Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The New Middle East is very like the Old

Now that the guns in Lebanon are silent, it is time for the recriminations to commence. In Israel, the knives are already out for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The back-seat tank commanders are already questioning the tactics used in this war, especially the initial reliance on air power to cripple Hizbolla. In the West, particularly in Britain and the US, questions are being raised about the failure to call for an immediate ceasefire at the beginning of the conflict. And the biggest questions of all: Why was the war waged in the first place and what will be the lasting legacy of the four-and-a-half weeks of fighting?

In many ways, this was a strange war. It begun with a fairly routine incursion by Hizbolla into northern Israel and the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. In the immediate aftermath, Israel’s efforts at rescuing the two were dealt an embarrassing blow with the loss of a tank and 8 soldiers to the guerillas. This seemingly innocuous challenge to Israel’s military domination of the region set the stage for a war that seemed to target the very people that Israel was proclaiming it was not at war with, the people of Lebanon. It was a war in which more than 30,000 troops were eventually deployed, supported by artillery and preceded by a massive air campaign targeting civilian infrastructure, to fight what Israel had estimated to be at most 5,000 Hizbolla militants concentrated in south Lebanon. In spite of the overwhelming numerical and technological superiority of the Israelis, they were unable to overrun the Hizbolla positions and failed in their attempt to create a buffer zone south of the Litani river. In many cases, fighting was still being reported within a few kilometers of the Israeli border. This is in stark contrast to the invasion of 1982 when it took just 7 days for Israeli troops to make it to the outskirts of Beirut. Finally, it was a war that was ended through negotiations, not between the warring parties, but between the US and France at the UN Security Council.

A closer look, though, reveals that things were not always as they seemed. Seymour Hersh, in an article in the NewYorker magazine, alleges that prior to the start of the war, the Israelis had drawn up, and shared with the US, plans to attack and destroy Hizbolla, who were amassing a huge arsenal of rockets on the Jewish nation’s northern border. The article, which quotes current and former White House officials, alleges that the Bush Administration considered an attack on Hizbolla to be a dry run for a contemplated military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities and that the US Air Force was ordered to help polish up the plan which eventually called for “strategic bombing” or air strikes on civilian infrastructure designed to turn the Lebanese population against the militants. Apparently, this was to provide a pattern for the bombing of Iran with the aim of crippling its nuclear programme and to turn the population against the ruling Mullahs. This seems to be what US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meant when she characterised the conflict as “the birth pangs of a New Middle East”.

In an earlier posting I argued that this was a war of choice. It is now clear that the capture of the two soldiers was simply used as a pretext for the implementation of the preconceived military plan. This explains the reluctance of the US and Britain to call for a ceasefire as well as the stalling action of the two during the Rome Conference and the Security Council negotiations. After all, Israel had promised to deliver victory in 35 days. But as the war dragged on, it became increasingly obvious that they had badly miscalculated. Hizbolla were not going with the script and as the war dragged on, many Lebanese and Arabs, even those who initially had no love for Hizbolla, were starting to regard the militants as a legitimate resistance to Israeli aggression. With the rest of the world appalled by TV pictures of dead civilians and bombed out roads and bridges, and the pressure to end the fighting intensifying, Bush relented and pulled the plug.

Who will emerge as the winners in this conflict? Certainly not the Israelis who have not only failed in their declared aims of crippling Hizbolla and rescuing the soldiers but have also had their image of invincibility severely undermined. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has in a speech today described them as the laughing stock of the Middle East. Certainly not the Americans, whose plans for a “new Middle East” have been thwarted. The option of a military strike against Iran is, at least for now, definitely off the table as their generals are forced rethink their strategy.

Hizbolla, Syria and Iran have clearly come out on top. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbolla leader, has claimed a strategic victory and is being hailed as hero in many parts of the Arab world. Indeed, he is now being compared to Egypt’s Gamal Nasser. The Syrians and Iranians have broken out of the diplomatic isolation that Washington sought to impose on them and are now considered crucial to the achievement of a lasting peace in the region. The lack of a clear Israeli military victory has fundamentally altered the strategic balance in the Middle East, sidelined the pro-Western “moderate” regimes of the region and rallied the Arab street, long used to military humiliation at the hands of the Israelis, around Hizbolla, and by implication, Iran and Syria.

So what are we to expect of the coming days? There has been a lot of speculation regarding this. The UN Security Council resolution 1701 provides the framework for a “cessation of hostilities” and not for a long-term ceasefire. Many in the region regard it as temporary postponement of the fight.

Here’s my take. In southern Lebanon, expect an Israeli withdrawal to the Blue Line as the international peace-keeping force and the Lebanese Army deploy as well as an exchange of prisoners. There will be a tenuous peace, with perhaps some localised skirmishes, as both sides regroup and rearm, the international arms embargo against Hizbolla notwithstanding. The politically strengthened militants have indicated that they will not disarm. It is unlikely that the UN troops will have the stomach to forcefully disarm them and the Lebanese government will not risk civil war to do so.

