Update…Middle East Situation July 26, 2006

I’ve been to Beirut twice and driven on the road to Damascus, so I know the sites I’m watching this week on TV. I’ve walked with my Lebanese friend on the pier in Beirut looking at the endless cranes rebuilding the city amid the rubble of the war in the 1980’s and we really did think all this crap was behind us. I’ve seen the airport get built and the 5-star hotels go up and figured that it must be a bit of a joke on the country’s southern border with a make-believe war between Hizbullah and the Israelis spitting across the border in a ritualized kind of way. 

There is no way a person can watch the BBC and see the families in Tyre being split up as mothers are taken away from their infant children in boats going out to sea and not cry for them. It could be my wife and kid, at the wrong time and place. I really think that people in Israel also watching the TV feel the same way.  Problem is that the people in southern Lebanon, when they see such pictures of Israelis getting hit with rockets, dance around in the streets passing out sweets. They have rockets under their beds and on their roofs and lived in denial that some day they might get their butts kicked for giving sanctuary to a guerilla movement that was continuously wreaking havoc across an international border.  How they can be enraptured by a bunch of thugs who sacrificed the future of Lebanon on a whim of a country 1,000 miles away against a country that doesn’t hold an inch of Lebanese territory is beyond me. Why did they believe that a country that withdrew only did so from weakness and that more such war would drive that country into extinction?

My business partner reminded me of a press conference involving Menachem Begin after he bombed Osiraq in Iraq. He said “these people are meshuganas (nuts). That’s why we have to bomb them.” Maybe it’s just that simple. Does anyone think that a bunch of 40 year old men want to be called up in the reserves to go back into Lebanon (and they really are calling up just about everybody) to go mano a mano and door to door? We’re talking taxi drivers, lawyers, doctors, plumbers, married with kids against a bunch of 20 year old religious fanatics who just happen to have forced one-third of the country into bomb shelters for a week.
Something doesn’t add up these past 2 weeks. The Israelis bomb a TV station and 5 minutes later they’re back on the air. They bomb 3 of 4 runways at the airport on Day One but all day long since then airplanes are coming and going out of Beirut airport. The news seems the same from day to day. You could easily read yesterday’s paper and not realize you were reading today’s battle reports. To some extent, the Israeli campaign so far is not really impressive and there are too many military people running around with big mouths with less to show for it.The new commander of the military is an air force commander running a Rumsfeld type war against all historical doctrine of that military and there is a deep split by the old guard that feels that you need an army to win a war.

There is in a certain sense less to the Israeli air campaign than it seems. It is very precise, restrained and quite fascinating to the military student; for all the pictures on TV, the infrastructure targets are being bombed in such a way so as to hinder their use for now but to make it easy to repair after the fighting stops. If the Israelis bombed like the Americans did in Iraq, the civilian casualty count would be at least 10x higher. If an Israeli pilot sees the road is too busy during the day, they come back in the middle of the night to bomb it. Of course, 400 dead in 2 weeks of war is a tragedy but there are over 100 civilians dying a day in Iraq and nobody notices because that’s dog biting dog news. In Gaza and Lebanon, the soldiers warn people to get out before they bomb. Aside from various errors and incidents, most of this has been strangely civilized and the Arabs on the ground know the difference, which is one reason why so far the criticism has been muted. But the bombing also makes no sense because the air force doesn’t have enough planes to cover the territory and the minute a plane flies away, the rockets launch. Bombing roads to halt resupply is also a crock because Hizbullah has so much stocked up over 6 years that its fighters don’t need resupply.

That’s why I think the crux of the war hasn’t really started yet. But it’s about to precisely because so far the Israeli campaign is not impressing anyone and because anything less than a victory is unacceptable to everyone aside from Syria and Iran and their sponsors. No matter what you hear in public, in private that’s the word among most of the world. I also am seeing signals that something big is about to happen such as unprecedented requisition of ambulances to the front lines. Also, the war can’t go on for much longer before the world simply insists that it stop for the sake of stopping. So if the Israelis are going to give it their best shot, they better do it now.

