Hizballah, Israel, and the Syrian Unrest

9 05 2011

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

The protest movement in Syria continues to grow, with thousands of demonstrators taking to the street on Friday for a “day of rage”. We have seen similar days of rage in the other Arab countries that have undergone or are undergoing revolutions. The people of Syria, at first demanding reforms, are now openly calling for an end to Bashar Assad’s entire Baathist Alawite regime.

Syria is viewed by many as the linchpin of the Middle East. Damascus is involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the US-Iran conflict, and the Iraq War. When there is talk of regime change in Syria, many ears turn toward the conversation. On this topic there is no shortage of interested parties, but perhaps none more so that Israel and Hizballah.

Hizballah has counted on Syrian support for over 25 years. Syria’s previous leader, Hafez Assad, considered the group a tool to be used when necessary, but to be kept at bay and in check at all times. Under Assad Junior however, the Party of God has enjoyed much more influence and flexibility. Over the years Syria has used its formidable political power in Lebanon to ensure the interests of the group.

Iran also enjoys a close relationship with Hizballah. Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has sworn allegiance to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. The group acts as Iran’s insurance policy against Israel and the West. In return, Hizballah is showered with weapons (light arms and medium-range rockets) and cash (reportedly in excess of $100 million per year). Cash is easy enough to move, but the weapons must come through Syria, so the whole arrangement is predicated on Syrian cooperation.

If the regime in Damascus is replaced by a Sunni group, the country is simply less likely to continue its close relationship with Iran, and this has to be troubling for Hizballah. A Sunni-led Syria, particularly with a moderate Islamist tone, would likely turn southwest towards Egypt in terms of regional associations. The two countries were actually united into one for a brief period of time in the late 1950’s under the banner of Pan-Arabism (the country was named the “United Arab Republic”).

When protests began to take their toll on Tunis and Cairo, Hizballah came out in favor of the protesters. After all, those movements were attempting to remove key US allies from power. The Party never anticipated that the Arab Intifada would spread to Syria, where Bashar Assad had touted his resistance to Israel and the West as the reason his people loved him and would never revolt.

Hizballah’s support for those movements is proving uncharacteristically short-sighted. Hizballah’s roots are in helping the oppressed and disenfranchised of Lebanon (historically, the position of the Shiites) and supporting Bashar Assad in his bid to oppress and disenfranchise the people of Syria seems incredibly transparent and self-serving.

After Hizballah successfully expelled Israel from Lebanon in 2000 (with help), the group was shown a rare degree of respect from Sunnis, who had been worn down by years of failure to do the  same from their own lands. That support spiked when Hizballah repelled the IDF for 34 days in 2006.  As the first Arab group to enjoy such success, it didn’t really matter that they were Shia.

But over the years, that glow has worn off. Now Hizballah is seen by many as a tool of the Iranians, who are both Persian and Shiite. Today, the Arab world is undergoing a major awakening of sorts, and Hizballah has chosen to fight against the tide of revolution. This is what Barak Obama refers to as “being on the wrong side of history”.

Hizballah risks looking hypocritical by supporting the Assad regime, yet it must consider what it would mean for the Shia of Lebanon to have Sunnis take over in Damascus. Israel is in the same boat: Assad might not be the optimal choice, but he is probably better than the alternative.

Israel has been at war with Syria since the Jewish State declared independence in 1948. In 1967, Syria lost Lake Tiberius and the Golan Heights to Israel, and the bulk of Syrian foreign policy over the years has been dedicated to getting it back. It’s the primary reason Syria supports Hizballah: to use the group as a tool against Israel. Land for Peace.

Syria is one of the few supporters of Iran, which has also been hostile to Israel over the years. Tehran refers to Israel as “the Little Satan” and supports groups like Hamas and Hizballah. Since 1979, the Ayatollah and Company have been under intense pressure from the West, and during that time Syria has been the only country standing between Iran and total global isolation.

It seems Israel would be on board with a change in leadership in Damascus: Syrian support is critical to Hizballah and Iran, Israel’s two greatest threats. However, the Israelis are understandably nervous about all of this.

Israel is already concerned with the intentions of the new leaders of Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be making solid gains. Will Eqypt’s peace treaty with Israel be reconsidered? It’s doubtful, but when combined with the potential blossoming of relations between Syria and Egypt, two historic foes, it’s unclear whether it is better to see Assad stay or go.

Israel can’t really support the protesters publicly, as doing so could paint the revolt as an Israeli invention, but it should not do anything to stand in their way. This includes closed-door meetings in Washington. Their fear of the unknown is understandable, but in the long run the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be good for Israel.

For now, Israel and Hizballah can only wait and see how far the revolution in Syria will go.

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The Arab Revolt

3 02 2011

Last month in Tunis, a young man set himself on fire in front of a government building. This act of desperation set in motion the current unrest we are witnessing throughout the Arab world today.  An already tumultuous region has exploded in an expression of frustration with government oppression, indifference, and inability to provide a reasonable quality of life for the people.

