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    Middle East
     Jul 25, 2006
The war Hezbollah is really fighting
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

The asymmetrical warfare between a US-backed regional superpower and an Islamist resistance movement ill-equipped to reciprocate in kind the deadly, punishing blows by its adversary is now entering its second week with no sign of abating.

Both militarily, politically and diplomatically, both sides in this "widening war" have mirror-imaged each other by targeting cities and towns and villages rather indiscriminately, even though the

death and destruction wrought by Israel's state-of-the-art weaponry dwarfs by a vast margin the damages exacted by Hezbollah's rather primitive rockets.

Irrespective, Hezbollah can boast about both its steadfastness in the face of relentless bombardment reminiscent of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombardment of Serbia in the summer 1999. It can also take heart from its unprecedented ability to shower northern Israel with rocket attacks, bringing normal life for a full one third of the state of Israel to a virtual standstill.

The key question is, of course, how long Hezbollah can withstand the Israeli air and (increasingly) ground onslaught without running out of ammunition, logistic support and sheer will power. A war of attrition, when Israel's arsenal is fully and quickly replenished by the US, according to press reports, while Hezbollah's supply routes are choked off, is not in Hezbollah's strategic interests.

But, that may be inevitable since Israel has publicly devoted itself to dismantling Hezbollah's military infrastructure "once and for all" and, yet, the air campaign will in all likelihood fall dreadfully short of this objective. Crippling Hezbollah, albeit temporarily, may be the maximum achievable by the Israeli air campaign.

Israel's incremental ground invasion
As of this writing, Israel's army has penetrated some three miles inside Lebanon, capturing some villages, while massing troops at the border in anticipation of a potential full-scale invasion. This has the dual objective of eliminating Hezbollah's strongholds near the border and creating a "deep buffer".

Mindful of history, when Hezbollah's guerrillas waged an ultimately successful counter-strategy that forced Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Israel is fully aware of the "war trap" and is seeking a working formula whereby it can accomplish its ultimate war objectives short of re-occupying parts of Lebanon.

The war's pattern of escalation may, on the other hand, create its own momentum toward large-scale invasion, in which case, all roads will lead to Beirut. This is the main reason that Hezbollah's hot pursuit by Israeli forces will culminate in urban warfare in Beirut's vicinity and, indeed, the entire length of the capital city presently under siege.

Thus, Israel's military conundrum: settling fpr less than full victory against the determined Hezbollah will scar Israel's military prestige and, yet, the price of total victory may prove too high, in terms of destruction of Lebanon and the level of tolerance of international public opinion. Worse, there is no guarantee that Israel's quest for total destruction of Hezbollah will succeed. In fact, Beirut may prove to be the Arabs' Stalingrad, delivering a stunning blow to the invading Israeli army at the end of a bloody campaign.

With the war beginning to galvanize the Arab street, a protracted conflict will bring al-Qaeda to Lebanon in hordes, thus exponentially widening the net of Arab terrorism. A timely unifying development potentially putting to the backburner the present Sunni-Shi'ite schism turning violent in Iraq and Pakistan, the war in Lebanon is also proving a critical antidote to Lebanese factionalism, in light of the announcement by various Lebanese leaders that Lebanon will stand united against an Israeli invasion.

Western military analysts have readily dismissed the Lebanese Army as "no match" for Israel, which is true, but the 60,000 standing army can quickly double in size through a general mobilization, as well as by accepting recruits from other Arab and Muslim nations.

Besides, Lebanon's premier has already alluded to turning his army into a guerrilla-type army, which has the advantage of familiarity with the terrain, fighting a war of independence and self-determination against what is perceived as a ruthless enemy which has not spared even Beirut's hospitals. Lebanon may be physically devastated now, but politically it has demonstrated an admirable new maturity bound to be praised by future historians.

The war on the diplomatic front
"There is no diplomacy," decried the Lebanon's man at the UN after a week of bloodshed passively observed by the United Nations, despite a formal complaint lodged by Lebanon at the Security Council.

