Lebanon, Israel, and the “greater west Asian crisis”

Fred Halliday
17 August 2006

All wars are different, but the war between Israel and Hizbollah of 12 July-14 August 2006 proves indeed that some are more different than others. It may be that this war has resemblances to other conflicts in the recent history of the region, but it is in important respects both a departure from, and more than, its predecessors:

  • it is more than an Arab-Israeli war of the kind seen on five previous occasions since 1948
  • it is more than another chapter in the war of Lebanon, which began in 1975-6 and lasted to 1990
  • it is more than (even if linked to) the wars that have in different parts of the region ensued from the Iranian revolution of 1979.

A first definition of its distinctiveness is that it is a war for supremacy and survival in the region as a whole: a newly-emerged political and strategic space that encompasses India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Iran, the Arab world and Israel. As with the United States-led regime changes in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), so with the Lebanon war of 2006 – the causes also belong to, and the effects will be felt throughout, this region: from Beirut and Tel Aviv to Baghdad, Kabul, and Mumbai.

This is the primary sense in which the war of summer 2006 is different: for this superficially quite localised war (in terms of its field of operations) is but one dimension of a complex of interlinked problems that connect Haifa to Herat and all points between. It is now possible to talk, without oversimplifying distortion, of a single, many-layered crisis that since the mid-1990s has both arisen from and given definition to a new world region: not just a "middle east" but a "greater west Asia".

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at Cidob, Barcelona. His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005).

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The articles include:

"America and Arabia after Saddam"
(May 2004)

"Terrorism and world politics: conditions and prospects"
(March 2005)

"An encounter with Mr X" (March 2005)

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (July 2005)

"Political killing in the cold war" (August 2005)

"Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a 'marginal man'"
(September 2005)

"A transnational umma: myth or reality? " (October 2005)

"The 'Barcelona process': ten years on" (November 2005)

"The United Nations vs the United States" (January 2006)

"Blasphemy and power" (February 2006)

"Iran vs the United States – again" (February 2006)

"Terrorism and delusion" (April 2006)

"The forward march of women halted?"
(May 2006)

"Letter from Ground Zero" (May 2006)

"Finland's moment in the sun" (June 2006)

""A Lebanese fragment: two days with Hizbollah"(July 2006)

"In time of war: reason amid rockets"
(August 2006)

A tectonic shift

Each individual conflict in this region – Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and now Lebanon – may be interrelated, but it is the "how" and the "how far" that must be defined. It is a familiar part of political and intellectual discourse in the middle east to seek to put events in individual countries or sub-regions into a broader regional or global context. This process can often be accompanied by a conspiratorial or secret-agenda gloss (the Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Iran-Iraq war, revolution in Yemen, civil war in Sudan or Algeria, and sundry assassinations or oil-price movements are just a few examples); it can also be impelled by reference to external agencies or institutional powers (the cold-war matrix, the global "Zionist" movement, the machinations of old imperial powers such as Britain and France, and in recent years "globalisation" and United States "democracy promotion" are some of the ones invoked).

The challenge today is to move beyond such regressive or disempowering approaches and articulate the connections at the level of the current, dynamic reality of states, inter-state relations, non-state actors, and the array of political and social forces across greater west Asia.

For today, the assimilation of individual countries and events to a broader regional pattern is an emergent fact: events in Lebanon and Israel, Iraq or Afghanistan, Turkey and Libya, are becoming comprehensible only in a broader regional and even global context (the latter includes both US policy and the shifting interests and power of Russia, India and China).

The linkage so frequently invoked has become transparent, kaleidoscopic reality:

  • a reality of states, who look at their neighbours' nuclear and other programmes and react accordingly
  • a reality for the opposition and military groups who operate in different states of the region
  • a reality, in an age of satellite TV, for public opinion
  • a reality of the outside world – particularly the United States and Europe, which are trying with almost no success to contain and manage the tensions in the region.

Today, this new reality is evident in a host of ways, including the new pan-Islamic consciousness that ties Arab with non-Arab causes - and is evident among Muslims living in Europe as much as in the Arab world. It is also reflected by default in the selective language of US military and political strategy. George W Bush has proposed a "greater middle east initiative" (one of the most pathetic projects of all time) but his conception of this area is revealing: it includes Afghanistan (as for the purposes of his "war on terror" it must), yet excludes the country more responsible than any for spreading terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, nuclear proliferation and corruption across the region, namely Pakistan.

