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The Logics of War in South Lebanon

The Logics of War in South Lebanon

Paul G. Buchanan


Scoop Image: Paul Buchanan - Image by Jason DordayBuried beneath the chorus of moral indignation at the loss of life and calls for a ceasefire in Southern Lebanon are the logics of warfare at play. These reduce to the geopolitical and military rationales underpinning the conflict, which is a classic instance of asymmetrical war between agents as well as principals.

The asymmetries are many. Hezbollah is a non-state, irregular armed movement sponsored by Iran and Syria in order to serve as a proxy agent in the fight against the so-called "Zionist entity," but more importantly, indirectly against the US itself (since Iran and Syria cannot afford to engage the US directly at this time). Hezbollah has little natural origins in Lebanon but has done enough political and social work to garner support outside of the Lebanese Shiia community and a significant parliamentary presence and a couple of Ministerial positions in the Lebanese government. Israel is a limited social democracy whose origins are disputed by many, but which has the unflinching support of the USA and a military arsenal that dwarfs that of most of its neighbours combined. It can therefore prosecute the wars that the US will not or cannot afford to wage in the Middle East. What it did and does not have in this instance--somewhat surprising given its reputation--is good strategic and tactical intelligence, the former to alert it to the extent of Hezbollah's military build up over the last six years and the latter to give it the real time capacity to strike at Hezbollah leadership targets and prevent ongoing missile attacks against Israeli cities.

Hezbollah may or may not have acted of its own accord in precipitating the war with its raid into Israel (which resulted in the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the deaths of several others). It is possible that Hezbollah acted to divert attention away from Iran's nuclear weapons program, or from the Iranian push to extend Shiia political influence in Iraq. It could also be a result of the desire of Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasarallah, to confirm his status as a major leader in the anti-Zionist struggle. But either way, the idea was to provoke an Israeli overreaction in the hope that it would exacerbate tensions between Israel and its neighbors and possibly lead to widening of the conflict throughout the region and beyond. That might well occur.

For his part Israeli Prime Minister Olmert had to take a hard-line response because he needs to affirm his credentials as a tough and decisive leader. Unlike Ariel Sharon, who record of ruthlessness is well known (and who may have acted with more restraint), Olmert has no combat reputation to go on, and any appearance of weakness in the face of Hezbollah's attack would be political suicide for him. Thus, he had to come out swinging even if the provocation was relatively minor. Once he committed to escalation, the issue became a matter of all or nothing for him and Israel as a nation, since anything short of apparent victory will be seen as a sign of weakness. That played into the hands of conservative hawks in his government, who welcomed the opportunity to introduce the current generation of Israeli youth to the first "real" war since 1973 because they believe that many young Israelis have lost the toughness and resolve of previous generations, thereby encouraging Israel's enemies. It also plays into US desires for political change in the Middle East, since categorical defeat of Hezbollah will undermine their sponsors in Damascus and Teheran.

For a militarily superior actor such as Israel in this context, the objective is to bring overwhelming force to bear in order to destroy the enemy's capacity to continue to wage war in as short a time and as completely as possible. For the militarily weak actor, in this case Hezbollah, the objective is to draw the conflict out as long as feasible, reducing it to low-intensity guerrilla warfare in which superior technology such as airpower is not decisive, so as to bring external factors to bear on the outcome (be it international pressure or a loss of resolve on the part of the stronger actor in the face of a never-ending conflict). The more the conflict appears unwinnable on the stronger actor's initial terms, the more the weaker actor gains the advantage.

In its approach Israel has borrowed a page from Osama bin Laden's book on warfare. Bin Laden warned US citizens after the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush that because they voted him back into office they were willing accomplices in his crimes against Muslims. Hence US citizens would thereafter be viewed as legitimate military targets by al-Qaeda. In its targeting of residential areas that are Hamas and Hezbollah strongholds in Palestine and Lebanon respectively, Israel is doing much the same: punishing the civilian support base of two militant armed movements with considerable political influence, electoral support, and the common desire to see the state of Israel wiped off the face of the earth (a desire they share with many in the Muslim world).

Much has been said about the disproportionate nature of the Israeli military response to a relatively small Hezbollah incursion. That is precisely the point. Modern warfare is not conducted like classic duels. There are no gentlemen's rules and single shots fired at ten paces. The laws of war are most often honoured in the breach, as recent events in Iraq have shown, and irregular forces such as Hamas and Hezbollah dispense with them entirely by deliberately targeting civilians along the lines advocated by bin-Laden. Thus, although unsportsmanlike and ethically dubious, the deliberate targeting of the civilian support infrastructure underpinning Hezbollah's presence in Lebanon is much akin to the allied targeting of Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It may be a nasty business, but it is effective at reducing the capacity of the enemy to continue to carry out military operations over time.