While not all revolts are created equal and the situation is different for each country, one thing that binds them together is that the taboo of modern Arabs protesting and overthrowing their government has been shattered, possibly forever. But why are people so angry? What are the implications for the future? And what does it mean for the United States? Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Lebanon…a closer look reveals that while each case has its own personality, there are many similarities.

Egypt

Egypt is the most populous and influential country in the Arab world. Before the events in Tunisia, it was unthinkable that the politically apathetic Egyptians would rise up against their government in this manner. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has ruled the country since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated 1981. He immediately instated emergency law, which is still in place to this day. Mubarak has used “emergency law” to maintain order and suppress the opposition, while maintaining an iron grip on the country and stifling all manner of protest.

From 1981 to 2011, the frustration of the powerless Egyptians usually gave way to a kind of Arab fatalism that it was their lot in life to live under a dictatorship. Then, as history’s curious meandering has demonstrated on countless occasions, something happened. Fed-up Tunisians took to the streets, demanded change, and most importantly, they got it.

The events of Tunisia may have shown Egyptians what was possible when people take to the streets, but the fuel for the blaze had been accumulating daily over the last thirty years, and was sparked by the June 2010 beating of 28 year-old Khalid Said at the hands of police. Mr. Said, an alleged suspected drug dealer, was sitting in a cafe in Alexandria when police pulled him into a building and beat him to death in front of stunned onlookers. Two outcomes of this event were the surprising outbreak of large public protests, and the fact that the protests were led by the bespectacled, milquetoast revolutionary, Noble Prize-winner Muhammad El-Baradei.

El Baradei, a respected former IAEA chief, was encouraged by the nation’s youth to run for president against Mr. Mubarak, but the mood of the opposition at the time was so acidic that Mr. Baradei refused to participate on the grounds that it would give the elections a hint of legitimacy. Today in Egypt change seems possible, and it will be interesting to see what role El-Baradei will play if the government does indeed crumble under the weight of the protests.

Egypt is now at a turning point. The protests may ultimately fail, but for the Mubarak regime there is no going back to the way things were. While Egypt does not have a major organized opposition party waiting to take power, the country does have regular (if crooked) elections, a responsible military, a strong civil society, and an independent judiciary. These factors will help a fledgling democracy stay the course.

Another factor in the opposition’s favor is that the movement is not Islamist in nature; it is firmly rooted in students and the middle class. While the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is a major force in the country, their ideology is not as radical as their name suggests, and as someone smarter and better informed than this author put it,” they are neither a marginal nor mainstream organization”. The MB is not leading this revolt, but it is sure to have some say in any new representative government. This is a good thing, as by most accounts the MB is moderate in its aims, yet it will give more conservative (or radical) constituents a voice in the new government.

Right now, all eyes are on Egypt to see what changes the civil unrest of the last few weeks will bring, but other countries are also in play and it will be interesting to see what courses they take.

Yemen

Simply put, Yemen is in deep trouble.  The Yemeni people have no shortage of reasons to be upset with the government: Yemen is by far the poorest country in the Middle East; in 6 years Yemen will run out of oil, from which the government depends heavily for revenues; in 15 years, Yemen will run out of drinking water; and in 20 years its population is expected to double. The government has little control outside of the capital of Sana’a, and it faces challenges from rebels in the north and separatists in the south. Add to this list the fact that the Yemeni people are heavily armed on average and the situation is ripe for violence.

Indeed, there is little to be optimistic about in Yemen. Unemployment and illiteracy are high, as is religious extremism. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has a firm foothold in Yemen, where the group’s anti-West/anti-government stance is popular with the locals. Poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, weak central government, religious extremism, endemic tribalism, arid mountainous terrain, the presence of Al-Qaeda, the source of attacks on the United States. All of this is reminiscent of Afghanistan, which is a worrisome comparison.

It would be nice to end this summary on a high note for Yemen, but there is not much to be optimistic about. Even if the current regime falls and a democratic government emerges (which is unlikely), Yemen still faces monumental challenges. Just repeat this mantra to yourself: “running out of oil, running out of water, population to double.” Without unprecedented help from the international community, it’s tough to see how Yemen averts a historic humanitarian crisis.

Jordan

Following the lead of Egypt and Tunisia, Jordan is also seeing its share of protests. Protesters are upsets high unemployment, high cost of living, and high commodities prices, as well as austerity measures enacted by the government in the wake of the global economic downturn. The situation is complicated by Jordan’s political structure, which is based upon tribal hierarchies and the nation’s constitutional monarchy.

Jordanian’s already have a functioning democracy, but are unhappy with the country’s system of the King appointing cabinet ministers to run the country. As a result of the protests, King Abdullah II sacked the cabinet and appointed a new Prime Minister. While Jordanians may have been inspired by Egypt and Tunisia, they are reportedly not pursuing regime change, only political reforms. So the King is safe for now.

Lebanon

Compared with Egypt and Tunisia, Lebanon seems to be a bird of a different color. But a closer look reveals that the three have more in common than meets the eye.

