Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, October 23, 2006

"Hezbollah's victory," October 23, 2006.

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Lebanon may have slipped off the news radar, but it hasn't disappeared altogether. Offstage inquiries into the 34-day war in July and August are beginning to bear fruit.

Last week, Alistair Crooke and Mark Perry, co-founders of the Conflicts Forum, a privately funded non-profit organization in the United Kingdom, finished a 3-part series for Asia Times Online on three separate aspects of the war--intelligence, the ground war and the political consequences.

Crooke and Perry report that Hezbollah officials would "neither speak publicly nor for the record on how they fought the conflict. They would not detail their deployments and would not discuss their future strategy."

Therefore, Crooke and Perry's conclusions are derived from on-the-ground assessments conducted during the course of the war, from interviews with Israeli, American and European military experts, from emerging understandings of the conflict in discussions with military strategists, and from a network of senior officials in the Middle East who were intensively interested in the war's outcome and with whom they spoke.

Their main conclusion contradicts the view that Israel's offensive in Lebanon significantly damaged Hezbollah's ability to wage war, that Israel successfully degraded Hezbollah's military ability to prevail in a future conflict, and that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), once deployed in large numbers in southern Lebanon, were able to prevail over their foes and dictate a settlement favorable to the Israeli political establishment.

It's hard to believe the opposite, i.e., that Hezbollah was able to dictate a settlement favorable to its own interests. Yet their study which ends saying that the war "has caused a political earthquake in the region" is plausible with only a few exceptions.

Crooke and Perry argue that "Olmert and the security cabinet violated the first principle of war - they showed contempt for their enemy." Some new details about the abduction of July 12, about preparations for war, the treatment of Lebanese collaboratorating with the Israelis, the failure of Israel's air campaign.

The attempt to take out Hezbollah's leadership in Beirut also failed. "At no point during the war was any major Hezbollah political figure killed."

The IAF began targeting schools, community centers and mosques because they believed that their inability to identify and interdict Hezbollah bunkers meant that Hezbollah's had hidden their major assets inside civilian centers.

But Hezbollah had built a network of over 600 bunkers south of the Litani River. Some were built as decoys under the eyes of Israeli drones or Lebanese citizens with close ties to the Israelis. Others were dug as much as 40 meters deep into the rocky hills. A few were even air conditioned.

Furthermore, Hezbollah had been able to maintain its attacks without any hope of resupply. By the end of the month it had used less than a quarter of its rockets.

Especially surprising in Crooke and Perry's view was Hezbollah's ability to cease fire after the Qana massacre. This meant that Israel's goal of separating Hezbollah fighters from their command structure, considered a necessity by modern armies in waging a war on a sophisticated technological battlefield, had failed.

Even more surprising, "One month prior to the abduction of the IDF border patrol and the subsequent Israeli attack, Lebanese intelligence officials had broken up an Israeli spy ring operating inside the country. "

"From the onset of the conflict to its last operations, Hezbollah commanders successfully penetrated Israel's strategic and tactical decision-making cycle across a spectrum of intelligence, military and political operations, with the result that Hezbollah scored a decisive and complete victory in its war with Israel."
Crooke and Perry do not embroil themselves in the attempt to fix blame. Although they present new information about conditions before the beginning of the war, they do not attempt to adjudicate differing opinions about who started it. That is not an issue to be decided either by the press or by a political body like the Security Council, but rather by a court with the authority to summon witnesses and to examine evidence in detail. Unfortunately, no such court is likely to address that or other related issues.

After two weeks the Israeli claim that it would "destroy Hezbollah" had evaporated.
"Gone too was a claim that only NATO would be acceptable as a peacekeeping unit on the border. On July 25, Israel reported that Abu Jaafar, a commander of Hezbollah's 'central sector' on the Lebanese border, was killed 'in an exchange of fire' with Israeli troops near the border village of Maroun al-Ras - which had not yet been taken. The report was not true. Abu Jaafar made public comments after the end of the war.

"Later on July 25, during US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Jerusalem, the Israeli military fought its way into Bint Jbeil, calling it 'Hezbollah's terror capital'. The fight for Bint Jbeil went on for nine days. But it remained in Hezbollah hands until the end of the conflict."

