Lebanon in the wider war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 July 2006

Two weeks into the war in Lebanon, the United States is reported in the Israeli press to be giving the Ehud Olmert government at least another week to pursue its military campaign before agreeing to discuss a ceasefire. This contrasts with the other - pro-ceasefire - message coming from Washington, even if the Bush administration regards the possibility only as an interim step that must be followed by the disarming of Hizbollah.

In any case, the fact that the Bush administration feels obliged to hint at an early end to hostilities, and indications from Jerusalem that Israel might accept a powerful international buffer force, are probably a response to the wave of critical international media coverage of the civilian impact of the bombing. This reaction was already profound across media outlets in the majority of the world (especially across the middle east), but it only came to the fore in Europe around 21 July, when the war had been underway for nine days.

In any case, whatever is said in public, a better indication of United States attitudes is Washington's decision to fast-track an Israeli order for some 4,000 precision-guided bombs. This hardly equates with any demands for an immediate ceasefire, and makes Condoleezza Rice's current travels in the region appear even more of a cosmetic exercise.

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)

The dynamics of war

In the war itself, three issues are becoming relevant to an assessment of what is happening and what the dynamics are.

First, almost two weeks of air strikes have had little effect either on the Hizbollah leadership or on the militia's ability to continue to wage its campaign against Israel. The destruction of civilian neighbourhoods in southern Beirut, apparently part of an attempt to kill a number of Hizbollah leaders, failed in its immediate objective and has proved counter-productive in its effect on the civilian population. The devastation of residential areas, and the deaths of many civilians, have been widely featured in European media, although even this is still minimal compared with the near wall-to-wall coverage on Arab TV channels.

Second, Hizbollah is proving capable of continuing with its missile attacks – around 300 were launched from 22-24 July alone, including another salvo fired against Haifa on Sunday. On 17 July, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were still claiming that half of Hizbollah's stocks of around 12,000 missiles had already been destroyed (see "War defeats diplomacy", 18 July 2006), yet more than half of the 1,700 missiles fired by Hizbollah so far have been launched since then. This operational level is being sustained in face of an Israeli assault that has included air attacks on 1,500 targets, including another seventy-four on 24 July, and the firing of 12,000 artillery rounds across the border

Third, when Israeli ground troops do engage with Hizbollah militia close to the border they discover an adversary that is determined, well-trained and well-armed. Hizbollah may lack airpower and it has none of the IDF's heavy artillery, yet it is well-practised in guerrilla warfare and will almost certainly be impossible to dislodge with anything short of a full-scale Israeli invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon.

This is deeply problematic for Israeli military planners, given the ability of the Hizbollah militias in recent days to resist the attempted advances of Israeli infantry and special forces. Furthermore, behind this unease lies the memory of Israel's enforced withdrawal from much of southern Lebanon in 1985 in response to Hizbollah actions.

That may influence the determination of IDF leaders to destroy Hizbollah's military forces, given that many of them were young officers at the time of that defeat (see "Israel, Lebanon, and beyond: the danger of escalation", 17 July 2006). At the same time, any such intention will have to be seen in the context of (and perhaps will be constrained by) the experience of fighting in the border areas in recent days; the indications are that this reveals Hizbollah to be even more effective than it was in the mid-1980s.

At least on present trends, these factors mean a continuation and possibly even an increase in the intensity of the Israeli air strikes and artillery bombardments, with all the civilian casualties that will entail. It is also possible that Hizbollah will, in turn, escalate the conflict, perhaps by launching longer-range missiles that can reach as far as Tel Aviv. These are reliably reported to be an Iranian-built variant of the old Soviet Frog-7 missile of cold-war days, but with a rudimentary guidance system making them more accurate than the unguided "free rocket over ground" (Frog).

Such an attack, even if it had little direct impact, would make it essential for the Ehud Olmert government to expand the war. But even without such an escalation, and independently of any public statements from Condoleezza Rice and the Israeli government about a ceasefire and international intervention, it is more likely that Israel's war will continue.