In Lebanon, Hizballah and its coalition (composed mostly of Shia and Maronite Christians) pulled their ministers and collapsed the pro-Western March 14 government led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hizballah then appointed its own candidate (billionaire Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim as Lebanon constitution mandates) who won the support of a majority in Lebanon’s parliament.

The fall of Hariri as Prime Minister was swift and was based on his resistance to drop his support for the UN-led tribunal investigating the 2005 death of his father, Rafik Hariri. The Tribunal is expected to indict members of Hizballah, and the group wanted Hariri to distance himself from an investigation which they believed was biased at best, and an Israeli conspiracy at worst.

The rapid transformation from a government led by a Saudi and Western-backed Saad  Hariri, to a government led by a Syria and Hizballah-backed Nijab Mikati brought thousands of Lebanese Sunnis to the streets for a “Day of Rage”, where Sunni protesters expressed their anger at such a swift loss of power. The maneuvers by Hizballah complete the group’s transformation from a fringe resistance group formed in the 1980’s during the Civil War, to a powerful political machine dominating the government.

What does this have to do with Tunis and Egypt? On the surface, not much. But the case of Hizballah in Lebanon again shows what can happen when a group of people are oppressed for too long. For decades, Lebanon’s Shia were relegated to the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, with Christians and Sunnis above. This was historically the case in Iraq, where a Sunni minority dominated the Shiite majority. Today, both nations have transitioned to democracies dominated by Shiite political parties.

In Iraq, it took a US-led invasion to initiate such a change, but for Lebanon, the change has been happening incrementally over the last fifty years.  Imam Musa Sadr began preaching equality for the Shia of Lebanon in the 1960’s, eventually founding the secular Amal Movement. Lebanon’s Shiite population has been making slow and steady gains over the years, building to what we are seeing today.

While Lebanon is a democracy, it is not representative of the country’s demographic makeup. Christian’s make up less than a third of the population, yet they control half the seats in parliament. The rest are allocated to the other sects. This allocation is based on the 1932 census, and many estimates have the Shia vastly outnumbering the other sects today, representing as much as 40% of the population. Lebanon’s Shia believe that this is unfair and they have worked over the years to reverse the situation.

In Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon, oppressed groups have taken matters into their own hands and demanded a change. The difference with Lebanon is that the change took place on a more incremental pace, and it should be noted that this latest “Hizballah coup” was done completely within the confines of the constitution.

Israel

The recent developments in the Middle East have to be troubling for Israel. Egypt and Jordan are Israel’s only neighbors to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish State. As a result of these treaties, Egypt and Jordan have been showered with military and development aid from the United States, a close ally of Israel. Israeli’s have to be wondering what will come out of the protests, and how it will affect them. Will a new Egyptian government honor the old agreements with Israel? How will Hezbollah’s ascension to power affect Lebanon’s relationship with Israel?

And will there be any protests from Israel’s own oppressed masses of Palestinians? It seems as though the Gaza War of 2008-2009 broke the backs of the violent Palestinian resistance, and that a third Intifada is highly unlikely, but a month ago it also seemed highly unlikely that Egypt’s government would be on the verge of collapse. For now, Gaza and West Bank are quiet, but for how long? Israeli official have publicly come out on the side Egypt’s Mubarak, but it’s unclear what good, if any, such a stance does for Cairo’s embattled despot.

United States

The United States is in a delicate position. Its old friends in Cairo (Mubarak), Amman (King Abdullah II), Beirut (Hariri), Sana’a (Saleh), and Tunis (Bin Ali) are under attack, and no one is sure what kind of political order will emerge from the chaos. What doesn’t change is the region’s high importance to the United States.  America’s oil supply is at stake, and there are troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to worry about. And then there is Israel, who is arguably of little strategic interest, but is very influential in Washington.

The Obama administration has taken a wait-and-see approach in Egypt, gradually and subtly shifting support from the regime to the opposition. Washington does not want to be on the wrong side of history on this one (see: Iran, 1953, 1979). After Obama took office, he traveled to Cairo to deliver an impassioned speech to the Muslim world. He told Muslims that America was not against them, and that he supported them in their struggle for democracy. Now Obama’s word will be directly tested. Will he come to the aid of the dictators and Israel, or will he support the Egyptian people in their demands for a truly representative elected government?  For the time being, Obama is more comfortable on the fence.

Finally, it is natural to look forward to see who could be next in line for a revolution. Other countries in the region and around the world have to be watching and wondering if it could happen to them. The more time goes by, the more time authoritarian regimes have to sure up support and consolidate power in expectation of a possible popular challenge. Or they could take proactive steps to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy. Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, Iran, and countries throughout Asia and Africa are all candidates for similar unrest. Time will tell how for this goes, but today revolution is in the air.

 





Nasrallah to Turkey

16 06 2010

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah

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

The Kuwaiti newspaper As-Siyassah is reporting that Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has been invited to Ankara to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Neither Hizballah nor the Turkish government have confirmed the story, but if it is true, it marks a significant deterioration in Turkey’s relationship with Israel in the wake of last month’s botched flotilla raid.

