Hizballah vs Israel, Part II

5 02 2010

 

 

Katyusha Rocket

by Patrick Vibert

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

These are good days for Lebanon. The country is relatively stable, stocks are up, and the tourists are back. The government is semi-functional, business is booming, and construction is everywhere. The people of Lebanon are showing the world what they are capable of when their country is not at war. But many Lebanese are fearful that this peace will not last; that it is only a matter of time before Israeli bombs rain down on Lebanon once again.

In for a penny, in for a pound

Recently, all sides have upped the ante. Israel proclaimed that it will hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions of Hizballah. In return, the Lebanese government declared that Hizballah was a legitimate defender of Lebanon. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, seeing no way out of these trouble waters, decided to wade into them chest deep. And with that, Hariri put the safety and stability of all Lebanon in the hands of Hizballah.

Many believe that one of the major factors that led to the 2006 War was that Hizballah was eager to prove its usefulness in the wake of Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and the end of Syrian occupation in 2005. There were UN resolutions calling for the disarmement of Hizballah, and suddenly they had no cover from Syria and no one to “resist” against.

You would think that two occupiers leaving your country would be a good thing, but counter-intuitively this was highly destabilizing for Lebanon.  It caused an internal rift between Hizballah and the government over the disarmament issue, and created the need for Hizballah to prove its “usefulness” to Lebanon. Officially declaring Hizballah’s weapons to be part of Lebanon’s defense negated both those issues.

This was a shrewd move for the young Prime Minister, who is quickly proving his ability to negotiate the complex political landscapes of Lebanon and the Middle East. By accepting the reality of Hizballah’s arms, he pulled the group deeper into the political establishment thereby increasing their responsibility for the safety of Lebanon, and conversely, their culpability for its destruction.

The new Cold War

The way things stand today, Israel is unlikely to attack unless provoked, and Hizballah is unlikely to provide that provocation. This tense and tenuous state of affairs has held so far, but if it fails, the result would likely leave Lebanon in complete ruin, even more so than the 2006 conflict.

On the surface, Israel and Hizballah seem like two scorpions in a glass jar, but this may not be the case. Some analysts speculate that the least spark could set the situation ablaze. However, recent events have shown that it will take more than a tiny spark to reignite this fire.

Periodically, over the last year, rockets were launched into Israel from Lebanon, likely originating from militant Lebanese Palestinians. If Israel wanted to, it could have used these rocket attacks as a pretext for another war, but it didn’t. No one was killed, Hizballah said they didn’t do it, and that was that. It will likely take an offense on the level of what set everything off in 2006 (when Hizballah killed a handful of Israeli soldiers and took two of them into Lebanon) to start another war.

Again, the way things stand today, a repeat of that scenario is unlikely.

Syria gets involved

A wild card in this scenario is Syria. Just last week, Israeli analysts were recommending that any strike against Hizballah be widened to include Syria. This is because almost everything that Hizballah has in terms of weapons and cash either comes either from Syria, or from Iran through Syria.

While cutting off an opposing army’s ability to rearm itself has historically been of strategic importance,  it might not apply in this case. Hizballah has already completely restocked its itself with everything that it will need for another conflict with Israel. If the IDF gets involved with Hizballah again, and Hizballah exhausts its weapons supplies, that will mean that the conflict had probably drawn itself out to a duration the Israel is likely to be very uncomfortable with. It is unclear whether Israel is even capable of sustaining Hizballah long enough for the Resistance to necessitate reaming itself.

The whole makeup of the IDF is geared towards quick and devastating preemptive strikes, not intense, long and drawn out conflicts. Some may point to the thirty-year occupation of Lebanon as proof that the IDF can sustain itself in hostile territory for long periods of time, but that was an entirely different case. Israel originially invaded Lebanon because the PLO was using it as a base of attack. Israel invaded June 1982 and the PLO was expelled September of that same year. In just four months, the IDF had reached its primary objective.

Historically though, even four months is a long time for Israel. The Six Day War of 1967 comes to mind, but also the Yom Kippur War of 1973 lasted less than a month. Flash forward to Israel’s 2006 War with Hizballah, which itself lasted only34 days. If Syria gets involved, or more precisely, if Israel involves Syria, it could prolong the conflict to a duration that Israel just is not comfortable with. Hizballah already has its weapons, and the IDF will likely have its hands full with them without getting Syria into the mix.

One thing that must be considered, however, is the strength of the Syrian defenses. Syria uses less-than-state-of-the-art weapons and defense systems, some of it having come from the Soviet Union  back when there was such a thing. In 1967, a time when Israeli forces were not nearly as advanced as they are today, the IDF laid waste to the Syrian Air Force before it even left the ground.

More recently in 2007, the Israeli Air Force traveled deep into Syrian air space and destroyed suspected nuclear weapons sites. Syria was completely taken by surprise, its air defense system completely failed, and to this day Syria has not responded.

It is not that far of a stretch to imagine the IDF doing the exact same thing today, with the same result. In this scenario, there would be a simultaneous attack on Hizballah (or more accurately, Lebanon) and Syria, and when the smoke cleared, only Hizballah would be still fighting.

Hizballah vs Israel, Part II

Whether or not Syria “gets involved”, it is likely that another war between Hizballah and Israel would last longer than 34 days. First, the 2006 War only stopped because Israel withdrew, as Hizballah showed no signs of slowing down. That time, Hizballah was estimated to have about 16,000 rockets as well as a few anti-tank and anti-ship missiles. Today however, the group is believed to be much more prepared (as are the Israelis, no doubt). In addition to more than doubling its Katyusha rocket stash to over 40,000 strong, Hizballah has also likely acquired more sophisticated weapons, and higher quantities of them.

Katyusha rockets are highly inaccurate and only travel several kilometers. Still though, a barrage of several thousand was bound to do some damage. If reports are true, Hizballah now has more advanced rockets that can travel further and hit their targets.

In a situation where Tel Aviv and points south are taking direct rocket fire and suffering multiple casualties, how long can the IDF sustain an attack against Hizballah? Over 1,400 Israeli lives were lost in 2006. Is Israel ready to accept a death toll in that neighborhood again? Also in 2006, the IDF was never able to stop Hizballah’s rocket assault, and Hizballah generals are believed to have never lost communication with their front lines. What makes Israel think  that this time will be different, when Hizballah has had over three years to plan and prepare?

The result of another war between Hizballah and Israel would be terrifying for all involved. Lebanon would likely be destroyed beyond recognition, and Israel would likely suffer damages and casualties that it has not seen in generations, if ever. Just as the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction kept the USA and USSR out of a nuclear war, maybe it will also keep Hizballah and Israel from once again squaring off.

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