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Lebanon

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The Fog of War: Lebanon and Iraq

22 May 2007

The Fog of War: Lebanon and Iraq

By Gwynne Dyer

The fighting that began in northern Lebanon last Sunday (20 May) may drag the country back into a civil war, or it may not. It may be the result of a Syrian plot, or it may not. As a rule, if you claim to understand what is going on in Lebanon, you simply reveal the depths of your ignorance. And yet people do claim to understand it.

White House spokesperson Tony Snow claimed to understand it on Tuesday. “We believe those behind the attack have two clear goals: to disrupt Lebanon’s security and to distract international attention from the efforts to establish a special tribunal for Lebanon. We will not tolerate attempts by Syria, terrorist groups or any others to delay or derail Lebanon’s efforts to solidify its sovereignty or to seek justice in the Hariri case.” In other words, it is a Syrian plot.

The timing of the clashes is certainly suspicious. The Syrian government is deeply unhappy about the creation of a United Nations tribunal to investigate the assassination two years ago of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, because it assumes (quite rightly) that the tribunal will blame Damascus. So maybe it told its proxies to start a little war in northern Lebanon, to remind the Lebanese that they are playing with fire. But that’s just one possibility.

Fatah al-Islam, the group that carried out a bank raid in Tripoli on 19 May and then got involved in a huge fire-fight with the Lebanese army the following day, is one of dozens of little bands of Islamist revolutionaries that have proliferated across the Arab world in recent years, taking al-Qaeda as their model. It probably has a couple of hundred members, and it is based in Nahr el-Bared, the Palestinian refugee camp just north of Tripoli..

But “refugee,” in this context, is a misleading word. Sixty years after the creation of Israel, most of the 40,000 people in Nahr el-Bared were born there, the children and grand-children of the original refugees. They are lost souls living on fantasies of one day “liberating” Palestine, prey to any extremist ideology that comes along. Fatah al-Islam claims to have Lebanese and even Syrian and Saudi members as well, but the bulk of its membership is certainly Palestinians from the camp — and you don’t need any foreign intervention at all to explain why some of the camp’s young men might go crazy.

Maybe Syrian intelligence spotted them and decided they would be useful, and maybe not. But they are perfectly capable of creating this mess on their own. The Middle East is full of plots, but it is also full of freelance extremists with nothing to lose.

Which brings us to Iraq, where the United States has launched a major exercise in blame-shifting. Over recent days, American officials in Baghdad and in Washington have waxed eloquent (on a not-for-attribution basis) about Iran’s key role in the troubles facing the US occupation forces. “Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq and it’s a very dangerous course for them to be following,” a senior US official in Iraq told Simon Tisdall of “The Guardian.”

“They are behind a lot of high-profile attacks meant to undermine US will and British will, such as the rocket attacks on Basra palace and the Green Zone,” the official continued. “The attacks are directed by the Revolutionary Guard, who are connected right to the top (of the Iranian government).” Then he went on to say that Iran was not only supporting its traditional Shia allies in Iraq, but also “Syrian-backed Sunni Arab groups and al-Qaeda.”

Meanwhile, back in Washington, a “senior administration official” let it be known that “Iran is perpetuating the cycle of sectarian violence (in Iraq) through support for extra-judicial killing and murder cells. They bring Iraqi militia members and insurgent groups into Iran for training and then help infiltrate them back into the country.” And the very heavens will fall if the wicked Iranians succeed in their nefarious scheme to drive US forces out of Iraq “prematurely.”

It would be a “colossal humanitarian disaster.” It would be likely to trigger a regional war that would draw in the Sunni Arab Gulf states, Syria and Turkey. Indeed, it might awaken Godzilla from his long sleep and unleash him on the unsuspecting peoples of the Middle East.

I made up the last bit, actually. But I didn’t make up the rest, and yet there is no particular reason to believe that any of it is true. We are offered no evidence for all of these accusations and predictions, some of which seem highly improbable, like the allegation that Iran is getting cozy with al-Qaeda.

Other bits might be true, but then again, as in the Lebanese case, they might not be. And there are strong grounds for suspicion, since this whole story-line about Iranian intervention so obviously serves the purposes of the Bush administration.

