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Lebanon: the world's choice

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The failure of the emergency Rome summit on the middle east on 26 July to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon has been taken by the Ehud Olmert government in Israel to be a green light for intensified military operations.

Israel is calling up three divisions of reservists – initially around 15,000 troops, leading eventually to 30,000 – for what is likely to be a protracted operation in southern Lebanon. This, however, may not take the form of an all-out invasion and occupation, not least because memories of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) retreat from the region in the early 1980s are still a strong deterrent to that option.

Instead, the more likely development is devastating air operations to clear localities, allowing IDF troops to operate afterwards with less risk to themselves. Olmert's close ally, the justice minister Haim Ramon, stated on Israeli army radio on 27 July that the Israeli government had given sufficient opportunity for civilians to leave southern Lebanon, and Israel could therefore assume that "…all those in south Lebanon are terrorists who are related in some way to Hizbollah".

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since October 2001

Paul Rogers tracks the July 2006 war in a series of daily columns:

"Israel, Lebanon, and beyond: the danger of escalation"
(17 July 2006)

"War defeats diplomacy" (18 July 2006)

"A proxy war"
(19 July 2006)

"Israel: losing control" (20 July 2006)

"Hit Beirut, target Tehran" (21 July 2006)

"Lebanon in the wider war" (25 July 2006)

"Lebanon: no quick fix" (26 July 2006)

"A triple front: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon"
(27 July 2006)

In his view, this meant that villages could be destroyed by the Israeli air force before ground troops moved in. The term "scorched earth" usually refers to the behaviour of retreating armies; the approach recommended here would, instead, be part of an offensive operation.

The fact that the IDF feels obliged to embark on such a strategy is an indication of the problems it is facing in trying to control and defeat the Hizbollah movement. Some of these problems have been covered in earlier columns in this series over the past ten days; they include the continuing large number of missiles being fired into northern Israel two weeks after the war started, and the use of an advanced anti-ship missile to cripple the Saar-5 missile corvette two weeks ago (see "Israel, Lebanon, and beyond: the danger of escalation" [17 July 2006]).

Israel's strategy

The extensive Israeli air-force operations have so far failed to stem the level of Hizbollah missile launches; indeed, these have if anything intensified in recent days – another 110 were launched on 27 July, bringing the total to more than 1,500 since the war began.

What has also become apparent is that the Israeli ground-force operations that have so far been restricted to quite small parts of southern Lebanon have turned out to be much more difficult than expected, and have led to considerable civilian casualties. The Hizbollah militia are well-prepared, well-trained and determined, and they know intimately the districts they are defending.

At the same time, it became clear on the night of 27-28 July that the main aim of Israeli military operations is still to destroy Hizbollah as any kind of military entity. This was explicitly stated at the start of the war on 12 July, but the problems the IDF has encountered subsequently have created the impression of a weakening of this original war aim in the direction of a mere degradation of Hizbollah's capability. This simply is not the case: Israel is receiving very strong encouragement from Washington to go the whole way, whatever it takes in terms of destruction and civilian casualties.

Israeli government sources still see Hizbollah solely as a terrorist organisation. There is no recognition of its wider role in Lebanese society or its progressive integration into Lebanese politics. These sources still declare as a formal aim that the Lebanese government must take control of its entire territory, without any appreciation of the point that Hizbollah is a larger political party in the Lebanese parliament than Likud is in the Knesset. The Israeli side even professes a belief that the destruction being caused in Lebanon will turn most Lebanese against Hizbollah. Again, the evidence to date is in the opposite direction.

Even so, Israel will almost certainly continue to receive direct military aid from the United States, especially of precision-guided weapons; the advanced F-15I, the latest American-made aircraft that has already been deployed in bombing raids in Lebanon, is also part of the supply-chain (see "Israel: the illusions of militarism", 5 June 2002). With this combination of Washington's enthusiasm and Israel's determination, this war really is taking on the mantle of a joint United States-Israeli operation that is becoming integral to George W Bush's global war on terror.

