Lebanon on the edge

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
30 August 2006

Soon after the Lebanon ceasefire took hold on 14 August 2006 after the thirty-four-day war, George W Bush declared with conviction that Hizbollah would be seen to have been the conflict's loser. At the time it seemed an extraordinary remark, given the manner in which Israel had evidently failed to achieve its original objectives of disarming Hizbollah or removing the threat on its northern border. Nonetheless, Bush's view persists and provides reassurance for elements within the administration and for some Washington political circles (see Lee Smith, "The Real Losers", Weekly Standard, 28 August 2006). But it is not shared by the United States military.

The argument that Hizbollah lost draws on what confirmation it can, the latest element being Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's declaration in a television interview on 28 August (significantly, with the New TV station rather than Hizbollah's own al-Manar) that the movement had not expected Israel's massive reaction to its 12 July border attack. The comments, however, probably have much more to do with internal Lebanese politics and Hizbollah's need to consolidate its relative success in the war.

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 26 September 2001

Hizbollah's advantage

If Israel's determined attacks on the Lebanese economic infrastructure were intended to incite high levels of internal opposition to Hizbollah, there is little evidence that they succeeded. This is in spite of the damage done to the Lebanese economy. Swedish estimates put the direct damage at $3.6 billion, with an immediate requirement for $0.5 billion that is simply not coming from western sources (see "Lebanon 'desperate for new funds'", BBC, 31 August 2006).

In this near-vacuum, the growing success of Hizbollah in dominating the rapid reconstruction of infrastructure, especially in southern Lebanon, is confirming its power-base (see "A phoenix from Lebanon's ruins", 17 August 2006). At the same time, it is essential for Hizbollah to counter the strong feelings that do persist among sections of Lebanese society that the group bears some responsibility for the sheer destruction meted out by the Israeli air attacks. By confessing to surprise at the intensity of these attacks, even to the extent of saying the raids might not have gone ahead if this outcome had been known, Nasrallah accepts some responsibility while still focusing attention on the Israeli actions.

Meanwhile, Hizbollah is clear that it will not seek to break the ceasefire, an attitude reflected in its lack of response to Israel's commando raid in the Beka'a valley on 19 August. It follows that there is now a real chance that the ceasefire will hold and that an expanded UN presence will provide a kind of buffer-zone, even if it has little or no intention of actually disarming the Hizbollah militia. For its own political purposes, Hizbollah is likely to draw back from the area close to the Israeli border, perhaps even concentrating its military capabilities north of the Litani river. But none of this disguises the fact that the war itself evolved in a manner both entirely unexpected by the Israelis and carrying serious implications for the United States as well as Israel itself.

This does have to be put in the perspective of the fact that Hizbollah possessed four advantages. First, it had six years (effectively since Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000) in which to develop its system of bunkers, supply-chains, stores and communications systems. Second, its militia were mostly from the immediate area, were defending their own homes and families and had detailed knowledge of the area they were defending. Third, it had considerable support from Syria and Iran. Fourth, it had experience of the tactics and methods of the Israeli Defence Forces going back over two decades.

Even so, a few thousand operatives (at most) were able for more than a month to resist far larger Israeli forces equipped with a remarkable range of weapons – and on the last day of the war, Hizbollah fired the largest number of missiles into northern Israel of the entire conflict.

Israel's troubles

The Israeli agreement to a ceasefire involving a considerably boosted United Nations force is far more significant than is generally appreciated. The disdain verging on contempt that Israel has for the UN in general and for Unifil in particular makes this perhaps the best indicator of Israel's inability to achieve its principal aim of destroying Hizbollah.

In the various western defence journals there is substantial coverage of the Lebanon war which offers revealing information and insight (see, for example, Barbara Opall-Rome, "Mideast Crisis to Drive Future Needs", Defense News, 14 August 2006 and David A Fulghum & Robert Wall, "Lebanon Intermission", Aviation Week and Space Technology, 21 August 2006.

There are even some detailed and thoughtful discussions getting into the open literature; one of the best informed is Anthony Cordesman's report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Preliminary "Lessons" of the Israeli-Hizbollah War (CSIS, 17 August 2006). All this reflects an even more intense analysis going on in defence ministries from Jerusalem to Washington and Tehran to Damascus.

