Monday, August 7, 2006

War takes root

Lebanon: war takes root
By Paul Rogers

The combination of United States global strategy, Israeli determination and Hizbollah resilience mean only one thing: a long war.

The failure of the Rome summit on 26 July 2006 and the unwillingness of the United States to press for anything more than a minor pause in Israel's air offensive after the Qana tragedy on 30 July has not stilled the view in many western circles that the George W Bush administration will soon ensure a ceasefire in the Lebanon war. This ignores a key fact: Washington sees the war as a central part of the evolving global war on terror, with Israel as an absolutely vital part of that wider conflict.

On 1 August, Condoleezza Rice expressed confidence that a ceasefire would be reached in a matter of days following negotiations at the United Nations. This was almost immediately contradicted by the Israeli deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres, who expected it to continue for weeks. What is actually happening is an almost classic case of declaratory versus actual policy.

The declaratory aspect includes statements from some United States politicians, including Rice herself, that Washington seeks an early ceasefire. The actual policy is to back Israel for as long as it takes for the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) to take control of a substantial part of southern Lebanon. International opinion may eventually make that unsustainable, but the depth of the Bush administration's support for Israel's war should not be underestimated.

(image placeholder)The problem for Israel is that the IDF is finding it considerably more difficult than expected to bring the war to a conclusion on its terms. The original expectation was that the IDF would cripple the entire Hizbollah paramilitary system within ten days. This has not happened, though some Israeli politicians are (absurdly) claiming to have achieved this goal.

2 August was one of the most intensive days of Israeli military action, with Ehud Olmert declaring that the infrastructure of Hizbollah had by now been entirely destroyed, more than 700 Hizbollah command posts wiped out and the population forming the power base of Hizbollah in southern Lebanon displaced. On the same day, 231 missiles were fired at Israel, by far the highest figure of the three-week war, and it included further strikes on the city of Haifa; Hizbollah fired sixty-three missiles within a single hour, and one missile struck near the town of Beit She'an, seventy kilometres south of the border.

During the night of 1-2 August, Israeli special forces had raided a hospital near the town of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon, withdrawing several hours later with five Lebanese men they had detained. The most reliable information from Israeli sources was that the raid was intended to kidnap a senior Hizbollah figure, Mohammed Yazbek, who in the event was not in the area. His capture would have been a considerable boost for the Israeli government, not least because it would have demonstrated an Israeli ability to operate deep inside Hizbollah's areas of strength. That it failed in its main aim presents a further problem, in that Hizbollah will now ensure that any other vulnerable elements of its leadership will be rapidly dispersed and heavily protected.

Israel: three problems

Whatever Ehud Olmert might say, the reality of current Israeli policy is clear: it combines an air offensive to systematically degrade Hizbollah's logistics support and overall infrastructure, with the aim of securing a buffer-zone north of the Israeli border and extending up to eight kilometres into Lebanon (see Ze'ev Schiff, "Time is of the essence", Ha'aretz, 3 August 2006). This means that the original aim of completely destroying Hizbollah's paramilitary capabilities has effectively been abandoned, and it also means an acceptance that military action alone may not be sufficient to halt Hizbollah's capacity to fire missiles into Israel.

There are three further complications for Israel. The first is that the longer the war goes on, the more the support for Hizbollah within Lebanon grows, with this now extending well beyond the Shi'a community. At the start of the war on 12 July there was widespread criticism of Hizbollah in Lebanon for inciting the very heavy Israeli response to its border raid, but the systematic damage meted out to Lebanon's economic infrastructure by the Israeli air force has had the effect of transferring more and more of the blame to Israel.

A poll conducted last week by the Beirut Center for Research and Information – even before the deaths of the civilians in Qana – is significant here. It showed over 70% support for the capture of the Israeli soldiers and 87% support for Hizbollah's response to Israeli military actions (see Sami Moubayed, "Nasrallah and the three Lebanons", Asia Times, 2 August 2006). The problems of opinion research under current circumstances may limit the survey's reliability, but it was conducted across Lebanon's confessional groups – including Maronite Christian, Sunni, Shi'a and Druze – and it confirmed the views of many independent commentators within Lebanon.

The second problem for the IDF is that while large parts of the population of southern Lebanon may have taken refuge further north, many of the younger men (in addition to Hizbollah militiamen themselves) have stayed behind. One reason for this, which is hardly recognised outside of the region, is that wars involving Israel have the habit of making temporary refugees permanent. The experience of Palestinians, most notably in 1948 and 1967, is that refugees have ended up living in camps for generations. The blunt reality is that many Shi'a communities across southern Lebanon believe that if they all leave they may never be able to go back. As a result, many of the young men are staying, whether or not they are active Hizbollah paramilitaries.

The third complication for Israel is evidence that Hizbollah paramilitaries on the ground have a remarkably strong determination to resist the IDF (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "A new face to Hezbollah's resistance", Asia Times, 2 August 2006), This clearly has already been the experience of some IDF units, but the level of resistance will almost certainly develop well beyond what has happened so far. This means that if the IDF does take over an eight-kilometre buffer-zone, it will require a huge military presence to maintain control of it and thus will face a persistent guerrilla war.

The numbers of active Hizbollah units currently facing many thousands of IDF troops may only constitute a few thousand people, but there are tens of thousands more within the Shi'a communities of southern Lebanon, south Beirut and the Beka'a valley who might progressively engage in the coming weeks and months in the face of an Israeli presence within even a small part of Lebanon. Moreover, this war is seen across the whole region as an American-Israeli action against Islam – nothing less than a Zionist-Christian crusade – making it more than likely that a wider community of jihadists will, in due course, want to engage.

The prospect is more

In such circumstances, it is not at all likely that the Hizbollah leadership would accept a ceasefire followed by the insertion of a multinational force that is committed to its disarmament. Without Hizbollah's compliance, a multinational force is simply a non-starter. Too many countries would recognise the dangers of participating in an operation that would be seen across the region as operating on Israel's behalf.

Beyond this, there are two other factors involved. First, the missile strikes on Israel have had a marked effect on the Israeli perception of vulnerability. The country's much-vaunted secure borders have turned out to be anything but secure, and the effect on Israelis is certainly approaching that of the Iraqi Scud attacks back in January 1991, if not yet the shock of the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war of 1973. This does mean that it is absolutely essential for the Israeli leadership to bring this threat to an end, and this will require an even more intensive use of force.

Second, there remains the possibility that Hizbollah may decide in the very near future to use longer-range missiles in order to attack Tel Aviv-Jaffa. If that were to happen in concert with a failure of the IDF to fully secure the proposed buffer-zone, then the Olmert government might be in severe difficulties in a matter of days. It is in such circumstances that the war might expand, perhaps with Israeli action against Syrian and Iranian facilities considered to be supporting Hizbollah.

It must be remembered that the overwhelming view within the Israeli leadership is that Hizbollah is an operating arm of Iran; even more significantly, this is a view shared strongly within the George W Bush administration. Since Israel's war in Lebanon is part of the American war on terror, and since that war is going so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan, this part of it cannot be allowed to fail. For this reason alone, it is wise to assume that the Lebanon war has not just taken root but may branch suddenly to affect the wider region.

This article is published by Paul Rogers, and this blog under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines.

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