The al-Qaida movement has, as expected, been quick to recognise the potential of this evolving situation (see "Lebanon in the wider war", 25 July 2006). The taped message of Ayman al-Zawahiri, broadcast on al-Jazeera on 26 July, came almost exactly on cue – immediately after the abortive Rome summit, and just as Israel decided to escalate its rhetoric and deployments, with firm support from the Bush administration.

It is true that al-Qaida may have little sympathy for Hizbollah in particular or for Shi'a Islam in general, but it is also the case that such confessional differences matter less outside Iraq, Pakistan, and Iran. It is very easy for al-Qaida to portray the Lebanon war to the wider Islamic world as a straightforward Zionist-crusader conspiracy, and this will undoubtedly have a further radicalising effect.

Three ways to escalate

Unless there are major changes, the probability is that the war in Lebanon will continue on its present path with an intensification of air raids as towns and villages in southern Lebanon are destroyed prior to temporary occupation by Israeli troops. In parallel, operations will continue in Gaza, where twenty-three people were killed yesterday, including three children, and seventy wounded. The impact of the wars across the region is escalating, even to the point where Bush's strongest supporter, Tony Blair, may suggest the need for a ceasefire.

A ceasefire will not happen. Instead, there are at least three ways in which the conflict may escalate. The first is that Israeli planes could attack trucks crossing the Syrian border into Lebanon carrying military supplies for Hizbollah. The clear indications that this is not effective could lead to a second option, involving strong pressure on the Israeli air force to strike across the border in Syria itself – perhaps specifically at a military air base near Damascus that is reportedly the conduit for supplies from Iran. From a Syrian perspective, as Israel intensifies its raids in the Beka'a valley, so the need to support Hizbollah increases – leading in turn to the risk of this Israeli escalation.

Third, Israeli government sources make much of the intimate involvement of Iran in Hizbollah's activities, even claiming that there are large numbers of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon directly aiding the Hizbollah militias. There may indeed be some cooperation, especially with advanced weapons systems, but the overall interpretation of Hizbollah's dependency seriously underestimates the group's independence. One indication of this is that while Israel has detained numerous Hizbollah activists and sympathisers in recent years, there have been no reports that any Iranian nationals have been among them.

But if Iranian involvement may be limited, the Tehran government would be hugely reluctant to see Hizbollah worn down by weeks or months of Israeli military action, and it will attempt to provide further shipments of weapons. Hizbollah is already reported to have a stock of Zelzal missiles, and one possible escalation would be an attack on Tel Aviv.

Much of northern Israel is currently devoid of significant economic activity as people take to shelters or evacuate to the south. If such a pattern was to stretch to central Israel – bringing Hadera and Netanya as well as Tel Aviv-Jaffa within range, the IDF would be forced to increase its activities, possibly even to the point of a full invasion of southern Lebanon.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
(October 2005)

The combination of Hizbollah's continuing attacks, Israel's recent military difficulties and Washington's total support for this part of the war on terror all mean that the conflict will continue and escalate with unforeseen consequences. In such circumstances, is there any prospect for a peaceful resolution or at least an easing of the conflict?

Despite the very hawkish tones in Jerusalem and Washington, there are wiser minds in both cities that possess a dawning realisation of what has been unleashed, and are counselling caution. Some now recognise that this war is not in Israel's long-term security interests. This is not 1967 or 1982 – satellite TV coverage gives a much fuller picture of "facts on the ground" and the escalation of military technologies suited to asymmetric warfare means that no amount of "buffer-zones" around Israel will keep the country safe in the future (see "Israel: Losing Control", 20 July 2006)

The most positive immediate development would be a forty-eight-hour ceasefire by Israel, unilateral but indicating a further forty-eight-hour extension if Hizbollah reciprocates. From there, intensive negotiations could evolve rapidly, using the key role of the Amal party, the larger Shi'a political grouping in the Lebanese parliament led by the parliament's speaker, Nabih Berri.

At the time of writing the possibility of such a ceasefire seems remote, but the next few days do represent such an opportunity. More generally, the first two weeks of August will be the period in which the longer-term development of this war is determined. Either it will continue and escalate, with consequences to be felt over years and decades, or it might just possibly be brought under control. If it is escalation not negotiation, then a substantial part of the responsibility will lie with the one country that has some degree of influence in Washington, namely Britain.

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