Crooke and Perry do not name any of their sources, but they identify one as "a Middle East expert with access to senior Pentagon officials." That individual is quoted as saying
"There is a common misperception that the [US] Air Force was thrilled by the Israeli war against Lebanon.... They were aghast. They well know the limits of their own power and they know how it can be abused.

"It seemed to them [USAF officers] that Israel threw away the book in Lebanon. This wasn't surgical, it wasn't precise, and it certainly wasn't smart. You can't just coat a country in iron and hope to win."

"When Israel finally agreed to a ceasefire and began its withdrawal from the border area, it left behind upwards of 40 armored vehicles." That's more than one a day. Nearly all of them had been destroyed by expertly deployed AT-3 'Sagger' anti-tank missiles.

Crooke and Perry challenge the Israeli claims that it killed 400-500 Hezbollah fighters. They base what they feel is "a more precise accounting" on the number of funerals. "It is impossible," they say, "for Shi'ites (and Hezbollah) not to allow an honorable burial for its martyrs... our most recent information from Lebanon says the number of Shi'ite martyr funerals in the south can now be precisely tabulated at 184."

Although the Conflict Forums report discusses cluster bombs and the number of Katyushka rockets fired into civilian areas in some detail, once again it does not attempt to adjudicate the issue of war crimes.

Nor does it address the political issues of most interest to Canadians such as the death of 11 members of the Al Akhras family on July 16 or the presumed accidental bombing of a UN observation post on July 25 or statements from marginal powers such as Canadian Prime Minister Harper's famous remark that Israel's response to the "kidnapping" was "measured."

But it does list ten critical effects of the war.

First, the war between Hezbollah and Israel showed that "any modern and technologically sophisticated Western military force can be defeated in open battle...."

Second, it showed
"the people of the Muslim world that the strategy employed by Western-allied Arab and Muslim governments - a policy of appeasing US interests in the hopes of gaining substantive political rewards (a recognition of Palestinian rights, fair pricing for Middle Eastern resources, non-interference in the region's political structures, and free, fair and open elections) - cannot and will not work."

As an editorial aside I will interject that Canada could learn something from this, but Harper is not the man.

Third, it had "a shattering impact on America's allies in the region....
"Mubarak and the two Abdullahs [the Kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan] are very unlikely to support any US program calling for economic, political or military pressures on Iran. A future war - perhaps a US military campaign against Iran's nuclear sites - might not unseat the government in Tehran, but it could well unseat the governments of Egypt, Jordan and perhaps Saudi Arabia."

Fourth, it has "dangerously weakened the Israeli government."

It appears to have marked the rise to power of Avigdor Liberman, but that is a story for another day.

Fifth, in the opinion of Crooke and Perry, "the Hezbollah victory spells the end of any hope of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least in the short and medium terms....
"Abbas is in a far more tenuous position than Mubarak or the two Abdullahs - his people's support for Hamas continues, as does his slavish agreement with George W Bush, who told him on the sidelines of the United Nations Security Council meeting that he was to end all attempts to form a unity government with his fellow citizens."

Sixth, it has had quote "the very unfortunate consequence of blinding Israel's political leadership to the realities of their geostrategic position....

Crooke and Perry's colleague Jeff Aronson noted that "if it were up to the US, Israel would still be fighting", and he added: "The United States will fight the war on terrorism to the last drop of Israeli blood."
"Seventh, Hezbollah's position in Lebanon has been immeasurably strengthened, as has the position of its most important ally. At the height of the conflict, Lebanese Christians took Hezbollah refugees into their homes. The Christian leader Michel Aoun openly supported Hezbollah's fight. One Hezbollah leader said: 'We will never forget what that man did for us, not for an entire generation.' Aoun's position is celebrated among the Shi'ites, and his own political position has been enhanced."

"Eighth, Iran's position in Iraq has been significantly enhanced. ...

"Ninth, Syria's position has been strengthened and the US-French program for Lebanon has failed."

Israel has rejected an offer from Syria to engage in peace talks.

"Tenth, and perhaps most important, it now is clear that a US attack on Iranian nuclear installations would be met with little support in the Muslim world. ... We would now dare say the obvious - if and when such an attack comes, the United States will be defeated."

Of course Crooke and Perry may be wrong. But if the war between Israel and Hezbollah was a victory for Israel, no one has been inspired by it, not even the Israelis.

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