Lebanon: no quick fix

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
25 July 2006

Israel's war in Lebanon is being conducted with unstinting United States support. This suggests that a long war is in prospect.

It is a move that belongs to the theatre of the absurd. It would have certainly stretched the imagination of the Monty Python comedy team. On 25 July 2006, Condoleezza Rice promised the Lebanese government $30 million in aid for reconstruction, even as the United States was rushing to complete an Israeli order for 4,000 precision-guided bombs to drop on, yes, Lebanon.

Beyond this extraordinary situation, though, lies one of the core realities of the current war: that Israel is under no restraint whatsoever from the United States. The United States secretary of state's visit to the region is best seen as a cosmetic exercise, and this also goes for the gathering in Rome on 26 July of foreign ministers and senior officials from fifteen countries. It is clear that the Bush administration sees Israel's war against Hizbollah as an integral part of its own global war on terror and therefore supports Israel to the hilt. Indeed, any analysis of the evolution of the war that does not take this fully into account is so deeply flawed as to be irrelevant.

It is possible that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were already intending to go to war, using the Hizbollah border attack of 12 July as the trigger – much as the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to London (Shlomo Argov) was used as the pretext for the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The IDF may even have planned an operation to begin around this time, well ahead of the US's mid-term elections and in light of the Israeli government's need for a diversion from its problems in Gaza.

It is more likely, however, that the Ehud Olmert government saw such a massive response as its only political option following the cross-border kidnappings from Gaza and Lebanon; the "cross-border" aspect is indeed a key psychological aspect of Israeli politics, reflecting the deep feeling of vulnerability within the country (see "Israel: losing control", 20 July 2006). In any case, it is clear that the IDF had certainly done extensive planning for this operation, with the expectation that a short but intensive war would so cripple Hizbollah as to render it no more than a minor irritant for some years to come.

The key point remains that this is a war in which Israel really can act as a free agent. There may well be considerable condemnation from some European states – and the Finnish presidency of the European Union has arranged a meeting of European foreign ministers to discuss the crisis on 1 August – but elite Arab regimes have been deeply concerned at Iran's increasing influence across the region, and Tony Blair (if not Britain's foreign office) is solidly behind a Bush administration that sees Israel as its crucial regional surrogate. With such a free hand, and two weeks into the war, what is the progress from Israel's perspective?

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)

As Israel sees it

An initial point, which has been almost entirely missed, is that the systematic and widespread attacks on the Lebanese infrastructure, especially the roads and fuel distribution system, were designed not so much to make life difficult for the Lebanese and weaken the government, as to limit the logistic support for Hizbollah. The very fact that the IDF undertook these actions right at the start of the war, and is revisiting destroyed targets to prevent repairs, is an indication of how formidable an enemy is Hizbollah. The IDF has been intent on blocking reinforcements, expecting then to be able to concentrate on destroying Hizbollah's military capabilities closer to Israel.

In almost every respect, though, this has proved far more difficult than expected. After two weeks of intensive warfare, including some thousands of air strikes and well over 10,000 artillery-shells fired across the border, Hizbollah's capacity for retaliation is scarcely diminished. This includes more than 500 missiles fired into Israel between 22-26 July alone; a daily total of 119 had slammed into northern Israel by the late afternoon of 26 July, according to IDF sources. This includes three substantial salvoes fired at Haifa, using longer-range rockets rather than the crude Katyushas that have previously been the mainstay of Hizbollah's cross-border capabilities.

The firing of a large number of these particular missiles has been one of the unwelcome surprises for the Israeli government; but even more serious was the launching of the anti-ship missile that hit the Saar-5 missile corvette the INS Ahi-Hanit on 14 July (see "Israel, Lebanon, and beyond: the danger of escalation", 17 July 2006). As the well-informed Aviation Week put it this week:

"Israeli troops fighting in southern Lebanon ran head-on into the results of an intelligence failure as Hizbollah forces revealed an arsenal of advanced rockets and missiles, including the powerful C-802 anti-ship weapon, which analysts here say came from Iranian stocks."(see David A Fulghum, "Holes in the Net", Aviation Week, 24 July 2006 [subscription only])

Fulghum was reporting from the Farnborough International Airshow, one of the world's major gatherings of arms manufacturers, and described the mood there as specialists debated whether Hizbollah had acquired other weapons that it had so far refrained from using. These might include Chinese-made Silkworm anti-ship missiles and the Russian-made SA-18 shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile. It is also presumed that Hizbollah does have significant stocks of missiles that could reach as far as Tel Aviv, even if some have been destroyed by Israeli air attacks.

Indeed, it is likely that the Hizbollah planners are deliberately retaining some missiles for use later in the war. They will be aware that if the attack on the INS Ani-Hanit was a real shock to the IDF, any kind of attack on Tel Aviv would be a shock to Israel as a whole, and might be most effectively launched at a time when the IDF was giving an impression of success in 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 Hizbollah response

In relation to that ground war, the IDF does now say that it has taken control of several villages across the border, thereby diminishing Hizbollah's capabilities, but sources within the IDF also acknowledge that Hizbollah has effective control of around 130 villages across southern Lebanon (see Anshel Pfeffer, "Analysis: The IDF's new definition of victory", Jerusalem Post, 26 July 2006).

The IDF's ground forces are very well armed and involve at least 30,000 troops available for combat, including reservists now being called up. They greatly outnumber the core Hizbollah militias, thought to number no more than 3,000 at the start of the war – though this apparent disparity is misleading, on two counts.

The first is that Hizbollah has around 20,000 militia available, many of them experienced from previous conflicts; the group can also draw on the Syrian-backed PFLP-GC and, quite possibly, some specialist Iranian paramilitaries (see Richard M Bennett "Hizbollah digs in deep", Asia Times, 24 July 2006).

The second point is that the Hizbollah forces are deeply embedded in Lebanese territory and society, in two quite different ways. In physical terms, the group has constructed a remarkable network of dispersed bunkers and small-weapons stores throughout southern Lebanon that are almost impervious to air attack. In addition, Hizbollah really is thoroughly integrated into the fabric of Shi'a society in Lebanon. Israel and the United States talk of Hizbollah solely as a terrorist organisation; it did indeed evolve from resistance to Israeli occupation in the early 1980s, but it is also a political party with a large block of seats and two cabinet ministers in Lebanon's fragile government, and it provides a wide range of health, educational and social services across southern Lebanon.

It is highly unlikely that Hizbollah will accept any kind of international force in southern Lebanon, as this would be seen as acting on Israel's behalf. From its own perspective, the only kind of force that might be acceptable was one that facilitated the demilitarisation of southern Lebanon and northern Israel, involving a substantial presence in both countries. That is utterly unthinkable for the Israelis and for Washington, but even to state the point is to give a clear indication of the gulf that exists between the two parties to this war.

The prospect therefore is for a war stretching on over weeks and months, with the IDF – whatever the human cost – systematically seeking to destroy Hizbollah's forces village by village and town by town, while the air force keeps the roads closed and the Lebanese infrastructure crippled to prevent re-supply.

The news that the talks in Rome have achieved nothing of substance thus comes as little surprise, for this unexpected war will be very difficult to end quickly. A change of approach in Washington might help, but even if one were forthcoming, the indirect involvement of Tehran would remain a factor. Meanwhile, every instance of civilian casualties in Lebanon adds to the mood of anger across the region (see "Lebanon in the wider war", 25 July 2006). This will have longer-term consequences that are impossible to predict in detail, but are certain to carry considerable dangers.

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