Saturday, July 15, 2006

Mayhem with Rules

Over 85 dead in Lebanon (militants and civilians), and 16 dead on the Israeli side (IDF and civilians), and the almost-war in Lebanon continues to escalate. Yesterday the Israeli Air Force flattened Shaykh Hassan Nasrallah's home and headquarters in the Dahiya suburb of Beirut; within an hour Nasrallah was speaking on al-Manar television, vowing an "open (unrestrained) war" against targets including "Haifa and beyond" and promising a surprise at sea. At about that moment, in a technological marvel, either a Hizbollah drone or a radar-guided Silkworm-style missile hit an Israeli naval vessel, killing 4 seamen and puncturing for the third time in as many weeks the image of Israeli military invincibility. Clearly Israeli efforts to disrupt Hizbollah command and control have not succeeded. This afternoon (regional time) another salvo of missiles were sent off at the Galilee, hitting for the first time the resort town of Tiberias, 35 km from the Lebanese border (a touch further than Haifa and possibly the first use of the Fajr-3 missile). Israel has ordered all resort sites on the Sea of Galilee shut down.

It looks as if the Israeli military is engaged in a two-pronged strategy. Terrify the constituency of the Lebanese government into treating Hizbollah as a pariah; and deteriorate the missile stockpile and launch capability of Hizbollah. The first tactic is a cynical application of lethality, designed as much for Israeli domestic consumption as to accomplish any practical goal. Lebanon is a broken state and has been so since the civil war of the 70s and 80s; its army, government, and general population is a multi-confessional patchwork which if it turned on Hizbollah would dissolve into civil war. The weak government of Lebanon, still recovering from decades of sectarian strife, and occupation by both Syria and Israel, has not honored its commitment to disband Hizbollah in the past; under a barrage from the sky and the sea it certainly cannot do so today. So what is the point of bombing the Beirut airport (and then pausing long enough to allow 5 MEA jets to be transferred to Jordan)? Why destroy Nasrallah's certainly evacuated headquarters when it sits in the midst of a densely populated Shi'ite neighborhood? Why drop leaflets on a village giving residents until 6 pm to evacuate, then shoot up a caravan of cars fleeing the town at 12 noon? Even if the Lebanese people were inclined to banish Hizbollah from the body politic, the air assault on Beiruti neighborhoods has such a high potential for collateral damage that it undermines the very political result Israel would like to foster. So I assume that the images of Lebanese under high-tech bombardment is a cynical effort by the Israeli leadership to assure its own citizens that if they are going to suffer from the terror of Katyushas, the Lebanese people will suffer in kind.

The second tactic, a mini-version of the massive American "SCUD hunt" in western Iraq of January 1991, is a much more practical effort. Hizbollah has fired off somewhere around 500 rockets in the last 60 hours; one can assume that Israel has destroyed a significant complement of missiles before they could be launched. While Israel has not yet placed large numbers of ground forces across the Lebanese border, we know from the 1991 SCUD hunt that identifying and "painting" launchers and storage facilities must be done by special forces. So assume that Israeli elite forces are already deep inside southern Lebanon, hiding in the hills and working with collaborators. If the ballpark figure of 13,000 missiles in Hizbollah possession is accurate, we must assume that at least 10% of Hizbollah's arsenal has been used up or destroyed in 60 hours. At this pace, it is a race against time - and as the missile arsenal is degraded, the temptation for Nasrallah to "use it or lose it" increases. It is thus only a matter of time before Hizbollah fires off its Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 Iranian produced rockets, the latter with a reported range of 75 km. All this is designed to provoke Israel into a massive ground re-occupation of southern Lebanon, where the hit-and-run suicide tactics first perfected by Hizbollah can be reapplied. Score one for Shaykh Nasrallah, who looks like he is calling the shots much more effectively than Ehud Olmert.

Despite all the carnage, there are some hard and fast rules that are emerging from the fog of war. Olmert and Bahsar al-Assad are allowing this decimation of poor Lebanon to take place without shooting at each other; Israel is pointedly keeping out of Syria's face, and Syria isn't trying to further stir the pot. To be sure, both sides are walking right up to the line without crossing it - Israel today bombed the Lebanese side of a major passage point between Lebanon and Syria as part of its effort to ensure that no further missiles enter the battle zone. Either side might be calculating at some point in the future to make a move against the other, but for the moment the war in Lebanon has not turned into a regional conflagration. As domestic civilian casualties mount, the pressure on Olmert to "do something more" will only deepen. What his mentor Sharon never contemplated - two fronts of live fire - Olmert has easily endorsed, with the "pacifist hawks" of Labor in tow. All the bombast aside, Sharon learned some painful lessons in Lebanon, and almost had his career destroyed by it; Olmert is just starting his learning curve. It is a crying shame that innocents on both sides are being so callously sacrificed so that Ehud Olmert can learn a bitter, yet totally predictable, lesson.

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