The Israelis must use ground forces; the question is whether or not they will do so in the Bekaa and give the Syrians a pretext to widen the war or whether they will go to the southern suburbs of Beirut to get Hizbullah’s top leadership where they are hiding in bunkers underneath parking lots immune to the destruction around them. In the South, Hizbullah are in bunkers opening hatches to launch rockets and are immune to the air assault. Nasrallah and his leadership must be killed and his men not allowed to escape to Syria to fight another day. Or else the Arab world will hate Israel for making a mess and not finishing the job and the problem will just come back even worse as the Hizbullah get better rockets from further north. If the Israelis finish the job and give Lebanon another chance, they’re doing it a favor because so far Lebanon isn’t a real country with a free hand to run its own affairs. Maybe this time they’ll do things right over there. It was a mistake on everyone’s part to appease Hizbullah thinking they would have a stake in the country’s future; they don’t give a shit for Lebanon and cannot be part of its future. They are a foreign element ready to sacrifice the country for a third party power’s whim. The Lebanese erred and so did the Israelis in thinking like the Lebanese that the Hizbullah would play by the rules for the sake of Lebanon’s future.

This is a significant turning point in the history of the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict is turning into an Iran-Israeli conflict. Yes, because what are the Arabs and the Israelis fighting over at this point? The Israelis pulled out of Gaza and Lebanon and have made it clear they’d be thrilled to get out of the West Bank as soon as someone takes it over that doesn’t threaten to use it as a base to keep fighting a war against Israel, but that’s not what Syria and Iran want so therefore the pot boils. No less than Bibi Netanyahu had a draft agreement in his desk to give back the Golan so there’s no fuss there. That the Hizbullah hold Lebanon hostage for 2 soldiers shows they care nothing about Lebanese people; same deal with Gaza over 1 soldier. Who would do this – wouldn’t you just give back the soldier and try to call the whole thing off if your whole country was getting its butt wiped over a lousy corporal? Syria, who ought to be a major Arab player, is weak and has no say because their only friend is Iran. Iran had a deadline on the nuclear issue and skirted it by starting a war in Lebanon the day before the deadline. The Arabs themselves are ambivalent on this war and its leaders demand that the Israelis win, no matter what you read. Notice that the Saudis and Turks won’t allow their air space to be used by Iran to send aid to Lebanon and notice the things the Saudis have been saying the past 2 weeks. The Saudis lost $40 billion of investments in Lebanon; Hariri brought them in and he’s been assassinated; they’ll never return. Lebanon will never return to its former glory with Saudi investment unless it really changes course. No wonder the Saudis scream loudest. But meanwhile, they are getting new respect for their stand in the rest of the world and even the Israelis are looking at the Saudis in a new light.

I’ve always said that Syria and Iran must pay; it is sad to see the Lebanese pay while the Syrians sit happy and immune and I do believe that if the Israelis bombed Damascus, Hizbullah would be out of business in a week and it wouldn’t even be necessary to drop one bomb on Beirut. Their day will come but not now; the Israelis think it is better to keep the fight in Lebanon, get rid of the direct threat without having it become an Arab-Israeli war for now. As long as it is what it is, the world doesn’t mind. So far what I see out of this campaign is a lot of blood in Lebanon on both sides and the Syrians and Iranians getting off without a dusting and then they just send more people in a year from now and it starts all over again. They claim victory because anything short of total annihilation is a victory for them and will be declared as much since it costs them nothing. Sort of like stomping out ants inside a square but there are tons of ants next door just waiting to come into the square. To a great degree, as long as the war is fought in Lebanon, I don’t see it as a war the Israelis can ever win.

There is another view of this and that is that the Syrians have been begging for peace with Israel the past 2 years and been ignored and that they have no choice but to be trying to get attention viz. Lebanon. The reason they are ignored is that nobody wants to guarantee the Assad regime as part of the deal and bring them back into controlling Lebanon de jure although perhaps the Israelis don’t want to knock out that regime fearing that what might come next might be worse. This is a tough nut to crack but so far all indications I have are that the Israelis do not want to be in a war against Syria at this time. I can see it both ways but still feel that letting Syria off the hook only means postponement of eventual and an even bigger conflict unless Syria gives up on Hizbullah and joins the West against Iran. Perhaps this provides an opening: The Syrians accept that Shabab Farms is part of Lebanon; the Israelis withdraw; the Hizbullah no longer claim there is Israeli occupation and they save face and get out of the military business, and the Syrians and Israelis make a deal on the Golan. But assuming the Syrians and/or Israelis aren’t interested, let’s continue.

So what have we learned so far from the last 2 weeks?

1.  The air force can’t do it alone. They don’t have enough planes to stand guard over Hizbullah rocket launch sites at all times, so when they fly away to some other place the rockets come out and launch.

