After almost four weeks of Israeli bombing, one quarter of Lebanon’s population has heeded Israeli leaflets and fled towns and villages that Hezbollah rocket teams were using for civilian cover. Only the too old or too poor stayed behind. Beirut is isolated, cut off from its main roads to the south, east and north, its sea-lanes west, its airport runways cratered and air space interdicted. Almost 1,000 Lebanese have been killed and several thousand wounded. Hospitals are running out of essential supplies. A comparable tragedy in the U.S. would translate into 73 million refugees in less than a month.
Israel says Hezbollah fighters are “cowards” who hide among civilians. But that happens to be rule one for all guerrilla forces in transition to becoming armies — e.g., Algeria’s FLN “terrorists”; North Vietnam’s Vietcong “terrorists”; East Pakistan’s Mukti Bahini “terrorists” who became Bangladesh’s army; South Africa’s ANC “terrorists”; Zionist “terrorists” who fought the British mandate to create Israel. The list is long.
Former Lebanese intelligence officers in Beirut, contacted on their mobile phones, thought Beirut was edging closer to a resumption of the Lebanese civil war that killed 150,000 (the equivalent of 11 million American lives) between 1975 and 1990. If allowed to continue for several more weeks, the fear now is that the Israel-Hezbollah war could also trigger a wider regional conflict that would involve Syria and then Iran.
In Pakistan, former intelligence chief Gen. Hamid Gul, known for pro-Taliban and pro-al Qaeda views, told the media the U.S. would attack Syria and Iran next October, and that Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal, was the only Islamic country that could use its nuclear capability to defeat Israel’s designs. Other retired Pakistani officers are making similar noises in op-ed articles in Urdu-language newspapers.
The U.S. invaded Iraq with no post-war plans and the country is now on the tipping point of civil war. Israel, it now becomes clear, invaded Lebanon in an ad hoc mode, with air force general Dan Halutz in charge. Air power alone cannot achieve strategic victories.
The surprise capture of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah triggered an improvised Israeli attack that failed to silence Hezbollah’s thousands of Syrian rockets and Iranian missiles. But Israel’s “Rolling Thunder” destroyed much of Lebanon’s infrastructure and turned the anti-Hezbollah Christian minority into cheerleaders for Hezbollah and its chief terrorist, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
By Week Four, Hezbollah and Lebanon had become synonymous. In liberated Iraq, which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described as the birth pangs of a new democracy, tens of thousands of Shi’a in Baghdad rallied for Hezbollah and against what they called the U.S. occupation. Authorized by the Iraqi Defense ministry, most of the men, clad in white burial shrouds, demonstrated their willingness to die. Thousands waved posters of the fiery anti-American radical Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, 32, head of the Mahdi Army, and Sheik Nasrallah, 46, both of whom owe their allegiance to Iran.
In London, some 30,000 marched through London waving Nasrallah banners that said, “We Are All Hezbollah.” Several members of parliament from Tony Blair’s Labor Party joined the demonstrators.
Sheiks Nasrallah and al-Sadr believe that their militant movements, not governments, are the future of the Arab world, the agents of change that will topple “reactionary regimes.” Moderate Arab regimes, always hostile to Hezbollah and its allies (Iran, Syria, Hamas, Islamic Jihad) felt compelled to praise its fighters and condemn Israeli “aggression.”
After almost 8,000 Israeli air sorties and 4,000 targets hit by “smart” bombs, including almost 800 command and control centers, Hezbollah’s missiles still kept flying by the hundreds — one as close as a 30-minute drive from Tel Aviv, another collapsed a 10-story building in Haifa, killing three, injuring over 100, and a third killed 12 Israeli soldiers near a kibbutz. Almost 1 million Israelis were driven into air raid shelters — or to live with friends and relatives out of missile range.
If the Israelis prevail in Lebanon and Hezbollah is decisively defeated, it will be a major loss for Iran. The country that is secretly developing nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them, and whose president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Israel must be wiped off the map, would be deprived of its regional reach.
But if Hezbollah is not dealt a knockout blow, and survives as a state within the state of Lebanon, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 of 2005 to disarm the militias and retrain the Lebanese army (now heavily infiltrated by Hezbollah) will remain in the U.N.’s voluminous gibble-gabble file. Yet a clear-cut Hezbollah defeat in this instance almost certainly means the downfall of Lebanon’s coalition government, which presently includes two Hezbollah ministers and one or two other sympathizers. This is the scenario that could reignite Lebanon’s civil war.
Several more weeks will be needed to get the muscular, 15,000-strong international peacemaking and peacekeeping force deployed in southern Lebanon, the sine qua non for Israel’s withdrawal. U.S. military assets are stretched to the limit on second and third tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.The Brits are also overextended.
Lebanon, like Syria, is a former French protectorate and France is willing to take the lead and the command of such a force. Most other countries are more gun-shy than gung ho. Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are favored by team leader France. But Israel is less than enthusiastic. And no country will lend troops if Hezbollah objects to a political settlement.
The U.S. has already tried its hand in the training and equipping of the Lebanese army after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. When it moved to assert sovereignty in the Chouf Mountains south of Beirut, it encountered the resistance of Druze and Christian fighters. Lebanese units collapsed — as did U.S. efforts to train them.
There is also much skepticism about the effectiveness of a U.N. authorized international army. Syria’s Al Ba’ath government newspaper pointed out this force would be automatically viewed “by resistance fighters and in the nationalist and pan-Arab view as occupation forces, much the way they are in Iraq.” Other Arab papers argued such a force is the “subjugation of Lebanon to Israel’s will and placing it before the potential of a renewed civil war.”
Israel has grown accustomed to thinking collective punishment is a legitimate weapon of war. The only criticism being heard about the latest war, writes Gideon Levy in Ha’aretz, is over tactics. “Everyone is a general now and they are mostly pushing the IDF to deepen its activities. Commentators, ex-generals and politicians compete at raising the stakes with extreme proposals.”
To endure on a strategic level, the U.S.-Israeli alliance now requires regime change in Lebanon, Syria and Iran. For this reason, few are betting against a wider, regional conflict.
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.