Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Lebanon/Israel Conflict

A few thoughts I have on the present Lebanon/Israel Situation:

First, according to Hizbullah strategists-though we may choose to dismiss such comments as moves for propaganda we cannot ignore them outright -in initiating this conflict, civilians were not the target. If you were to ask them, as for instance a journalist for the New Yorker recently did (see the latest edition for an interesting account of what is going on), they will tell you that their aim was to target military personnel in the abduction. Only after the situation escalated, for a number of evident reasons, did they move to civilian targets. Attacks on civilian infrastructure, in their view, is tantamount to attacks on civilians themselves. As a result, katyusha rockets then targeting civilians are responsive attacks, rather than first strikes. Now, there are a number of problems with this account, many may be nearly self-evident others may not be, but it is worth keeping in mind that though they are certainly a terrorist organization and have in the past and continue to target civilians, for their strategic calculations a civilian target is not the same as a military target. The two do not exist on an even playing field, even for them.

Second, no legitimate entity or authority to my knowledge has -or ever would -doubt Israel's right to defend itself and its people by way of unilateral forcible action against a terrorist threat. The right to self-defense in this instance is clear. But what makes the issue messy is the manner in which such actions are exacted. This in turn further divides into two issues: what works and what's right. From the perspective of what works, I find the claims that present IDF personnel making about the action's capacity to disrupt Hizbullah in direct contradiction to most instances in the long study of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. Now I am not a historian, nor an expert strategist, and make no claims to a comprehensive knowledge to either discipline. But in the many instances of counterterrorism directed against non-state actors (and I distinguish this from counterinsurgency here for a number of messy reasons perhaps not necessary for further elaboration in email form, though certainly could go into further later) where military force is applied, in rare instances do conventional, massive operations succeed. For a number of reasons, it is absolutely not any form of "collective punishment". Though I think that argument may have a place in discussing operations in Gaza, for a number of reasons it's irrelevant here. Nonetheless, conventional operations are not sufficiently precise in this kind of situation. Indeed, from what I can tell, the only instances in which such actions work are when the aim is a complete overhaul in government (regime change) or, like American-guided operations in the Greek Civil war where the non-state actor is reasonably confined in geographic space and uses semi-conventional tactics itself. IDF's model should have been the second stages of the Afghan operation, a truly special operations war, and not what they have. As a result, there would be fewer people displaced, fewer civilian casualties, and a more international support. The problem for Israel is that it would many of its soldiers in doing it. A tough call, but I think they should have bit the bullet and done it right. This would also lead to a solution of the secondary problem, that of legality and/or morality associated with massive collateral damage. In looking through the ICRC multi-volume guide to Customary International Humanitarian Law (now considered by many in the field to be the black-letter legal guide), one sees some credibility to the claim against Israel regarding proportionality. If anyone's interested, I'd be happy to get into this further, but for the sake of brevity I'll leave that discussion for another email. Now, this is customary law, something of a weak construction, but it grants some legitimacy to some claims made against IDF generally. A special operations war would have been both more effective and would have avoided this problem. Then again, with an IDF chief that's IAF, you can see why they chose the "bomb the hell out of 'em" option, however ineffective.

Third, military operations -whether an international blue helmet force, IDF, or native Lebanese (and good luck with that!) in nature -are not the sole means to disarming Hizbullah. Indeed, after the Cedar Revolution, a movement in favor of instituting UNSCR 1559 was in place. Maronite Christians had teamed up with Hariri's Sunnis to dismantle the present system. The problem is not just that Hizbullah is in the cabinet, unfortunately it's more complicated than that. It is the President, Emil Lahoud, and not the Prime Minister who has the ultimate executive military power. Lahoud is favored by Syria -this is why he is in power after the 1559 withdrawal by Syrian forces. Without getting into the mess of Lebanese politics -which I make no claim to fully understand myself -the Cedar Revolution brought to power a majority in Parliament sufficient to override present Syrian supporters in the government. This would have been the political solution to dismantling Hizbullah. The problem? A man by the name of Gen. Michel Aoun, who I was trying to bring to campus as a speaker (thank God that didn't happen, right?) sold out. Originally he was a very strong anti-Syrian actor -he even made claims to have been involved in the authoring of 1559. As an effective leader to the Maronite majority though, he flipped and went the way of Syria. (Note: I understand by several key figures on the Maronite side that this is where the claime you often here that Maronites condone Hizbullah comes from... it isn't true at it's core, the people don't, but they followed Aoun and here's where it got them -many are very angry as a result). This pro-Syrian flipflopping (and it shall be interesting to see what happened there) caused a serious problem, many of his backers just followed him. Thus, dismantling Hizbullah -at least in so far as its staunch exclusivity of civil services for Shia and its militant capabilities were concerned -was rendered temporarily impossible. That doesn't mean a political solution could not have come in the future, with time it would have, but Israel was impatient to wait. Now, any influence Israel might have had on that process has been rendered obsolete and pro-Aoun forces, I suspect we me find when the dust clears, may be stronger than ever before. The international community has to figure out how to support a majority in parliament that is not Syrian backed to dismantle Hizbullah from the inside, if Lebanon is to solve the solution itself. And it must do so without sparking an inter-confessional war. Or so, that's my view.

Fourth, it's not so easy to just "address the root causes" in practice. This would necessarily involve dismantling Syrian and Iranian support for native actors, Hizbullah or otherwise. Good luck with that. We can work to put a wedge between Syria and Iran, an important point because Iran needs Syria for transit, but that requires dialogue over threats, and Washington refuses to talk. Perhaps not a brilliant strategy on behalf of the present Administration. No doubt, the international criminal tribunal relative to the assassination of Rafik Hariri in the upcoming year or two will place an enormous amount of pressure on Syria, the question is whether or not that pressure will be sufficient to force their influence totally out of Lebanese politics, and I find that perhaps a little hard to believe. As for Iran, preemption against nuclear facilities won't do anything to their asymmetric angling in Lebanon, or anywhere else in the Middle East for that matter -note the Saudis know that which is why they have been buying up arms en masse recently. I suspect we'll see American prosecutors (among others) start cracking down on any company even remotely believed to be selling dual use materials to Iran. Iran requires these networks to finish the job, we'll have to attack them that way. Plus, as you've no doubt seen in the news, Commerce is playing a big role in sanctioning any company (Russians included) working with Iran. I'm willing to bet we'll only see more of that in upcoming months. Ultimately we're going to have a difficult time addressing Iran and Syria and containing their regional Shia influence, made all the more difficult in light of Israeli (perceived regionally as American proxy targeting) action in Lebanon (did you see the hundreds of thousands in Sadr City and Baghdad protesting, among other places?).

Fifth, America must respond to the Humanitarian crisis. According to the government situation report on Lebanon released yesterday, there are 958 dead in Lebanon, 3,369 injured, and a total of 915,762 displaced. Our response? Aside from throwing money around here and there, USAID has essentially offered 20,000 blankets and 18 medical kits. Not helpful. We need more, we need a real response, a massive one. Think Pakistan earthquake or Tsunami. Here, USAID actions are security actions.

In my view, Israel had the right to respond, but the manner in which an inexperienced Prime Minister and Defense Minister have haphazardly conducted their response has placed American and Israeli security in peril and we've stood aside and waved as the ship passes by.

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