WASHINGTON (AFP) — The Bush administration's campaign to isolate Iran and Syria has backfired as the two Middle East hardliners ended up this week sidelining the United States, analysts said.
Supported by Iran and Syria, Hezbollah bolstered recent military gains in a deal with Lebanon's pro-western government while Syria emerged from the shadows with the announcement of indirect talks with Israel, they contend.
For Brookings Institution analyst Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian scholar and dissident, both events flow from a broader plan orchestrated by "puppet master" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader.
"You end up realizing there is a strategy being worked out between Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, and they have actually managed to make quite strong headway in the last few days," Abdulhamid told AFP.
"The Iranians are running the show right now," he added.
Though President George W. Bush's administration may disagree with that, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice late last month mentioned Iran as a threat to Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Iraq and even in Afghanistan.
Few would dispute that Iran's regional influence has risen since 2003 when US-led forces invaded Iraq, overthrew Sunni leader Saddam Hussein and empowered once downtrodden Shiite Muslims close to Iran.
Some analysts disagreed with Abdulhamid and argued that Iran might ultimately find itself isolated over Syria's talks with Israel, but they all insisted that President George W. Bush's policies have backfired.
"The president spoke in Jerusalem a week ago about standing up to dictators and not appeasing those who used force," said Bruce Riedel, a former National Security Council staff quoted by The Washington Post.
"He isn't home a week, and the dictators and the forces of violence have triumphed," Riedel was quoted as saying.
And despite Rice's contention that Hezbollah was dealt a "setback" in Lebanon, the analysts insist it is the other way around: the US-backed government of Fuad Siniora suffered the reversal.
Under Arab League auspices, rival Lebanese leaders clinched a deal on Wednesday to end an 18-month political feud that exploded into deadly sectarian fighting two weeks ago and nearly drove the country into a new civil war.
The agreement will see the election of a president for Lebanon within days and the creation of a unity government in which the Hezbollah-led opposition will have the power of veto.
"What we have is not a complete win or loss, but a new accommodation, certainly with more influence for Hezbollah. So it's a nuanced outcome, but still it is a setback for the government," said Paul Salem, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In accepting a mixed picture, Salem, Abdulhamid and others give some credence to administration arguments that Hezbollah has lost popular support by turning its guns on fellow Lebanese rather than its traditional enemy Israel.
"Whether it has, in fact, suffered a strategic loss, in many ways we will only know with the result of the next parliamentary election," said Marina Ottaway, the director of the Carnegie Middle East program.
On the Syria-Israel front, Ottaway argued that Syria has put its own interests ahead of its alliance with Iran in a bid to recover the Golan Heights, which the Jewish state captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
However, Abdulhamid contends the Syrians will try to preserve the alliance with Iran, saying Israel is deluding itself if it thinks Damascus would cut ties not only with Tehran, but also Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas.
"The idea that they will give up on all of that in order to get the Golan is ludicrous," Abdulhamid said.
He said the best the Bush administration can do is to admit its losses, stabilize the situation and avoid doing "something crazy to balance things out" like launching a military strike against Iran.
It should be up to the next administration to devise a more realistic and effective policy.
But Abdulhamid also had words of warnings for Iran and Syria:
"They'll make a mistake if they got into the hubris themselves, and began saying 'oh we got our way,' because the reality is none of the problems have been solved."