2.  Buffer zones won’t work if rockets really do come in from far away and that’s why I don’t believe that a buffer zone of 10 miles or so is worth anything. 

3.  Withdrawal doesn’t help if the other side has no interest in its own territorial integrity because it is a foreign element that doesn’t care. That argues in favor of occupation but everyone knows that is a bad way to go, so we have to think further.

4.  Building a wall to separate from territory won’t work unless the Israelis keep going in and keeping the place clean or the population decides to keep it clean. Whether or not Gaza will change now is the big question. If it won’t stop the rockets after this last go-round, it means that withdrawal from the West Bank is a non-starter because so far the Israelis just get crap thrown at them from places they withdraw from.

5.  It’s very hard to have great intelligence on what is on the other side of the territory once you withdraw. Israel got caught with stuff in Lebanon they didn’t know was there and so much stuff got in there it’s just nuts they let it go on so long over the past 6 years since they left. The Americans dropped ½ ton on Osama in Afghanistan when they were looking at him; the Israelis dropped 23 tons on a building in Beirut and as far as we know they got nothing of value.

What this might mean is that there may be withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank but until the Palestinians become committed to peace, there will be frequent incursions by the army and their lives will be miserable. The Palestinians ought to see the light and get rid of Hamas because if the last 2 weeks shows nothing else, it’s clear that the idea that the Israelis will sit by while their neighbors make their lives miserable is over. 

Military action against Iran and Syria is inevitable; once they pay the price domestically they will stop it. Right now the West ought to be pulling Syria away from Iran and threatening them with the loss of the Alawite government if they don’t cease and desist and say we’ll take our chances if you go down. Lebanon won’t be free until Syria loses its chokehold on it.

Looking ahead, what are possible Solutions?

1. Lebanon – An International force including Arabs, Chinese, Russians and whomever that the Iranians wouldn’t want to be responsible for injuring by being stupid? Or does this mean they’ll be cover for the Hizbullah because the Israelis won’t won’t to fire on them while they continue doing same old? Probably better is Israeli institution of a Policy of Peace and Quiet, meaning if We Sleep Well at Night, so do you – civilians had better know that they ought not to live around there as long there are adventures going on around them. Until that happens, the southern part of the country will be a no-man’s land for military only. Problem is that everybody is talking about such an international force but nobody wants to be a part of it, and that’s part of the reason the Israelis aren’t opposing it right now because so far it’s all talk and no walk. Such a force could not be under the UN – last time the UN patrolled the border a number of years ago, they just sat and watched helplessly while Hizbullah kidnapped an Israeli soldier in front of them.

2. PA needs to become a Special Administrative Region (SAR – just like Hong Kong) of Jordan (West Bank) and Egypt (Gaza) until such time as there is a governing body to take over. And the Israelis will operate under the Peace and Quiet regime. Basically, until we sleep at night, you don’t.

Basically, it is a three-step solution that can serve as a model across the globe. If you are just a lawless place, you get maybe an international force and/or the Peace & Quiet regime with your neighbors. If you are better than that, you’re an SAR until you learn to stand on your own two feet as a responsible member of the world community.

This essentially deals with the Syria/Iran issue – everybody understands there is a no man’s land as long as the outsiders make trouble within a country and puts some kind of responsibility back into sovereign states, which was lacking. The problem in the world is when there is territory without a real state in charge. The US had to go to Afghanistan to knock off those who made 9/11 and the Israelis had to go to Beirut, and at some point Damascus/Teheran to deal with the current problems. Israel wants to stay out of Syria for fear of unconventional weapons and the fall of the Assads, but they are sending a message that You’re Next if you don’t get with the program. 

To the extent that the civilians in Lebanon have seen that the clock can indeed be turned back 20 years in a week, I think the Israeli campaign has already succeeded in restoring deterrence and that the Arabs now realize that Shiites who are puppets of Iran are the bigger threat to regional stability than the Israelis ever will be. If the Israelis didn’t step in, you’d have a Shiite arch going from Lebanon through Syria and Iraq to Iran and it would be real scary in that region with nobody to stop it. It’s now or never – the Israelis have to win to break up this arch and give Lebanon another chance to get it right on their own instead of being a perpetual failed state under the veto of a Shiite sponsor. That’s why they have the green light to do whatever it takes to win. It’s Lebanon in the middle, but it’s a precursor to World War III with Shiite Islam against the World if it doesn’t end right.

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