Hizballah is one of Israel’s greatest foes, and Erdogan inviting its leader for a high-level meeting would show that the once close bond that existed between the two countries is in worse shape than most people previously thought. Relations between Turkey and Israel have been strained lately, stemming from January 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel assaulted Hamas forces in Gaza, killing hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the process.

Erdogan

Turkey’s ruling AKP party is said to be more Islamic in nature than previous regimes, and it has been increasingly difficult for the party to maintain close ties with Israel, which many Muslims consider to be waging war on the Palestinians. The result is that the AKP benefits greatly both regionally and domestically when it takes sides against Israel.

Asharq al-Awsat’s Tariq Alhomayed characterized Turkey as “pulling the rug out” from under Hizballah and Iran in terms of supporting the Palestinian resistance, but it is unclear just how much this popularity contest actually means to either party. Mr. Alhomeyed’s statement was made in regards to Turkey’s stern condemnation of Israel after the flotilla raid.

Turkish television’s NTV reported that the alleged future meeting between Nasrallah and Erdogan was suggested by Hamas’ leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal. The report also stated that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps would facilitate the logistics of Nasrallah getting to Ankara, out of fear of IDF assassination attempts.

Such a summit between  Erdogan and Nasrallah would further represent Turkey’s reassertion of power in the region, as it tries to maintain productive ties with the West while also embracing its post-Ottoman role in the Middle East.

If Erdogan welcomes Nasrallah to Anakra, Tel Aviv and neoconservatives in Washington will no doubt be furious, as such a meeting would indicate Turkey’s continued alignment with the Resistance at the expense of Israel.





Got SCUDs?

16 04 2010

 

SCUD

Israeli officials claimed yesterday that they had intelligence indicating that Syria has been arming Hizballah with SCUD missiles. If so, it would mark a significant departure  for Hizballah in terms of military strategy and weapons capability.

Now, nothing should come as a surprise in the Middle East, but this news would be shocking if it was true. Hizballah having SCUDs just doesn’t make any sense strategically.

The IDF is one of the world’s most powerful fighting forces, including an air force that is capable of incredible devastation (see Lebanon- 2006). Still though, despite the ferocity of the IDF, Hizballah has managed to be remarkably effective when the two face off.

This is no accident. Hizballah has based it entire warfare strategy on fighting with the IDF. For them, this means having a large amount of smaller-sized weapons that can be fired or launched, broken down, hidden away, and moved in a rapid manner. Because it won’t take long before the Israeli Air Force (IAF) discovers your position and reacts accordingly.

Hence their use of Katyusha rockets, Fajr-3  missiles, and C-802 Silkworm missile. The latter two are still fairly large, but can be disguised easily in the back of a truck, which makes them relatively easy to fire, hide, and move.

In the past, we have seen what happens when traditional armies face off against the IDF (see Jordan, Syria, and Egypt- 1967). Large weapons make large targets for the IAF, it is that simple.

So it is strange to hear reports of Hizballah acquiring SCUDs. SCUDs are enormous and clunky. Though they have a much longer range than some of  Hizballah’s other weapons, SCUDs still do not fit with the groups past strategy of favoring portability and concealment over big and destructive.

Remember Saddam Hussein’s SCUDs from Dessert Storm? They’re as big as an RV, and they must be launched from that goofy-looking truck. How long would it take the IAF to find every single one of those and destroy them in a possible future war? Hizballah might as well have acquired some tanks or some helicopters.

So if it is true that Syria has somehow transported these massive weapons over the border and into Hizballah’s hands, it would be very surprising indeed. Would it indicate that Hizballah has given up on it’s guerrilla tactics (that have been so successful in the past) in favor  a more traditional way of doing battle that plays right into the hands of the IDF? Again, one never knows, but it would be surprising.

And if it’s not true, why would Israel report it? One possible reason that comes to mind is that Israel has been under immense pressure recently from the United States to make a peace deal with the Palestinians, and releasing this sort of SCUDs to Hizballah story serves at least as a distraction, and a most the story repositions Israel as America’s good friend in a tough neighborhood.

Or perhaps Israel is trying to build a pretext for a preemptive strike on Lebanon and possibly Syria in the event that  Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. Some have speculated (and Israeli defense experts have recommended) that Syria is the real target, and that Hizballah and Syria (H&S) need to be neutralized before an attack on Iran in order to prevent retaliation from H&S while Israel is dealing with the Iranian response.

(This is like going to fight a guy, but before you do so, you beat up his two friends first so they can’t jump in while you are mixed up with your main target.)

This is how smart nations protect themselves. Unfortunately, if Israel bombs Hizballah, all of the Lebanese will suffer. This is less true for Syria, whose military installations are likely more removed from civilian populations.

It might be time to ask why this hasn’t been the plan before? It is no secret where Hizballah gets it weapons: most of them come through Syria. The ones that don’t (such as those shipped by boat) run the risk of being intercepted by the Israeli navy. Instead of taking it out on Lebanon next time, perhaps more attention needs to be focused on its neighbor-patron Syria; the king of the Let’s you and him fight! mentality.

