Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Proxy War-Part I

Another day another 200 killed, maimed, or fleeing in Lebanon. Familiar news headlines that start with "Israeli warplanes bomb (fill in the blank)" or "Hezbollah declares it hatred of the Zionists. Bombs set off in (fill in the blank)."

And the US Navy, one of whose missions is to evacuate American citizens and show large grey, gun and missile toting hulls off the coast, is outsourcing its role to cruise ships from Cyprus and car carriers from Norway. Guess we are not going to see this anymore:

USS New Jersey "sending a message" off Lebanon in 1984.

Now in the world I grew up in 100,000 tons of lots of US ships could send a message to both sides to rachet things down a notch or we just outsource it to the Europeans at first, since the US is too busy to send an LHA to the region right away because all the Marines are involved in fighting in (fill in the blank). (And yes I know USS Iwo Jima and her strike group is on their way! However in a proper world with a proper sized Navy they would have been on station anyway.....).

I digress however..........

I read an interesting theory this weekend that said in essence: that both the US and Syria want the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel to continue. For different reasons but similar end states. Lets look at Syria first:

Hezbollah's decision to increase operations against Israel was not taken lightly. The leadership of Hezbollah has not so much moderated over the years as it has aged. The group's leaders have also, with age, become comfortable and in many cases wealthy. They are at least part of the Lebanese political process, and in some real sense part of the Lebanese establishment. These are men with a radical past and of radical mind-set, but they are older, comfortable and less adventurous than 20 years ago. Therefore, the question is: Why are they increasing tensions with Israel and inviting an invasion that threatens their very lives? ......

Hezbollah had a split personality, however; it was supported by two very different states. Iran was radically Islamic. Syria, much closer and a major power in Lebanon, was secular and socialist. They shared an anti-Zionist ideology, but beyond that, not much. Moreover, the Syrians viewed the Palestinian claim for a state with a jaundiced eye. Palestine was, from their point of view, part of the Ottoman Empire's Syrian province, divided by the British and French. Syria wanted to destroy Israel, but not necessarily to create a Palestinian state. From Syria's point of view, the real issue was the future of Lebanon, which it wanted to reabsorb into Syria, or at the very least economically exploit.

The Syrians intervened in Lebanon against the Palestine Liberation Organization and on the side of some Christian elements. Their goal was much less ideological than political and economic. They saw Hezbollah as a tool in their fight with Yasser Arafat and for domination of Syria. Hezbollah strategically was aligned with Iran. Tactically, it had to align itself with Syria, since the Syrians dominated Lebanon. That meant that when Syria wanted tension with Israel, Hezbollah provided it, and when Syria wanted things to quiet down, Hezbollah cooled it. Meanwhile the leadership of Hezbollah, aligned with the Syrians, was in a position to prosper, particular after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.That withdrawal involved a basic, quiet agreement between Syria and Israel. Israel accepted Syrian domination of Lebanon. In return, Syria was expected to maintain a security regime that controlled Hezbollah. Attacks against Israel had to be kept within certain acceptable limits. Syria, having far less interest in Israel than in Lebanon, saw this as an opportunity to achieve its ends. Israel saw Syrian domination under these terms as a stabilizing force.

What follows from the Statfor analysis is chilling. After pointing out that the events in Lebanon last year precipitated a Syrian withdrawal, and a resultant lack of control, the analysis goes on to point out:

Now, do not overestimate the extent of the withdrawal. Syrian influence in Lebanon is still enormous. But it did relieve Syria of the burden of controlling Hezbollah. Indeed, Israel was not overly enthusiastic about Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon for just that reason.

Syria could now claim to have no influence or obligation concerning Hezbollah. Hezbollah's leadership lost the cover of being able to tell the young Turks that they would be more aggressive, but that the Syrians would not let them. As the Syrian withdrawal loosened up Lebanese politics, Hezbollah was neither restrained nor could it pretend to be restrained. Whatever the mixed feelings might have been, the mission was the mission, Syrian withdrawal opened the door and Hezbollah could not resist walking through it, and many members urgently wanted to walk through it.

At the same time the Iranians were deeply involved in negotiations in Iraq and over Tehran's nuclear program. They wanted as many levers as they could find to use in negotiations against the United States. They already had the ability to destabilize Iraq. They had a nuclear program the United States wanted to get rid of. Reactivating a global network that directly threatened American interests was another chip on the bargaining table. Not attacking U.S. interests but attacking Israel demonstrated Hezbollah's vibrancy without directly threatening the United States. Moreover, activities around the world, not carefully shielded in some cases, gave Iran further leverage.

Thanks to the great leader in North Korea, that last line may be exactly correct.

However the immediate benefit to Syria has to be obvious. Israel does not want nor need another Islamic state spouting death threats. That plate is full. They are also hoping that Israel gets bogged down again in Lebanon. It could then turn to Syria to relieve it of its burdens. This gets Syria regime preservation and the opportunity to reclaim Lebanon.

Which makes a real problem for Westerners in Lebanon. Because as Hezbollah gets pushed to the out!:

So now the question is: What does Hezbollah do when the Israelis come? They can resist. They have anti-tank weapons and other systems from Iran. They can inflict casualties. They can impose a counterinsurgency. Syria may think Israel will have to stay, but Israel plans to
crush Hezbollah's infrastructure and leave, forcing Hezbollah to take years to recover. Everyone else in Lebanon is furious at Hezbollah for disrupting the recovery. What does Hezbollah do?

In the 1980s, what Hezbollah did was take Western hostages. The United States is enormously sensitive to hostage situations. It led Ronald Reagan to Iran-Contra. Politically, the United States has trouble handling hostages. This is the one thing Hezbollah learned in the 1980s that the leaders remember. A portfolio of hostages is life insurance. Hezbollah could go back to its old habits. It makes sense to do so.

It will not do this while there is a chance of averting an invasion. But once it is
crystal clear it is coming, grabbing hostages makes sense. Assuming the invasion
is going to occur early next week
(this was written last week, Israeli troops crossed the border today) -- or a political settlement is going to take place -- Western powers now have no more than 72 hours to get their nationals out of Beirut or into places of safety. That probably cannot be done. There are thousands of Westerners in Beirut. But the next few days will focus on ascertaining Israeli intensions and timelines, and executing plans to withdraw
citizens. The Israelis might well shift their timeline to facilitate this. But all things considered, if Hezbollah returns to its roots, it should return to its first operational model: hostages.

Which by the way, is why a US ship is named Higgins. Unfortunately, its a little bit busy now and the Sixth fleet is a fleet in name only.....all the ships are elsewhere. Not to worry though, we can outsource the evacuation. Better business practices and such. Can't let protecting Americans get in the way of protecting Iraqis after all.

Tomorrow: Why the US wants to sit on its hands for a while........


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