uniquely vulnerable Israel. That Israel is torn from the inside is demonstrated by the raging debate over the prospects of peace and the proper reaction to Arafat's terrorism and the consequent polarization of the Israeli public. Moreover, Israel is considered militarily weak and thus vulnerable as evident from the Knesset's own findings about shortcoming in the IDF. Taken together, these are circumstances appealing for an Arab strike -- a strategic logic identical to that of the eve of the Six Day War some 30 years ago.
And the similarity of strategic dynamics between 1967 and 1997 does not end here. Analyzing the slide to war in the Spring of 1967, King Hussein stressed that the real objective of the PLO was to instigate a regional war. Arafat and his lieutenants knew they could not challenge Israel. However, they were convinced they could provoke a regional war -- instigating a crisis through terrorism and subversion -- in which the Arab Armed Forces would destroy Israel for them. Nasser's confidence in the Arab military might, especially if a region-wide coalition was consolidated, emboldened Arafat and the PLO leadership of early 1967.
Apparently, the bitter lessons of 1967 elude Arafat and his lieutenants. In the Summer of 1997, Arafat is once again contemplating the instigation of a regional war through terrorism. This time, the leading driving forces are Syria and Iran, and they have already unleashed the Islamist terrorists they control and sponsor to support Arafat. The cycles of terrorism and violence have already pushed Jerusalem into considering drastic measures that can provide the new Arab-Iranian alliance with a casus belli.
However, as was the case in 1967, it took a dramatic visit to cement the regional alliance and propel the Middle East to war. King Hussein's May 30, 1967, visit to Cairo unleashed the Six Day War. Will President Mubarak's July 29, 1997, visit to Damascus prove equally fateful?
Yossef Bodansky is the Freeman Center's World Terrorism Analyst