In the short term, Israel’s flirtation with civilian government seems to be over. There is a strong likelihood that the ruling Kadima-Labour coalition will crumble as Israelis take out their frustration on Prime Minister Olmert as well as Defense Minister Amir Peretz (they did the same to Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan after the Yom Kippur War of 1973). This will strengthen the hand of the hardliners in Likud, such as former PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who will probably be planning a vote of no-confidence in the government. I expect that there will be early elections and the determination to redeem the country’s tarnished military image will lead to a preference for generals and men of military experience and a more insular Israel, unwilling to make the necessary concessions to achieve peace.

The new military self-confidence of the Arab world, and the dysfunctional peace process (Assad has already declared it a failure), will continue to marginalize the moderates who advocate an accommodation with Israel, and feed more youths into the ranks of the militants whose prestige is at an all-time high. Across the region, many will look to Iran and Syria for leadership. There will be a hardening of positions, and possibly further instigation of conflict with Israel and the West.

The Neo-Conservatives in Washington will be licking their wounds but are unlikely to give up their ambitions of “sorting out” Iran before Bush leaves office. With the UN deadline for Iran to halt its uranium enrichment activities set to expire at the end of August, the stage for the next battle is being set. The Iranians will undoubtedly refuse to comply and the US will push for sanctions (their record with Iraqi WMD may come back to haunt them here). The Russians and Chinese, both veto-wielding Permanent Members of the Security Council and mindful of their economic ties to Iran, are unlikely to go along with anything greater than a slap on the wrist. With this, the UN hating neo-cons will have the excuse they need for a pre-emptive, unilateral (and substantially revised) military strike on Iran. What happens then? Clash of civilizations? Armageddon?

There is however another path. The Israelis may come to accept, as they evidently did following the Yom Kippur War, that their poltical objectives are unlikely to be achieved through military means. The 1973 war laid the ground for the Camp David Accords in which Egypt and Jordan repudiated the "Three No's" of the Khartoum conference ("no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it") that had been the bedrock policy of the Arab world since 1967 and signed peace treaties with the Jewish states. It seems clear that Israel, which had suffered a military shock in the beginning stages of the war, lost its cocky assurance borne of the Six-Day War and acknowledged the resurgent power and morale of the Arabs. They were thus more amenable to a peace process. Similarly, though boosted by a string of early victories, the Arab eventually states lost the war (and more land) and had to finally accept that they would have to come to an accommodation with the Jewish entity. While war still lay in the future, it would be accurate to say (as Fouad Ajami wrote a year after Anwar Sadat's famous trip to Jerusalem to address Israel's parliament) that the Middle East conflict was "no longer about Israel's existence, but about its boundaries."

The aftermath of the present conlict presents a similar opportunity for a full, final and comprehensive peace process which may well lead to a full, final and comprehensive peace. This, however, calls for what Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese PM, described as "historic men". It would mean the abandoning of Washington's current policy, which is heavily biased towards Israel, and negotiations with all parties to the conflict, including the unsavoury regimes of Iran and Syria, during which all issues would be placed on the table. Such an eventuality would not justify the death, suffering and destruction of the last few weeks. but it would surely mean it had not been in vain.


gathinga said...

I have found this to be a well researched and informative post. However, i dont think the just ended war is a precurser to peace as such. Isreal are likely to find reason to return another day to 'complete the mission' Jews the world over, are known to be very innovative, good at learning from disaster. while the political leadership in Jerusalem is likely to be involved in the qustion as to suitability of Olmert's continued leadership or not, the generals must be taking stock. and laying strategy for future incursions, raids and targetted assassinations against hizbollah and hamas. This will only harden the arab resolve and hatred against the jew... such is the stuff for continued conflict

Gathara said...

While I can understand the reasons for your pessimism, I still think that there is a window of opportunity for both sides to extract themselves from the cycle of violence and counter-violence. After all, the Arabs may have proven their point that Israel cannot achieve its aims through conflict but considering the destruction wrought on Lebanon, it was, at best, a hollow "victory". If the international community (read the West) focusses its attention in a similar manner as last year, when it booted Syria out of Lebanon, there is hope that an equitable peace can be achieved which takes into account the concerns of both sides.

Kennedy Kaburu (Kenny) said...

Hi Gathara!
Yours is a very interesting but incisive blog!
It is very encouraging to note that cartoonists can express themselves satisfactorily in words as well. I just hope that one day peace which has hitherto been elusive in middle east will be embraced by both sides soon. Because attacks beget counter attacks..And counter attacks begets countless counter attacks..and the countless counter attacks sucks the human in us leaving us but savage shells that are no repector of the sanctity of life..

jon said...

Excellent post and very valid arguments here. My thinking all along was that Iran is somewhere in this equation; either in the process of stirring up Israel or as a target by US / Israel on account of Iran’s nuclear plant.

Undoubtedly, the West is terrified of Iran holding WMDs and with good reason, given the Islamic tendency to willingly die for their cause. Unlike the old Soviet/Communist era when Mutually Assured Destruction prevailed, belief in MAD where Iran is concerned would probably cause many a sleepless nights for Western Governments.

The options are somewhat limited; prevent Iran from having WMDs or reach a political solution against a background of MAD. I am inclined to believe that MAD will ultimately prevail in the region, just as it did/does in Europe and India/Pakistan, but I suspect that the US will not willingly take that chance unless they have to, and go instead for direct action against Iran.

It is conceivable that MAD could actually lead to lasting peace in the Middle East, since I believe it has been absence of the balance of power that responsible for the continuing unrest there.