Three examples of the Israeli experience during the Lebanon war give some indication of the problems the IDF encountered.

The first is that Hizbollah had a wide range of lightweight yet effective weapons, including portable anti-tank missiles of Russian, French, Italian and even US origin, albeit some of them manufactured in Syria and Iran.

The second is that the Syrian connection was actually much stronger than the Israelis or Americans appreciated – and, further, that Hizbollah's supplies came too from the grey and black markets. The movement could acquire equipment sourced from many western countries through diverse networks – yet another indication of the ubiquity of the international arms market. Iran, meanwhile, was a significant supporter but almost certainly not on the scale claimed by the Israelis or the Bush administration.

The third problem is that the Israelis had continual problems with Hizbollah's sophisticated communications systems. It was easy enough for the Israeli air force to destroy communications towers, but a consequence was that Israeli surveillance systems could no longer "listen in" to Hizbollah operatives' mobile-phone calls. In any case, the Hizbollah planners had already thought this through and were relying much more on a cell structure of paramilitary units using short-range walkie-talkie systems and hardened land lines that had been laid over a number of years.

In essence, it is now accepted that a well-armed, motivated and organised force numbering just a few thousand paramilitaries held down one of the best-equipped armies in the world for more than a month, and was not defeated by the time political necessity required a ceasefire from Israel. The many lessons to be learned by the Israelis, Americans, British, French and others are already permeating the planning cells in these countries' defence ministries, as well as the lecture theatres and seminar rooms of their defence colleges.

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)

Iran's, and the world's, learning

What is probably even more significant, though, is that the war is also being studied in great detail across the rest of the world, especially in Tehran and Damascus – let alone Fallujah, Ramadi and Baghdad's Sadr city. A number of earlier columns in this series have tracked the evolution of the Iraq insurgency, including the manner in which Iraqi paramilitaries have evolved their tactics at a speed often exceeding American countermeasures (see, for example, "A jewel for al-Qaida's crown", 11 August 2005). For them and for the planners in Tehran and elsewhere, the experience of the Lebanon war will be scrutinised with great intensity.

There is an extraordinary irony here – although one not widely recognised in the United States or Britain. An intimate connection has long existed between the US army's Training and Doctrine Command (Tradoc) and the Israeli army in relation to counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. The difficulties facing the US forces in trying to control the Iraqi insurgents have made these forces more heavily reliant on the experience of the Israelis in controlling the occupied Palestinian territories. This has included training methods, surveillance equipment and even weapons, with much of the latter bought from Israel or made under licence (see "A week of vengeance", 1 April 2004). Just as the Americans have sought to learn from the Israelis, now many of the Iraqi paramilitaries and the Iranians will be working hard to learn from Hizbollah's experience.

At the very least, this means that one of the original motives for US support for Israel may have backfired in a quite spectacular way. The Lebanon war was seen within the Bush administration as an opportunity for Israel to defeat Hizbollah and, indirectly, decrease Iranian influence in the region. This would put Iran on the defensive in relation to its nuclear ambitions and would remove any Iranian capability to utilise Hizbollah in responding to a US or Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities (see "Hit Beirut, target Tehran", 21 July 2006). Instead, the political effects of the war have been to embolden Tehran, and the military effects will be to increase Iranian capabilities to cause major problems for the United States in Iraq.

This is well known in Washington and Jerusalem and is a source of considerable unease. It also means that no one should rule out a collapse of the ceasefire in the coming weeks. There are unconfirmed reports of a substantial re-supply of weapons and equipment from the United States to Israel, and it has to be remembered that Israel is continuing its air and sea blockade of Lebanon.

The intense diplomatic efforts made by Kofi Annan to smooth the way to implementation of the Security Council resolution of 11 August 2006 reflects the huge concern in United Nations circles that there could be a sudden outbreak of violence leading to a new phase of the war. The next month is crucial. If the ceasefire does hold then there is a real hope that there could be a progressive easing of tensions in southern Lebanon, but to take that for granted would be highly dangerous.

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