A fresh canvas

The wider significance of the war between Israel and Hizbollah is part of this new reality. It is natural that many in the immediate region have viewed it as the sixth in the series of Arab-Israeli wars (1948-9, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982). There are indeed points of comparison:

  • in the insecurity it has bred in Israeli cities, and in the connection between external intervention and more local resistance (1948-9)
  • in the large-scale Israeli intervention in Lebanon (1982)
  • in the involvement of the United Nations Security Council (1956, 1967 and 1973).

But the deeper reality is different. It is not just the sixth Arab-Israeli war, a revival of the Lebanese civil war, an internationalisation of the second Palestinian intifada, or the latest outbreak of the "war on terror"; it is more than all of these – part of another, broader and more protracted conflict with multiple centres and involving a rapidly shifting coalition of regional states with political and social movements.

The key point of origin is 1979. With the benefit of a generation's hindsight, it is now clear that this conflict has been in train since the late 1970s – and in particular, since the two strategic detonations of the last year of that decade, the Iranian revolution of February and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December.

The shape of "greater west Asia" and the establishment of linkages that were to produce such lethal effects were already evident in the era of those convulsions. The Israeli intervention in Lebanon in 1978 made its contribution, but it was the Iranian revolution and the sustained state-support provided to the Lebanese Shi'a which helped both incubate Hizbollah and transform the Israeli-Lebanese confrontation of 1978 into protracted conflict.

It was also in the Lebanese war of the 1980s that Iran and its Lebanese allies first engaged, with considerable military and political consequence, with both Israel and the United States. Meanwhile, to the east of the region, the young Islamic Republic state was being tested and hardened in the eight-year war with Iraq; and the US and its conservative Arab allies, with a little help from Israel, were encouraging the guerrillas and killers of the Afghan mujahideen from whom Osama bin Laden and his associates were to emerge.

These origins have grown diverse fruits. In light of the Lebanon war, two are particularly relevant. First, the major protagonists on the Arab side is not a state but an armed political group – and Hizbollah will, as a result, prove much more difficult to negotiate and reach agreement with than was the case in earlier wars.

Second, insofar as states such as Syria and Iran are involved on the side of Hizbollah, they will pursue their involvement in a way quite different to Arab states in earlier conflicts. For they are now not primarily interested in armistices, frontier delimitation or peace negotiations, but in using the Lebanon conflict to bargain with the US on other issues, and to enhance their nationalist and radical legitimacy at home and regionally.

In the case of Iran, there is no direct or immediate causal relation between Tehran's major role inside Iraq, its nuclear-enrichment plans, and its support for Hizbollah – but all do form part of a broader Iranian drive for regional influence and for confrontation with the US and its major allies (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel).

Fred Halliday is the author of The Middle East in International Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Chapter 5 of that book addresses the background and development of the "the greater west Asian crisis" in detail

This greater west Asian crisis is more complex, multilayered and long-lasting than any of the individual crises, revolutions or wars that characterised the middle east. The current west Asian wars involve a triangular conflict:

  • Iran and its radical allies (Syria, Iraqi Shi'a parties, Hizbollah, Hamas)
  • the forces of radical Sunni insurgency (in Iraq and in the al-Qaida network)
  • the US and its regional allies.

In Lebanon, the Iran-US conflict is predominant; in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia it is the Sunni-US dimension; in Iraq the conflict embraces all three points of the triangle, with the US pitted against both Shi'a and Sunni, even as members of these two groups kill and terrorise one other.

It is in this multidimensional context, rather than in the memory of earlier bilateral, Arab-Israeli wars, that the current Israeli-Hizbollah conflict must be seen. In the perspective of a longer history it can be said to resemble the European war that began in 1914 – another regional conflict long-planned even if suddenly, almost casually, detonated; and one which, once started, drew all the major states of the area into its wake, with dire consequences for all and catastrophic for many. It is a sobering comparison, but nothing in the current pattern of events across greater west Asia makes it extreme. There may be possibilities for progress in the present moment, but currently it is the dangers that are far easier to see.

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