Even so, both sides have miscalculated. Hezbollah has not seen the tide of Arab support it may have wished for (since much of the Sunni world are not keen on seeing a rise of Shiia influence in their patch), and Israel has found the going much more difficult than originally planned. Rather than pound Hezbollah into submission using airpower, Israel has now been forced to undertake a ground offensive farther north than originally envisioned in order to degrade Hezbollah's ability to launch missiles against Israeli cities. This will take them up the Bekaa valley and into the southern Beirut suburbs, which plays into the hands of Hezbollah units who want to lure Israeli troops deeper into Lebanon in order to stretch their supply lines and maneuver them into prepared battle spaces in which ambushes can be staged. That makes the prospect of a bloody hand-to-hand struggle much more likely, and, given Hezbollah's penchant for dispersing amongst the civilian population, the prospects of even more innocent casualties. This parallels the experience of the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the optimism of airpower proponents in the early stages of the military campaigns gave way to the grim pragmatism of ground force commanders confronted with well entrenched and determined adversaries who do not abide by standard codes of military conduct.

Hezbollah would have preferred to combine guerrilla tactics against the Israeli rearguard with decentralized conventional assaults against isolated Israeli military targets, but the Israeli air campaign makes anything conventional other than small missile fire a prohibitive venture at this stage in the war (although it has had good success with anti-armor hit and run assaults). As for the respective supporters of each side, Iran and Syria are making noises about joining the fray, but in reality that would be an invitation to disaster, especially for Syria. Iran is a wildcard in that it can make serious trouble for the US directly in Iraq or through its clandestine networks elsewhere, but it may be content to sit on the sidelines while going about the business of expanding its military capabilities off the radar scope of world attention. The US will support Israel unconditionally, if for no other reason than it allows the Bush administration and Republican Party to rally evangelical Christians, Jews and so-called security conservatives around defense of its ally in the build up to this year's mid-term elections in November. Thus its support for a ceasefire is more symbolic than real regardless of the negotiations ongoing in the UN Security Council. For the US the main objective is to unleash the Israeli dogs of war on Hezbollah in order to teach Syria and Iran a lesson in comeuppance.

The bottom line is relatively straightforward. Time, not brute force, is the key strategic variable at play. If Israel can destroy enough of Hezbollah's military capability to the point that it feels secure from missile fire and terrorists emanating from Lebanon within a reasonably short amount of time (say, 6 weeks), it can accept a ceasefire, withdraw in favour of a multinational military force that replaces the ineffectual (and now useless) UNIFIL mission, and thereby re-focus its military attention on the militant wing of Hamas in the Gaza strip. If Hezbollah can survive the Israeli offensive, it wins. As the weaker military actor it gains by not being exterminated, and in the measure that it can expose weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the previously impregnable Israeli military machine, it encourages others to imitate it. It is for reason that Israel sees its survival at stake and which prompts it to use overwhelming force in order to achieve a decisive and unequivocal military victory. That will be hard to do.

If Hezbollah can avoid being annihilated via tactical dispersal and strategic withdrawal into neighboring states and/or non-Shiia areas in Lebanon (which the Israelis are loathe to bomb, but may see themselves forced to), they can regroup and redeploy around the buffering contingent of foreign armed forces. This will take time and may be difficult to achieve, but it is the best chance Hezbollah has of maintaining a long-term armed presence in Lebanon. That in turn will force Israel to divide its military attentions between protracted low intensity struggles against both Hamas and Hezbollah, which could have the effect of draining its political will to continue its occupation of Palestinian and Lebanese territory. In such circumstances Israel may be forced to sue for peace on terms less favorable to it. Time, in effect, works against Israel and in favour of Hezbollah.

Politically and militarily, Israel has a momentary advantage. Apart from rhetorical bluster, no Arab state wants a bar of the conflict, and the Iranians are not yet be ready to risk a direct confrontation with Israel (something which they fully expect to change once they acquire nuclear weapons). Although there is much Western condemnation of Israel, no one appears much interested in being the first to volunteer military forces to the buffer zone (except for New Zealand, although its offer a troops appears to be more a case of posturing on the part of the Prime Minister rather than a well conceived government decision). Multilateral talks about a ceasefire are just that. Meanwhile the Israeli public is generally supportive of the war, as it is seen as an instance of national survival being at stake. The Lebanese population, as is its government, are defenseless and gradually being broken.

Israel has a limited window of opportunity in which to press its case, and Hezbollah has the necessity to avoid the friction of hard combat in favour of fluidity and maneuver so as to counter the array of force being massed against it. To do so it has the elements of surprise, support and elusiveness, but that too may come to end sooner rather than later if Israel's much vaunted intelligence services atone for their pre-war failures and improve the supply of combat-relevant information (such as the location of Sheikh Nasarallah). Thus the conflict is at a strategic stalemate in which Hezbollah's military capacity is slowly being degraded even as Israel is increasingly pressured to bring hostilities to an end. Until that happens Hezbollah's Katyusha rockets will continue to streak southward through the summer sky, and Olmert's troops will continue to move north in order to finish a job none of them wanted or foresaw just four weeks ago.


Paul G. Buchanan is Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland. His latest book, With Distance Comes Perspective (2005), is available from the Digital Printing Group. Ltd., in Auckland (


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