The big question is whether it is just another attempt to explain away the US failure in Iraq, or whether it is part of a campaign to prepare the American public and international opinion for a US attack on Iran. We will find out in due course.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 12. (“But…crazy”; and “Other…administration”)

The New Middle East

15 August 2006

The New Middle East

By Gwynne Dyer

Common sense has prevailed. Most of the Israeli troops who were sent into south Lebanon last weekend have already retreated, and the last thousand or two will be back inside the Israeli frontier by next weekend. They are not waiting for the Lebanese army and the promised international peacekeeping force to come in and “disarm Hezbollah.” They are getting the hell out.

The last-minute decision to airlift Israeli troops deep into the four hundred square miles (1,000 sq. km.) of Lebanon south of the Litani river made good sense politically. That way, Israel didn’t have to fight its way in and take the inevitable heavy casualties. It just exploited its total control of the air to fly its troops into areas not actively defended by Hezbollah just before the ceasefire, in order to create the impression that it had defeated the guerilla organisation and established control over southern Lebanon.

However, those isolated packets of troops actually controlled nothing of value, and they were surrounded by undefeated Hezbollah fighters on almost every side. Hezbollah could not have resisted for long the temptation to attack the more exposed Israeli units, perhaps even forcing some to surrender. So the Israeli troops are coming out now, in order to give Hezbollah no easy targets.

General Dan Halutz, the Israeli chief of staff, was right to make this decision, but it removes the last remote possibility that Israel can extract any political gains from the military stalemate in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah says it has no intention of disarming, and Lebanese defence minister Elias Murr says that his army will not try to disarm Hezbollah. The French, who are supposed to lead the greatly expanded United Nations peacekeeping force in the area, say that they will not commit their troops until Hezbollah is disarmed.

There will probably be some kind of fudge in the end that allows at least token numbers of Lebanese army troops and a somewhat expanded UN force to operate in southern Lebanon, but Hezbollah is staying put and so are its weapons. Over a thousand people killed, much of Lebanon’s infrastructure destroyed, significant damage in northern Israel as well, and at the end of this “war of choice” Israel has achieved none of its objectives.

Israel’s assault on Hezbollah was as much a “war of choice” as the US invasion of Iraq. Seymour Hersh claims in this week’s “New Yorker” that the Bush administration approved it months ago, and the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a senior Israeli officer made Power-Point presentations on the planned operation to selected Western audiences over a year ago.

“By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we’re seeing now had already been blocked out,” Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University told the Chronicle, “and in the last year or two it’s been simulated and rehearsed across the board.”

Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was seduced by this plan because, lacking military experience himself, he needed the credibility of having led a major military operation. Otherwise, he would lack support for his plan to impose unilateral borders in the occupied West Bank that would keep the major settlement blocks within Israel, while handing the rest to the Palestinians. So he seized on the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of three others by Hezbollah on 12 July, the latest in an endless string of back-and-forth border violations, as the pretext for an all-out onslaught on the organisation.

But it didn’t work. The Israeli armed forces have effectively been fought to a standstill by a lightly armed but highly trained and disciplined guerilla force, and there will be major repercussions at home and abroad.

Israel’s humiliation might be a blessing in disguise if it persuaded enough Israeli voters that exclusive reliance on military force to smash and subdue their Arab neighbours is a political dead-end, but there is little chance of that. The Israeli politician likeliest to benefit from this mess is Binyamin Netanyahu, hardest of hard-liners, who flamboyantly quit the Likud Party last year in protest at former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s policy of pulling out of the occupied Gaza Strip.

That split Likud and forced Sharon to launch a new party, Kadima, which now dominates the centre-right of Israeli politics and is the nucleus of Olmert’s coalition government. But Kadima may not long survive this disastrous war, and the heir apparent, at the head of a resurgent Likud, is Netanyahu. The last opinion poll in Israel gave him an approval rating of 58 percent.

Much graver, in the long run, is the erosion of Israel’s myth of military invincibility. It is always more economical to frighten your enemies into submission than to fight them, but Arabs have been losing their fear of Israel for some years now. This defeat will greatly accelerate the process, and there are a lot more Arabs than there are Israelis.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad summed up the matter brutally but accurately when he said on Monday that Israel is at “an historic crossroads. Either it moves towards peace and gives back (Palestinian,Syrian and Lebanese) rights (to Israeli-occupied lands), or it faces chronic instability until (an Arab) generation comes and puts an end to the problem.” Of course, he didn’t mention that an Arab military victory over Israel would also effectively put an end to the Arabs, since Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“Israeli..organisation”; and “That split…percent”)

Israel v. Hezbollah: Round Two

14 August 2006

Israel v. Hezbollah: Round Two

By Gwynne Dyer

The ceasefire in southern Lebanon will not hold. Israel will probably lose more soldiers killed in combat in the next month than in the past month (104). Ehud Olmert will probably no longer be prime minister of Israel by the end of this year. And it is all too likely that Binyamin Netanyahu will take his place.