The wider context

A few voices in Washington may be calling for a ceasefire, but it is clear that President Bush sees the war in Lebanon as very much a part of his overall war on terror (see "Hit Beirut, target Tehran", 21 July 2006 – and especially the reference to Michael Abramovitz's article, "In Mideast Strife, Bush Sees a Step to peace", Washington Post, 21 July 2006).

The administration regards support from the rogue states of Syria and Iran as integral to Hizbollah's current actions, and that as a result Israel must be allowed to continue its attacks against Hizbollah through to completion. Whether that is feasible even in military terms is highly doubtful, but the Bush administration has little alternative to maintaining its current support for Israel.

If the Lebanon war is indeed part of Bush's global war on terror, then it is also worth reflecting on the perspective not from Jerusalem, Washington or London, but from the cave, house or city apartment block somewhere in Pakistan that is currently home to Osama bin Laden.

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)

For bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the wider al-Qaida movement, the Lebanon war could hardly have come at a better time. Because of the growth of the satellite news media, especially channels such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, the destruction wrought by Israeli air raids in southern Beirut, Tyre and Sidon is already far better known than the much greater destruction during the Israeli siege of Beirut in summer 1982.

Al-Qaida propagandists readily point out that Israel is flying American strike aircraft and helicopter gunships and that it is dropping American munitions, including the emergency deliveries now being rushed to Israel.

Moreover, the complex and deeply embedded relationships between the Israel Defence Forces and the US army in Iraq are well-known across the middle east, even if they are unknown to the general public in the United States and Britain (see "Between Fallujah and Palestine", 22 April 2004). This makes it easy for al-Qaida to say that the Israeli air assault on southern Lebanon is essentially a joint operation with the United States, just as it claims that the US occupation of Iraq is both part of a strategy to control Arab oil and a neo-Christian Zionist conspiracy aimed against the historic Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, one of Islam's holiest sites.

This representation of events is far from fantastical – it is routine in the DVDs, videos and websites that permeate the output of the more radical Islamist groups. Indeed, at this stage in the 2006 Lebanon war, it is worth remembering Osama bin Laden's message to the United States released just before the US presidential election of November 2004.

As a column of the same week put it:

"In the broadcast, Osama bin Laden appears in an almost authoritative light, using a lectern and avoiding camouflage gear or any display of armaments. Alongside direct condemnation of President Bush and castigation of Arab elites, bin Laden makes pointed references to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and siege of West Beirut. This last reference in particular would resonate with Arab audiences by connecting the Israeli destruction of high-rise buildings in Beirut, part of a protracted military action in July-August 1982 that killed well over 10,000 people, with the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center towers" (see "Four more years for al-Qaida", 4 November 2004).

This rhetorical connection is skilful in two ways. The first is its retrospective linkage of the United States to Israel's 1982 operation in Lebanon, which the US had tacitly backed. By making this connection, bin Laden seeks to establish that the much-vaunted American-Zionist axis has existed for decades, and that the 9/11 attacks were little more than reasonable responses to an alliance that was already evident more than twenty years ago.

The second element is that both the United States and Israel suffered "defeats" in the months and years after the 1982 campaign. In October 1983, the United States marine corps lost 241 troops in a suicide-bomb attack on its barracks at Beirut airport, leading to the US's subsequent withdrawal from Lebanon; by 1985, the Israeli armed forces had encountered such difficulty in controlling southern Lebanon in the face of Hizbollah guerrilla action that they withdrew from most of the territory they had occupied.

Whatever else happens in the coming weeks – whether the war in Lebanon intensifies or ends in an early stalemate – one impact will be a considerable boost to support for the wider al-Qaida movement. In that sense, President Bush's view of the Israeli operations in Lebanon as being an essential part of his global war on terror might well prove correct, but in ways very far from those he intends.

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