Also, if Israel really had proof of SCUDs in Lebanon, why not release it? It should be easy enough to prove…you just need a couple clear satellite pics showing those ridiculous SCUD trucks crossing the Syrian border into Lebanon. We’ll see if said photos materialize.

In conclusion, it would be strange if Hizballah really had acquired SCUD missiles from Syria. It would mark a departure for Hizballah and would be a highly risky move for Syria, as Israel has shown recently that it is absolutely aching for a fight. Why would Syria take such a chance to provide Hizballah with such a strategically useless weapon?

If it is not true, then Israel is lying. But if it is, then something much bigger is going on here.





Israel reiterates Lebanese culpability for Hizballah

27 11 2009

 

Ehud Barak

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak reiterated on Tuesday his nation’s grim warning that Israel will hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions of Hizballah.

The statement came the day before the newly formed Lebanese cabinet was to make an announcment regarding the government’s official stance on Hizballah’s weapons.

On Wednesday, it was declared by the government that it supports Hizballah’s right to its weapons, as they are necessary for defending Lebanon against Israel.

Hizballah has been at war with Israel since 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon. The two armies faced off in fierce battles over the years, with Israel being forced to withdraw completely in 2000.

After a cross-border raid by Hizballah into Israel in 2006, Israel launched a massive air assault on Lebanon. Having sustained substantial damage to its infrastructure, much of Lebanon was left in ruins in the wake of the 34-day war. Road, bridges, and entire neighborhoods were completely destroyed by Israeli bombs.

UN resolution 1701 eventually brought an end to the hostilities. The agreement calls for Hizballah to disarm and for Israel to respect Lebanese sovereignty. Though the agreement stopped the fighting, neither side has adhered to the additional guidelines.

Hizballah continues to stockpile weapons near the Israeli border and Israel continues to violate Lebanese sovereignty with flyovers and other activities.

Lebanese frustration was sparked earlier this year with the discovery of a massive Israeli spy ring operating within its borders. So far, dozens  of alleged spies have been arrested in the plot.

Over the years, Hizballah has been playing an increased role in the government. In the June parliamentary elections, though its coalition failed to win the majority, Hizballah did very well in its own districts. In the current government, Hizballah holds two seat in the cabinet. Israeli doesn’t accept Hizballah’s position in the new government.

Defense Minister Barak stated that Lebanon would answer for Hizballah’s transgressions for letting the Shiite resistance movement operate on its soil. The United States used a similar pretext for invading Afghanistan, as the Afghans had allowed al-Quaeda to operate within its borders when the terrorist organization planned its 9/11 attack on the US.

Hizballah has made clear that its weapons are not up for debate.

The Lebanese government likely made its policy for lack of a viable alternative. In May 2008, the government attempted to disable Hizballah’s communications system. As a result, Hizballah stormed the western half of the city and reasserted its dominance over Lebanon’s other security forces, including the  police and the army.

Over a year later, it’s still doubtful that the government could disarm the group even if it really wanted to. The last time they tried, Lebanon came dangerously close to falling back into civil war.

With its aggressive posturing, Israel puts the Lebanese government in the awkward position of possibly suffering for a group’s crimes that it has almost no control over.

By all accounts Hizballah is even more well armed than the last time the two faced off, having stockpiled tens of thousands of rockets all over southern Lebanon. But it is highly unlikely that the group would launch a large-scale assault againt Israel unless it was faced with another monumental assault from the Israeli air force.

It is likely that Israel  knows that Hizballah is not likely to attack, and Israel is also likely well aware of the Lebanese government’s inability to control the group. So all this aggressive rhetoric might be just to warn Hizballah- and the  world- what costs will be incurred by Lebanon if they are attacked. This way Hizballah is well aware of the challenges it will face if it provokes another war on Lebanon.

After all, Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah famously stated back in 2006 that if he had known how the Israelis would have responded to his raid, he never would have done it. Well now he knows.

On a more regional level, Israel is also facing off with Iran, Hizballah’s financial and military patron. If war breaks out between the two countries, Hizballah would already have plenty of warning of what it will face if it decides to get involved.

Another possibility is that Israel might use an attack from Hizballah to justify and  attack on Iran. In 1982, Israel used the attempted assassination of Israeli diplomat Shlomo Argov in London as casus belli for invading Lebanon.

While no government wants an independent army operating within its borders, it seems that Lebanon is comfortable to table to problem for now. The situation will likely not be addressed comprehensively until the government, the economy, and the military are all much stronger. Until then, there is little choice in the matter.

 

 

 

 





Israel to attack Iran?

18 11 2009

by Patrick Vibert

There has been a lot of talk recently in certain circles about America going to war with Iran.

The train of thought is this: the US doesn’t want to go to war with Iran, but Israel is so afraid of Iran having nuclear weapons that they will draw the US into the conflict by bombing Iran. The US will then be dragged in because Iran will certainly try to close the Strait of Hormuz (through which 40% of all traded oil passes) and the US simply cannot let this happen because of the effect that the ensuing skyrocketing oil prices will have on the world’s fragile economic state.