The UN-sponsored ceasefire will not hold because Hezbollah has not been defeated. Despite a month of pounding by Israeli bombs and artillery, it still holds at least 80 percent of the territory south of the Litani river: in most places, Israeli forces have advanced no more than a few miles (kilometres) from the frontier. In the last few days before the ceasefire, Hezbollah was launching twice as many rockets into northern Israel as its daily average in the first week of the war.

So why would it now agree to be disarmed and removed from all of southern Lebanon, the home of its own Shia supporters? Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, was quite frank: “As long as there is Israeli military movement, Israeli field aggression and Israeli soldiers occupying our land…it is our natural right to confront them, fight them, and defend our land, our homes and ourselves.” Besides, the Israelis have now offered him an irresistibly tempting target.

Israel’s assault on Hezbollah was as much a “war of choice” as the US invasion of Iraq. Seymour Hersh claims in this week’s “New Yorker” that the Bush administration approved it in order to deprive Iran (Hezbollah’s ally) of a means of retaliation after US air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the San Francisco Chronicle reports that a senior Israeli army officer made Power-Point presentations on the planned operation to selected Western audiences over a year ago.

“By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we’re seeing now had already been blocked out,” Professor GeraldSteinberg of Bar Ilan University told the Chronicle, “and in the last year or two it’s been simulated and rehearsed across the board.”

Ehud Olmert was seduced by the plan because, lacking military experience himself, he needed the credibility that comes in Israel only from having led a successful military operation. Otherwise, he would lack support for his plan to impose unilateral borders in the occupied West Bank that would keep the major settlement blocks within Israel, while handing the rest to the Palestinians. So he seized on the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of three others by Hezbollah on 12 July, the latest in an endless string of back-and-forth attacks along the northern border, as the pretext for an all-out onslaught on the organisation.

Olmert’s lack of military experience also led him to trust the promises of General Dan Halutz, Israel’s chief of staff, that Hezbollah’s destruction could be accomplished mainly from the air, with Israeli ground troops only going in at the end to mop up. But Rule Number One for aspiring national leaders is: never believe air force promises.

Olmert launched his war, bombed lavishly all across Lebanon, pounded the south — and a month later Hezbollah still controlled almost all the territory and was launching several hundred missiles a day at Israel. Time for a ceasefire — but if he had no more than that to show for his war, he would be out of power very fast. So AFTER the UN resolution was passed on Friday, but BEFORE the ceasefire that formally took effect Monday morning, he launched an airborne invasion that scattered packets of Israeli troops all over southern Lebanon right up to the Litani.

Israel has not smashed the Hezbollah’s strong-points in southern Lebanon and driven its fighters out. It has deposited its own troops among them checkerboard-fashion, in some cases without any ground line of supply, in order to claim that it now controls the region. And it is counting on the UN resolution decreeing the disarming and withdrawal of Hezbollah, and an eventual hand-over by Israel to the Lebanese army and foreign peacekeepers, to protect its soldiers from severe embarrassment. This is probably Olmert’s last mistake.

It is hard to imagine that Hezbollah will resist the temptation to attack all the easy targets that Olmert has now given it in southern Lebanon. It is inconceivable that either the Lebanese army (itself mostly Shia) or the French and Italians (the core of the proposed peacekeeping force) will try to fight their way into southern Lebanon on Israel’s behalf. There is the potential here for Israel’s first serious operational defeat since the 1948 war.

That might be a blessing in disguise for Israel, if it persuaded enough Israeli voters that exclusive reliance on military force to smash and subdue their Arab neighbours is a political dead-end. There is little chance of that. The likeliest beneficiary of this mess is Israel’s archetypal hard-liner, Binyamin Netanyahu, who flamboyantly quit the Likud Party last year in protest at former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s policy of pulling out of the occupied Gaza Strip.

That split Likud and forced Sharon to launch a new party, Kadima, which now dominates the centre-right of Israeli politics and is the nucleus of Olmert’s coalition government. But Kadima may not survive this disastrous war, and the heir apparent, at the head of a resurgent Likud, is Netanyahu. The last opinion poll in Israel gave him an approval rating of 58 percent.

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To shorten to 72 words, omit paragraphs 5, 11 and 12. (“By 2004…board”; and “That might…percent”) IF YOU ARE OMITTING the last two paragraphs, also lose the last sentence of the first paragraph.

