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    Middle East
     Jul 22, 2006
Bunkered down for a war of attrition
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Israel entered the war in Lebanon to liquidate Hezbollah. If it can free its two captive soldiers (seized on July 12), this would be a plus for the Israelis. But the real objective of the war is to destroy Hassan Nasrallah and his Hezbollah.

Israel succeeded in expelling Yasser Arafat from Lebanon in 1982 and it believes that with military might, it can do the same today to Nasrallah. The war has dragged on into its 10th day and looks as if it's going to be a long and deadly war of attrition - at the expense of innocent Lebanese and Israeli civilians dying on both sides.

Both Nasrallah and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have cornered themselves into difficult positions, making an exit

strategy at this stage extremely problematical. Surrendering now without concrete gains for Lebanese and Israeli public opinion would be political suicide for Nasrallah and Olmert.

The Israeli premier entered this war and promised the Israelis he would liberate the two Israeli soldiers and crush Hezbollah. Not only has Olmert failed to achieve both targets, but Hezbollah missiles have landed on Israeli towns such as Safad, Acre, Haifa, Tiberias, Kiryat Shmona and the biblical city of Nazareth.

Hezbollah has managed to kill 29 people in Israel, 14 of them soldiers. These attacks have greatly embarrassed the Israeli government. Nasrallah finds himself in a similar situation. He entered this war promising his people to release Lebanese prisoners from Israeli jails and liberate the Israeli-occupied Sheba Farms. Not only has he failed to achieve both targets, but Israel is literarily destroying Lebanon.

At the time of writing, casualties in Lebanon are 330 dead and more than 500,000 displaced people. After suffering so much for this war, the Lebanese would not accept anything less than complete victory. If Nasrallah surrenders now, his people will ask: "Why did you go to war in the first place if this was going to be the result?"

Meanwhile, a bone-breaking battle continues between Israel and Hezbollah. On Wednesday, Israel launched its strongest offensive into Lebanon, with 200 air strikes, killing at least 70 Lebanese. The following day witnessed more Israel assaults by jets and gunboats on south Lebanon and the Shi'ite district in the suburbs of Beirut. This neighborhood, known as al-Dahiyyieh, has been flattened by continuous bombing at an interval of every 10 minutes since July 12.

Previously safe places, such as the village of Choueifat and the Christian Ashrafiyyieh neighborhood of Beirut, suffered attacks in recent days. Israel landed 23 tons of explosives on a bunker near Burj al-Barajneh, which it claimed Nasrallah was using as a command base.

Hezbollah denied that Nasrallah was there and he gave an interview to the Doha-based Al-Jazeera TV on Thursday, refuting all claims that he had been wounded.  Using defiant language to lift the moral of his followers, Nasrallah said, "If the entire universe came [to pressure Hezbollah] it will not bring back the Israeli soldiers unless through indirect negotiations and a prisoner swap."

Israeli elite units crossed the border to launch ground offensives against Hezbollah, but according to Hezbollah's Al-Manar television, they were driven back by Hezbollah fighters. Al-Manar showed equipment that its warriors had captured from the Israelis. They had pushed as far as 32 kilometers inland from the Mediterranean, but came under Hezbollah fire and were stopped when an Israeli tank hit a land mine.

In addition, nine Israeli soldiers who had penetrated into Lebanon were ambushed by Hezbollah within Lebanese territory near the village of Maroun al-Rais. One Israeli strike at the village of Srifa near the border flattened 15 homes and killed a total of 17 civilians. Israel has also hit the cities Tyre and Baalbak. Israel bombed the offices of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command that is loyal to Syria, and also hit the Baalbak-Homs Road, severing all transportation routs to Syria.
Shortly after the war began, Israel hit and damaged the Damascus-Beirut Highway and the Homs-Tripoli Road. With all their airports out of service because of Israeli bombing, and with a sea blockade of Lebanon, the Lebanese only had one travel route through Syria to escape the hell that had broken out. It has now been sealed off. Hezbollah has responded by hitting northern Israel with more than 100 rockets and, for the first time, landing missiles on Nazareth. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) command of northern Israel, located in Safad, was also hit by Hezbollah missiles.

International inaction
The international community does not seem in a hurry to end the war. Spearheaded by the Americans (with the notable exceptions of Italy, Russia and France), countries have sided with Israel in its war on Hezbollah. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has announced that she will arrive in the Middle East early next week to press for a political solution to the crisis.

By then, the war would have entered its 14th day, with unimaginable humanitarian problems for Lebanon. Since the world is in no hurry, the war of attrition will start and probably last for many weeks - long enough until either side breaks under pressure.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said that "hostilities must stop", but acknowledged, in speaking to the Security Council, that there were "serious obstacles towards reaching a ceasefire".

Attrition warfare, by definition, is a tactic where, to win a war, one's enemy must be worn down to the point of collapse by continuous losses in human life, arms and property.

A notable example of such a war was that between Egypt and Israel in 1968-70. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser knew that numerically the Egyptians outnumbered the Israelis by far and that the Israelis were less willing than the Arabs to suffer losses in property and human life.

Nasser's views on the war of attrition - which very well are probably what Nasrallah is thinking today - were described by veteran Egyptian journalist Mohammad Hasanayn Haykal: "If the enemy succeeds in inflicting 50,000 casualties in this campaign, we can go on fighting nevertheless, because we have manpower reserves. If we succeed in inflicting 10,000 casualties, he will unavoidably find himself compelled to stop fighting, because he has no manpower reserves."