Israel bombs Iran to prevent them from getting nukes, Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation, the United States is forced to get involved to prevent a global economic calamity. That whole scenario sounds plausible on the surface. After all, given all that has happened involving the United States and the Middle East in the last ten years, I suppose anything is possible. However, we should take a closer look at that course of action for the parties involved and walk through the likely outcomes.

But first, let’s examine the implications of Iran successfully acquiring the ability to make some nuclear weapons…because, of course, the second that they acquire a nuclear weapon, they will no doubt immediately launch it at Israel.

IRAN NUKES ISRAEL

Let’s say Iran secretly makes half a dozen nuclear weapons, attaches them to long range missiles (which they already possess), and launches them all at Israel. Then they somehow manage to strike targets in such a manner that they completely disable Israel’s ability to respond in kind.

Then what?

Iran would have just incinerated hundreds of thousands of people – a large portion of which would have been Muslims – and completely contaminated the entire Holy Land in the process. Israel is not very big, and it wouldn’t take much to completely poison the entire country. And let’s not forget that Islam’s third holiest site is located in Jerusalem, which would also be rendered uninhabitable.

So Iran has successfully vanquished their Zionist enemies, then what? The Palestinian diaspora is supposed to flood back to their ancestral lands waving the Iranian flag and praising the Ayatollah for his great victory because they now get to return to a toxic wasteland? Unlikely. And as a consequence, Iran has now greatly harmed countless Sunnis Arabs, which historically have been at odds with the Persian Shia.

So Iran has destroyed Israel with it’s brand new nuclear weapons, then what? They reap a bunch of imaginary Muslim “street cred” and then go back to business as usual?

No.

First, the United States would be very upset at Iran for destroying one it’s closest allies. If the US didn’t immediately launch a full scale invasion of Iran on it’s own, they would certainly have the backing of the entire United Nations Security Council to do so, as well as to implement whatever sanctions it wanted.

If the United States were able to halt the supply of gasoline into Iran, many experts think that this alone would be enough to plunge the country into chaos. (Iran, while sitting on a sea of oil, has precious few refineries that can turn that oil into gasoline, which forces them to rely heavily on imports.) The United States, if finally able to implement a full array of sanctions, might not have to drop a single bomb in their effort to see regime change there. And it would all occur with the backing of the free world.

All this for what? So the Iranian regime can cement itself on the throne of Muslim warriors forever? It is unthinkable that the Ayatollah and his people would risk their survival for this reason. For one thing, they are already at the forefront of Israeli agitation, and they can stay there without challenge  just by making fiery anti-Zionist speeches and continuing to not-so-covertly aid Hamas and Hizballah.

So why all the fuss? Many in Israel are generally frightened over the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons which, given Jewish history, is to be expected. But for Israel’s policy makers, perhaps all this talk of the Iranian threat is useful to shape the debate and how the US deals with Iran, which Israel views as its greatest threat.

Indeed it seems extremely unlikely that Iran would launch a nuclear strike against Israel if given the opportunity.

ISRAEL BOMBS IRAN

Now let’s examine the situation from the Israeli point of view. If Israel launches a strike against Iran, there is a strong chance for events to escalate quickly to a level that Israel would not be comfortable with.

There is always the possibility that Israel could send bombers to Iran to take out their  nuclear installations and face no retaliation. Though highly unlikely, there is some precedent for this. In 2007, Israeli jets quietly flew into Syria and destroyed that country’s nascent nuclear energy program (which Syria was legally entitled to). There was no overt retaliation and Syrian officials barely mentioned the matter publicly, but its almost unfathomable that Iran would exercise that same restraint.

Iran’s main area of power and negotiation on the world stage is its nuclear energy program, and destroying that would not sit well with Tehran at all. In the case of Syria, their nuclear energy program was not as important to them publicly as Iran’s is, and anyway there was very little that Syria could do to Israel in response.

But Iran is not Syria. Iran has a substantial military, as well as countless proxies that the Revolutionary Guard has been training for the last thirty years. Hizballah and Hamas are only two. Tehran has many ways to strike back against Israel.

There is also the sentiment that, while the United States is the biggest player, Israel is the one with their finger on the trigger in this situation, and they are the ones who will decide the outcome. If Israel moves, the United States will be forced to move to.

So Israel bombs Iran, Iran tries to close the Strait of Hormuz, and the US is forced to intervene. Israel has just started a fight with one of the largest armies in the Middle East.

Iran was instrumental in forming Hizballah and has been contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the group since the early 1980’s. If Iran finds itself under attack, there is little doubt that they will call in a big favor from Hizballah, meaning an assault from Israel’s northern border.

And Israel’s publicly stated policy with Hizballah is that if they harm a single Israeli, then they will take it as an act of aggression from the entire country of Lebanon, and Israel will respond as such. Israel nearly destroyed Lebanon in 2006, where Israel said that it acted with restraint because of a memo they received from President Bush at the time. Israeli officials have stated that in the event of a future attack, they would exercise no such “restraint”.