Israel and Hezbollah: End Game

31 July 2006

Israel and Hezbollah: End Game

By Gwynne Dyer

The kill ratio is becoming a problem: Israel has been killing about forty Lebanese civilians for every Israel civilian who is killed. They are all being killed by accident, of course, but such a long chain of accidents begins to look like carelessness, and even in Israel and the United States many people are getting uneasy about the slaughter. Elsewhere, the revulsion at what is happening is almost universal, and the death of so many women and children at Qana has greatly intensified the pressure on Israel and its de facto allies, the United States and Britain, to stop the war.

They are already making tactical concessions to lessen the pressure. Israel “partially suspended” its bombardment of Lebanon for forty-eight hours, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice promised to let the United Nations Security Council consider a resolution calling for a ceasefire this week. But Israel’s generals still want another ten days to two weeks of war to batter Hezbollah into submission, and neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or his loyal allies in Washington and London are really willing to override them yet.

Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz told parliament on Monday that Israel cannot accept a ceasefire now, since if it did so then “the extremists (Hezbollah) will rear their heads again.” The US and British governments have to dodge and weave a bit as doubts grow at home about the morality and feasibility of Israel’s actions, but they can certainly arrange for the Security Council resolution to fail this week.

The real trick, in terms of keeping American and British public opinion on side, is to blur the sequence of events that led to the war and present it as a desperate Israeli struggle against an unprovoked onslaught by thousands of terrorist rockets. As Prime Minister Tony Blair told the BBC, “It cannot be that Israel stops taking the action it’s taking but Hezbollah continue to kill, kidnap, and launch rockets into the north of Israel at the civilian population there.”

The website of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs goes further, claiming that the operation in which Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldier and killed three others and the rain of Hezbollah rockets on Israeli cities were “simultaneous.” Obviously, these are mad terrorists who must be removed from Israel’s border at once by any means possible. But unless “simultaneous” means “on the following day” in Hebrew, the website is deliberately distorting what happened.

There WAS an unprovoked Hezbollah attack on the Israeli army on 12 July, seeking to kidnap soldiers who could be held as hostages and eventually exchanged for Lebanese prisoners who have been illegally held in Israel since the latter ended its eighteen-year military occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. And no doubt the reason Israel held onto those prisoners in the first place was to have them as hostages in some future prisoner exchange with Hezbollah. That’s how the game is played locally.

In the course of grabbing the Israeli hostages on 12 July, Hezbollah fired rockets and mortars at the northern Israeli town of Shlomi as a diversion, but nobody was hurt there. And apart from that, NO Hezbollah missiles struck Israel that day. Indeed, none had been fired at Israel for at least four years, although there were regular skirmishes between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah fighters along the frontier. Hezbollah had the rockets, but they were not mad terrorists.

During the following 24 hours, however, Israel launched massive air strikes and artillery bombardments the length and breadth of Lebanon, striking Beirut airport, Lebanese air force bases, the Beirut-Damascus highway, a power station, and all sorts of other non-Hezbollah targets and killing many civilians. And it was only on 13 July that Hezbollah rockets begin to hit cities all across northern Israel.

Nobody has clean hands here. Israel seized on the kidnap operation as the pretext for a massive onslaught aimed at destroying Hezbollah’s resources and removing it from southern Lebanon — a perfectly legitimate goal, in line with United Nations resolution 1559, but not one that the UN had envisaged as being accomplished by Israeli bombs. Hezbollah may just have been trying to raise its profile in Lebanon and the wider Arab world with a small but successful operation that humiliated the Israelis — or it may have foreseen the likelihood of a massive Israeli over-reaction, and calculated that it could ride it out and win from it.

Whether that was its intention or not, it probably will ride it out and win. Having fired at least ninety missiles at Israeli cities every day but two since the war began — though they only kill an average of one Israeli a day — Hezbollah launched only two rockets on Monday (probably a crew that didn’t get the message to stop in time). If there should be a ceasefire in the next week, it will emerge the victor, since no international peace-keeping force is going to fight the kind of campaign that would be required to dig it and its weapons out of south Lebanon’s hills and villages.

And if there is no ceasefire, then the Israeli Defence Force will be granted a further opportunity to demonstrate that it cannot do so either. At least, not at a cost in Israeli soldiers’ lives that would be remotely acceptable to the Israeli public.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“Israeli…week”; and “The website…happened”)