So far Israel's military tactic has been to bomb entire neighborhoods where Hezbollah is located, along with all of south Lebanon. Israel has destroyed bridges, roads, seaports, airports and private property. It has disrupted electricity and caused a shortage in sugar, rice, fuel and many other daily commodities needed for the Lebanese to maintain their sanity.

By disrupting the livelihood of the Lebanese, it aims at turning public opinion inside Lebanon against Hezbollah and getting a greater number of people to say: "Hassan Nasrallah is responsible for all of this. He is responsible for the Israeli attacks that have destroyed our homes, our property and the infrastructure of Lebanon."

This is what happened in 1982 to Arafat, when even his closest supporters in the Muslim community of Lebanon were literarily begging him to leave Beirut. If this happens today, it will create conflict - and perhaps violence - between the Shi'ites and the rest of the Lebanese, disrupt the support for Nasrallah, and turn public opinion in favor of a ceasefire, even if it were at the expense of Hezbollah.

Some are even fearful that secretly armed non-Shi'ite groups in Lebanon will take the law into their own hands and start to fight the Shi'ite guerrillas on their own, plunging the country back into the civil-war atmosphere of 1975-90.

This explains why the IDF is not only targeting Hezbollah strongholds. It wants every Lebanese to suffer so he or she can blame Nasrallah and Hezbollah. It has hit a church in Rashayya, landed a missile in the Ashrafiyyieh neighborhood of Beirut, and targeted a base for the Lebanese army, killing seven soldiers and four officers.

On Tuesday, Israel hit a convoy of assistance sent to Lebanon from the United Arab Emirates, destroying an ambulance and a truck loaded with medicine. It later hit three trucks carrying sugar and rice near the Christian town of Zahle - the "town of wine and poetry".

Many in Lebanon are becoming increasingly disgruntled with the attacks, but are not yet blaming Hezbollah. This needs time because at this stage the Lebanese are still saying: "This is not a war against Hezbollah. If it were, why are we being attacked? This is a war on Lebanon."

Israel is waiting for public opinion to turn in its favor - and this happens when human loss and misery become unbearable. Hezbollah is also investing in time, waiting until enough damage is inflicted on Israel to force Olmert to stop his attacks.

Both parties are waiting until public opinion in each other's country starts saying no to bloodshed. This has not happened yet in Israel, and according to a recent poll published in the London-based Al-Hayat, 81% of Israelis want to continue war and 58% want the war's final outcome to be the destruction of Hezbollah.

Morale among Nasrallah's men is also still very high. Destroying Hezbollah from a distance is too difficult for Israel. Its fighters are fortified in secret hiding places, tunnels and bunkers under the Lebanese capital that they have been preparing for years.

To date, according to Hezbollah media, only a handful of its members have been killed by Israeli bombs. The rest of the casualties have been civilian. Hezbollah can sustain distant missile attacks for a long period - longer than Israeli public opinion is likely able to tolerate bombs falling on Haifa, Safad or Acre.

According to Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in a recent interview with Sky News, Hezbollah has a total of 12,000 missiles. It has only fired 1,500 of them on Lebanon. At this rate, with 1,500 missiles a week, this war would last for another eight weeks - unless Iran manages to send more arms to Hezbollah.

Israel realizes that eliminating Hezbollah from afar is difficult - if not impossible. Thus Israel will be forced to launch a ground invasion into south Lebanon to root out Hezbollah. On Wednesday, Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Israel would be willing to invade to achieve this end. While touring sites hit by Hezbollah missiles in northern Israel, he said, "If we need to carry out action which will make clear that we can reach anywhere, we will carry out those actions without hesitation."

But this also is very difficult for Israel in terms of logistics, and worldwide public opinion. If the IDF does cross the border into Lebanon, it will have to fight the Shi'ite guerrillas in the suburbs of Beirut and in the south. Hezbollah is good with street warfare, especially in its own territory.

The fighters also know the mountains, the roads and the underground. Israel would be fighting a war in completely unfamiliar territory and would suffer massive loss of life if it engaged in ground combat and street warfare with Hezbollah.

The only factor that could turn the tables in Israel's favor is if it kills Nasrallah in combat. The morale of the Hezbollah resistance would be greatly shaken and its command would suffer a dramatic setback. But it looks as if Nasrallah is well protected and certainly he will not make himself an easy target.

Therefore, destroying Hezbollah by war is very difficult. On the other hand, destroying Israel is also impossible for Hezbollah. It will get the upper hand in war only if Iran enters the battle, and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has said that he will only be dragged into war if Israel attacks Syria.

Olmert, fighting the Palestinians at home and Hezbollah in Lebanon, would not want to drag himself into more war and open fronts with Damascus and Tehran. The United States, being Israel's No 1 ally, also will not allow Hezbollah to defeat Israel - or even force it to agree to a ceasefire on Hezbollah's terms.

Washington will continue to support this war of attrition until casualties and humanitarian disaster ruin the lives, morale, finances and psychology of the Lebanese people. Then they will push Hezbollah back into the Lebanese heartland, and lobby for UN peacekeeping troops on the Lebanese-Israeli border.

With that done, Hezbollah would have no battleground from which it could launch a war on Israel. Its arms would be useless. It would have no choice but to transform into a 100% political party in the Lebanese political system, with no military agenda. If the US continues to place full support behind Olmert, this very well might be the last military battle of Hezbollah.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

The drums of war sound for Iran (Jul 21, '06)

Lebanon left for dead (Jul 21, '06)

It's not just about Hezbollah (Jul 20, '06)

Leviathan run amok (Jul 19, '06)

Hezbollah and the art of the possible (Jul 18, '06)


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