So Israel bombs Iran, Iran responds, and the US is forced to intervene. If we follow the scenario through, Hizballah would likely attack Israel. (Here, Hizballah would miss the genius arch-terrorist General Imad Mugniyeh, but there is probably some other man or men that could pick up where he left off. ) Then Israel would attack and destroy Lebanon. Now, not only is Israel at war on multiple fronts (Israel’s historic nightmare), but now it has lost the only thing it gained from the 2006 War: a stable northern border. And with all the ensuing chaos unfolding, its not hard to imagine Bashar Assad in Syria taking a swipe at the Golan Heights during Israel’s moment of weakness.

As previously stated, Iran is not Syria and a quick one time strike there without repercussions is highly unlikely.  Israel would be drawn into a potentially lengthy conflict. Maybe they could avoid this by the United States stepping in, but betting on that is both risky and foolish.

Israel, a nation of 7 million people, would most likely find itself at war with a nation of 66 million people, a third of which are fighting-aged men. A force that large could travel down through Syria (Iran’s close ally) and easily overwhelm the tiny nation.

Not to mention that a prolonged war with Iran would be incredibly destabilizing for Israel. Israel is a nation of the “citizen soldier on leave for 11 months a year”. They have a standing army, but in the face larger threat, the whole country mobilizes into wartime mode. People have to leave their jobs and productivity plummets. Their absence from the workplace saps the Israeli economy. While it may not be as bad as in past years, a prolonged engagement with Iran could likely destroy the Israeli economy for decades to come.

Another thing to consider is that Israel’s population is  25% Arab. This part of the country’s loyalty to the Israeli government is questionable, and it is unclear how they would respond in the event of their country going to war with a Muslim nation. How would the Arab Israelis react? At the very least, it would be unwise for the government to count on their full support.

Israel would also have the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to worry about while fighting Iran. If they rose up in a third intifada while Israel was at war with Iran, it would complicate matters significantly. If the situation spins out of control for Israel, we could see jihadists coming from all over the Muslim world to battle the “Zionist occupiers”, like we saw during with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Of course, none of these scenarios are guaranteed, but they must be considered by Israel’s policy makers.

THE UNITED STATES INTERVENES

So the United States attacks Iran to keep the Strait of Hormuz open in order to insure the continued flow of Gulf oil and to avert the world from an economic catastrophe.

At this time, it’s not even clear that Iran is capable of “closing” the Strait, but it could certainly significantly disrupt it. Is it worth it then for the United States to get involved in order to prevent this disruption?

The US is already fighting two very costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those countries don’t even have armies, and it’s still very tough going for American forces there. Iran, on the other hand, has a sizable and formidable military. Even if the US and Israel manage to destroy Iran’s air force with a surprise attack, Iran can still make an extraordinary amount of trouble for the two countries.

For example, the United States could kiss goodbye all the progress it has made in Iraq over the last couple years. Contrary to popular belief, the calming down that occurred in Iraq in 2008 was not so much due to Bush’s troop surge as it was due to help from Iran.

For five years after the initial invasion, Iraq was plagued by sectarian violence and Iran was behind much of this. Washington’s aggressive posturing towards Iran directly resulted in the rising violence in Iraq. And soon after the Bush administration toned down its rhetoric, Iran acquiesced in Iraq.

Some of the most fearsome fighters in Iraq were Muqtada Sadr and his Sadr Militia. Sadr gave the US a tremendous amount of trouble in the slums of Sadr city and he could  not be vanquished. But one call from Tehran and he was back in Qom studying the Koran and out of  America’s hair.

Then, also with Iran pulling the strings, Iraq’s sizable Shia population was suddenly willing and eager to participate in the new government that was being formed. Iran had removed one half of the sectarian violence equation and it wasn’t long before Washington was talking about a withdrawal. None of this would have been possible without Iranian cooperation and it could all be unraveled with one word from Tehran. All of that would have to be weighed against a possible strike on Iran.

Also, the United States couldn’t just launch a few dozen Cruise missiles at Iran and be done with it. They would have to see it all the way through to regime change because there would be no going back. The Iranian regime would likely unleash everything it has in its nasty arsenal if faced with an existential threat like that. We could see the return of 1970’s level international terrorism.

The US would be at war on a 2000 mile front with three countries. This might have seemed possible under George W. Bush, but with Obama it’s muchless likely. The military is already greatly overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy is in a very fragile state. Going to war with Iran in order to ensure the flow of oil and to keep the world economy stable doesn’t really make much sense when you consider the implications of such actions. If Israel attacks Iran with the hope of American intervention, I hope they are sorely disappointed.

SO IRAN GETS NUKES

Israel bombs Iran, and the United States intervenes. And all of this is supposed to be due to the possibility of Iran trying to make nuclear weapons. Even the most conservative estimates put Iran  a year away from refining enough uranium for making a weapon. Iran has recently agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in to see their newly unveiled nuclear operation outside of Qom. This is their obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty that they have signed.

