Thursday, July 27, 2006

Syria, under the Assad reign (both father and son), has been involved in all the wars and tensions of the Middle East since 1970 when Air Force chief Gen. Hafez Assad launched his country’s 22nd coup d’etat since World War II. When Insight magazine launched its inaugural issue in 1985, Assad was on the cover as “The World’s No. 1 Terror Broker.”

Defeated in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Assad bounced back with the help of his 14 different intelligence agencies, all involved one way or another in general Middle Eastern skullduggery.

When the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Maronite Christians were reeling under the blows of a state within a state, which was then the Palestine Liberation Organization under the late Yasser Arafat. Assad sent his army across the frontier into Lebanon — always considered a protectorate by Damascus and never recognized as an independent state — to protect the Maronites. Syrian troopers duked it out with the Palestinians to ease the pressure on the Maronites before switching sides to ease the pressure on the Muslims.

By war’s end, every party had allied with and then betrayed every other party, sometimes more than once. Today, Lebanese throw up their hands in despair on television news as the scenes of destruction in south Beirut remind them of their capital city in ruins during the previous Israeli invasion in 1982 that evicted the PLO from the country — all the way to exile in Tunis. At first, when Gen. Ariel Sharon’s Patton-like blitz reached Beirut, exhausted Lebanese greeted them with cheers and flowers. Not for long. The twin massacres of some 2,500 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Israel’s Lebanese allies, which nearby Israeli Defense Force troops ignored, ended the brief honeymoon. This, in turn, led a Syrian/Iranian-engineered terrorist attack that killed 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French soldiers Oct. 23, 1983.

By 1989, when the principal protagonists signed the Taif peace agreement, Israel held a security buffer zone in southern Lebanon, policed by its Lebanese right-wing surrogates. But in 2000, tired of constant skirmishes with Hezbollah on its northern border, Israel’s new Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to abandon the sticky buffer situation it held for 18 years. The Syrians stepped into the vacuum only to be forced out of Lebanon completely under international pressure in 2005 for suspected involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the man who rebuilt Beirut to its former glory.

Evidently ignorant or blase about betrayal and the alliance merry-go-round in the Arab world (Libya and Morocco once merged their states — for 48 hours), no one appears to have noticed Syrian and Israeli interests silently converging. Damascus wants a weak and subdued Lebanon and Israel wants a quiescent northern neighbor. The destruction of the country’s modern infrastructure as well as its multibillion-tourist industry sets Lebanon back 20 years. Lebanon’s strong currency will probably also collapse.”

The most immediate winner of the latest Middle Eastern war is Syria. Israel’s success in its latest Lebanese campaign is seriously in doubt. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice doesn’t want to talk to Damascus.

The consensus among regional experts is that Hezbollah could not have mounted an operation to capture an Israeli prisoner without a green light from both Damascus and Tehran. Our dissenting voice simply notes prisoners have been taken before and usually wind up with a 100-to-1 prisoner exchange in favor of terrorist organizations. Israel’s massive retaliatory campaign was probably the last thing Hezbollah expected.

Western intelligence agencies and journalists have been writing about Hezbollah’s 10,000 to 15,000 Syrian-supplied Katyusha rockets and Iran-supplied Farj missiles for at least the past five years. Israel knew it would have to move sooner or later before Hezbollah got 30,000 or 50,000 such weapons, including some that could reach Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion International Airport and Jerusalem.

Hezbollah’s capture of an Israeli soldier and killing of eight others were totally unexpected and provided the opportunity to launch what was inevitable sooner or later. The retaliatory campaign now under way required the mobilization of some 10,000 reservists and moving several hundred tanks and tracked vehicles to the north for this week’s ground offensive.

World opinion is understandably up in arms about the wanton destruction of entire sections of Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. Some precision-guided bombs often hit innocent targets, but many hit caches of rockets and missiles hidden in apartment buildings or modest houses along a highway or dirt road. Large swaths of southern Lebanon are a maze of tunnels and foliage-covered revetments used, for example, to conceal a battery of eight Katyusha rockets mounted on the back of a truck

Hyperbole and the fog of war are usually synonymous. It’s hard to sift facts from fiction. The result is usually “faction,” or a blend of fact and fiction. Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador at the U.N. and a Fox News favorite, told NewsMax, a conservative Web site, Israel “is a convenient surrogate for the larger enemy Iran perceives — the West.” Now president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Mr. Gold says Iran is building long-range missiles to cower London and Berlin, not just Tel Aviv. These missiles are designed to force Europe to sit on its hands as Iran takes on Israel with 1,300-kilometer Shahab missiles, tipped with weapons of mass destruction.

Hezbollah’s medium-range Iranian missiles had already turned Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city with 280,000, into a ghost town. Tens of thousands quickly moved out of the Israeli port city to stay with relatives and friends out of Fajr range.

For Mr. Gold and the Israeli right, the current crisis is reminiscent of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The G-8 meeting in St. Petersburg, rather than discussing Iran’s illegal nuclear program, which was supposed to be the main item on the summit menu, focused instead on the Israeli war with Hezbollah.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, sent another bizarre 10-page missive to Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel (Mr. Bush’s version ran 18 pages), this time drawing parallels between Iranian and German history since 1945 and their alleged oppression by Zionism and the “international Jewish conspiracy.” Nary a word about Iran’s nuclear ambitions or its protege Hezbollah.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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