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After Qana: a false dawn?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
30 July 2006

In seeking to analyse and understand the factors behind the current war in the middle east, the near-daily columns in this series over the past two weeks have initially focused on three issues.

First, they have emphasised the intensity of media coverage of civilian casualties in Lebanon, not just in the Arab and Muslim worlds but across the global south. For the several days that the European media was transfixed by the evacuation of its own nationals, this was a minor issue elsewhere. Indeed, one of the aspects of the conflict that simply was not recognised in most of the western media was its great advantage to movements such as al-Qaida (see "Lebanon in the wider war", 25 July 2006).

Second, the columns have pointed to the remarkable combination of Israel's extraordinary military power and its marked feeling of vulnerability. The latter derives both from the crude Hizbollah missiles hitting much of northern Israel, and from the two border incursions (Hamas's on 25 June, and Hizbollah's on 12 July) that preceded and precipitated the current war. Moreover, they have argued that this war is yet one more example of a forceful approach by Israel that is doing nothing to improve its long-term security (see "Israel: losing control", 20 July 2006).

Third, the columns have highlighted the theme that the events in Lebanon and Israel are, in a real sense, a proxy war between the United States and Iran. For the Bush administration, the Lebanon war is a core part of the global war on terror, an early stage in Donald Rumsfeld's "long war" in which Israel is an absolutely essential ally of the United States in its long-term conflict with the axis of evil in general and Islamofascism in particular (see "A proxy war", 19 July 2006, and "Lebanon: the world's choice", 28 July 2006). This certainly seems to be a view shared by the British prime minister Tony Blair, and it implies that much of the activity by Condoleezza Rice and others in the first two weeks of the war was essentially cosmetic.

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)

"Lebanon: the world’s choice" (28 July 2006)

The signals of war

During the first two weeks of the war, the columns have focused further on three significant military dimensions of the actual conflict.

The first was the attack on 14 July on the Israeli navy's advanced Saar-5 class missile corvette which crippled the INS Ahi-Hanit, a ship specifically equipped with weapons designed precisely to counter threats from the type of anti-ship cruise missile that targeted it.

The second was the ability of Hizbollah to continue firing a hundred or more missiles a day across the border despite continual and intense Israeli air strikes, coupled with the first use of longer-range missiles that were able to target the city of Haifa and a number of towns deep inside northern Israel.

The third was the repeated experience of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) when they engaged in ground combat with Hizbollah paramilitaries in southern Lebanon. The IDF found the latter to be well-armed, well-trained and deeply committed young men who were able to cause unexpected casualties among the Israeli soldiers and even destroy some of the latest variants of the Merkava main battle-tank, by common consent one of the most heavily protected and powerful tanks fielded by any country.

In light of the failure of the Rome summit of foreign ministers and representatives of international organisations on 26 July, a strong view prevailed within the Israeli government that the country had received something of a "green light" from Washington to intensify the war and pursue its aim of destroying Hizbollah's paramilitary capabilities for the long term. Although there were some statements to the contrary from the United States and Britain, Israel's two leading allies were noticeably reluctant even to promote the notion of a temporary ceasefire.

Instead, the signals from Washington and Downing Street were more of an insistence that any end to the fighting had to involve the disarming of Hizbollah, whether or not an international force was involved. In other words, the war had to end with what amounted to a clear victory for Israel. For Washington, this would be a real blow to Syria and (much more importantly) to Iran, since it would mean Tehran losing a key surrogate and facing a significant loss of influence and prestige across the region.

This combination of factors meant that Israel faced no obstacles in continuing the war, at least for a couple of weeks. But this still presented problems for the country, since the IDF's ground troops were experiencing considerable difficulties. The military answer would probably have to come from an intensification of air strikes, using sustained air power to "clear" localities of Hizbollah personnel before IDF soldiers went in to complete operations.

The attack on the UN unit at Khiam on 25 July that killed four officials, whether intentional or not, certainly had the effect of removing some of the UN's ability to monitor Israeli actions in the area across the border (see Lee Keath, "UN Observers Leave Israel-Lebanon Border", Associated Press, 28 July 2006). Moreover, the withdrawal of UN officials was coupled with the almost total absence of western media in the war zone, and both had the evident effect of making the immediate consequences of Israel's air assault less visible than it might otherwise have been.

The Israeli government has strongly denied that the Khiam attack was in any way intentional, though a longer-term perspective may invoke comparable historical precedents: the assassination of the UN mediator, Count Bernadotte, in 1948 and the attack on the USS Liberty during the six-day war in 1967.

In any case, Israel's adoption of intensified air assault on southern Lebanon was backed by claims that it had given civilians ample time to leave the region; but these did not take into account the enormous effects of the tactic: damage to roads, destruction of civilian convoys, the inability of poorer families to afford to travel under current circumstances, and the more general resistance to leave home for a journey into the unknown.

Nonetheless, from Israel's perception there was no alternative, and this was also true of Washington. In a particularly perceptive commentary, the leading Israeli military analyst Ze'ev Schiff makes the point that there are limits to the ability of the United States to resist international calls for a ceasefire, and Washington therefore needs a quick Israeli victory that effectively disarms Hizbollah (see "Israel failing to give U.S. the military cards it needs", Ha'aretz, 30 July 2006). In the absence of such a success, the whole strategy of defeating Hizbollah and therefore curbing Iranian influence in the region is put at risk.

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 bombing "pause"

This is the context for the tragedy at Qana, a particular instance of the use of intensive air bombardment and one that has caused shock beyond the region because western media units were on the scene so quickly. This has led to Condoleezza Rice abandoning her middle-east travels, although her Jerusalem discussions may well have influenced Israel's declaration that it would halt air strikes – but not its ground offensive – for forty-eight hours.

A consistent pause in air attacks has not been observed; Israel continued to undertake air operations in southern Lebanon during 31 July. But in terms of the formal concession, two possibilities are raised by Israel's rhetorical turn. The first is that it could be combined with far-reaching diplomatic moves to gain a lasting ceasefire. This approach would be greatly aided by a temporary halt to Israel's ground assault and artillery bombardments across the border, together with a suspension of missile launches by Hizbollah. Such developments are just possible but frankly unlikely.

The second possibility is that the declaration serves a public-relations purpose, especially in the United States, where it demonstrates Israeli constraint and a humanitarian concern to allow more civilians to escape from the war zone. At the same time, even an incomplete pause will permit the IDF subsequently to resume its air assault across southern Lebanon with even greater intensity, while claiming that it had done all in its power to reduce civilian losses.

At this stage in the war a comprehensive ceasefire would still be seen from Washington as a failure to defeat Hizbollah and thus curb Iran – the issue that remains all-consuming within the deeper recesses of the Bush administration. In the aftermath of the Qana deaths there will be an understandable and intensive media concentration on diplomacy, especially around the United Nations, and a wider hope for positive moves towards peace. That would indeed be hugely welcome, though it is worth remembering that this war involves issues that go well beyond the immediate conflict in south Lebanon.

For Washington and Tel Aviv alike, anything less than the destruction of Hizbollah is a disaster. What happened at Qana is, in terms of cold military calculation, a terrible diversion from that aim. The tragedy may well have little effect on the evolution of the war.

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