Now, everyone already assumes that Israel has nuclear weapons. So if Iran develops their own, why would they use them on Israel when their destruction is mutually assured? One may accuse the regime in Tehran of religious fanaticism, but they are not suicidal. When faced with an existential threat, they will chose regime survival over their religious commitments, and in this way they are logical actors.

It’s not logical for Iran to attack Israel, and it’s not logical for Israel to attack Iran. Some in Israel may be frightened of Iran, with the disturbing rhetoric regarding “driving the Jews into the sea”, but this is not what is on the minds of the Israel’s policy makers. Right now, Israel is the only nation in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons, and Iran acquiring them would greatly complicate the geopolitical landscape of the region forever.

Incidentally, this is why the United States is so concerned with the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons  program. It’s not because Washington thinks Iran would actually use them, but because of the way it complicates things for the US in the future. Iran would have to be dealt with differently  if they possessed nuclear weapons. This is scary to Washington.

Another thing to consider is the idea that if Iran develops a  nuclear weapons program, then Saudi Arabia will want to as well, and the whole thing leads to more proliferation in a historically unstable region. One could argue however that Iran having nuclear weapons makes the region more stable not less, as the region’s most disruptive actor, Israel, would be severely curtailed in its hostilities. Israel would have to think twice before taking on Hizballah and destroying  Lebanon like they did in 2006.

OPERATION AJAX, PART II

The United States has a relatively long history with Iran. In 1953, the newly formed CIA overthrew a democratically elected government to install a king who was more sympathetic to American business interests. (Before we go any further, think of the irony of the United States overthrowing a democracy to install a king. It’s amazing.)

For the next quarter century, Iran was ruled by the brutal and oppressive king. In 1979, the  people had had enough and they overthrew him. But in stepped the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was extremely hostile to the United States. He was seething with hatred after witnessing of what Iran had went through at the hands of America’s puppet monarch. What we have now in Iran is a nation where half the people are for the Ayatollah and angry at the United States for messing in its affairs, and the other half is against the Ayatollah and angry at the United States for overthrowing the only democratically elected government Iran ever had.

In his fascinating book on the subject of the 1953 coup, Stephen Kinzer writes about the folly of attacking Iran in the current day:

“A variety of prominent Americans have described President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as the worst strategic blunder in their country’s history. Attacking Iran right now might prove even more disastrous. It would turn that county’s oppressive leaders, who are now highly unpopular at home, into heroes of the Islamic resistance; give them a strong incentive to launch a violent counter-campaign against American interests around the world; greatly strengthen Iranian nationalism, Shiite irredentism, and Muslim extremism, thereby attracting countless new recruits to the cause of terror; undermine the democratic movement in Iran and destroy the prospect for political change for at least another generation; turn the people of Iran, who are now among the most pro-American in the Middle East, into enemies of the United States; require the United States to remain deeply involved in the Persian Gulf indefinitely, forcing it to take sides in all manner of regional conflicts and thereby making a host of new enemies; enrage the Shiite-dominated government in neighboring Iraq, on which the United States is relying to calm the violence there; and quite possibly disrupt the flow of Middle East petroleum in ways that could wreak havoc on Western economies.”

CONCLUSION

Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons right now, and it is unlikely that they would use nuclear weapons against Israel even if they did have them. The consequence of such an action would vastly outweigh the symbolic value of wiping Israel off the map for good.

Also, it would be unwise for Israel to launch an attack of it’s own under the assumption of either American intervention or of Iranian non-response. That scenario is similar to  a child taking a swipe at the class bully when he knows the teacher is present. The child is relying too heavily on either the bully not reacting or  the teacher’s swift intervention, and that is not smart the because the teacher will not always be around to intervene, and the bully will not forget. And neither would Iran.

For America, attacking Iran either on Israel’s behalf or to keep the flow of Gulf oil going doesn’t make much sense either. America is stretched to the brink both militarily and economically, and American intervention in a dispute between Israel and Iran would surely lead to more chaos in the region, not less. In addition, the United States would not want to jeopardize all the progress that has been made in Iraq.

Today, eight countries are known to possess nuclear weapons: USA, UK, France, China, Russia, India, Israel and Pakistan. That does not include all the weapons that went missing after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The United States is the only country to ever use a nuclear weapon in the act of war. At this point, the United States should be more concerned with Pakistan’s arsenal, as that country is far more unstable than Iran and is besieged by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, two groups that would actually use them if given the opportunity. On top of that are all the USSR nukes that are missing. Those are the two areas of nuclear security that seem to demand more attention than Iran.

Finally, in each case, the consequences of an attack outweigh the benefits. For Iran attacking Israel, for Israel attacking Iran, and for the United States attacking Iran, in each case the world would be made drastically more dangerous by action than by inaction. Washington needs to make it clear to Israel that the United States will not be drawn into a conflict with Iran, and make it clear to Iran that the United States will respond dramatically to the harming of one of its allies.

Right now, events seem to be progressing at a rapid speed in the wrong direction for all three parties.  Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.