Ignoring repeated pleas by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for an immediate ceasefire, backed by certain European governments, such as France and practically the entire bloc of developing nations known as the Non-Aligned Movement, the US has singlehandedly brought the Security Council to a state of paralysis. The feeble argument of its envoy John Bolton is that we "must wait and see what the military outcome will be" and that to do otherwise is "putting the cart before the horse".

This even though the UN Charter and the council's mandate is to prevent armed conflicts and to institute peace in inter-state conflicts. Such mockery of the UN's role simply adds another fresh log to the burning furnace of anti-Americanism running rampant in the Middle East and, indeed, the entire Muslim World.

The US's justification that "Israel has the right to defend herself" is not once extended to the oppressed Palestinian people, who have been enduring the most horrific series of air and ground assaults. According to the Palestinian envoy to the UN, who reported to the Security Council on Friday, Israel has conducted over 100 air strikes and shelled Gaza more than 1,100 times.

The US Congress has self-limited itself to uncritical support for Israel, passing a resolution condemning Syria and Iran, without even bothering with the previous niceties of keeping a facade of fairness.

A new resolution by the House of Representative calls for the release of kidnapped Israeli soldiers, without mentioning the fact, cited by the London Observer, that a day prior to the kidnapping of a soldier by Hamas, Israeli commandos violated Gaza's territorial sovereignty by "abducting" two Hamas members. In fairness, respected US lawmakers should similarly ask for Israel's release of detained Arabs.

Few US politicians dare to criticize Israel's destruction of much of the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, imprisonment of dozens of Palestinian lawmakers and half its cabinet ministers.

A just reaction by Congress would be to openly entertain reprisals against Israel if it refused to halt its deadly campaign. A range of options must be explored: reducing military exchanges, freezing the delivery of weapons purchased by Israel and scaling down military-to-military cooperation.

Also, Washington can threaten to withdraw economic assistance, delay investments, freeze preferential trade agreements and dissolve joint economic projects, and, in the worst-case scenario, freeze economic assets.

Short of the US heavily weighing in on Israel, the threat of escalation potentially harming the US's strategic interests in the region for a long time looms on the horizon.

As US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice begins her journey to "the region", which reportedly does not include any Arab capital, in spite of Syria's declared willingness to engage in dialogue with the US, it is abundantly clear that this is mainly diplomatic window dressing for Israel's war efforts.

Rice's bravado about a "new Middle East" is vacuous, in light of the Bush administration's lop-sided pro-Israel stance and the previous absence of any initiative whatsoever toward resolving the Palestinian "issue". And, if the US and Israel are warming to the notion of an international buffer force at the Israel-Lebanese border, it is less because of the US's concern for peace and more due to the failure of Israel to break the back of Lebanon and its fears of a war trap mentioned above.

Hezbollah's option: Unilateral ceasefire
Hezbollah is the sole Arab entity that has delivered a stunning blow to Israel by forcing it to depart from Lebanon after 18 years of combat, one main reason for its immense popularity in Lebanon and the wider region.

Far from a "terror group pure and simple" as repeatedly labeled by US government leaders, Hezbollah is a well-entrenched politico-military movement participating in the national life of Lebanon while, simultaneously, acting as a welfare arm of the Lebanese system by providing basic welfare services to its largely underclass mass constituency.

Clearly, Hezbollah is not a foreign army, like the Palestinian Liberation Organization, that would be forced to flee the country. Rather, it is a home-grown phenomenon deeply immersed in the fabric of Lebanese society and its collective identity.

As a result, both the US and Israeli policy of destroying Hezbollah is doomed to failure, and no matter how severely it is pounded by massive bombs, it will survive and its phoenix will rise from the ashes of Lebanon.

At the same time, that is not to say that Hezbollah is beyond critical reproach. For one thing, by targeting civilians in Israel, Hezbollah has put itself on the same (im)moral equation as the state of Israel presently terrorizing the entire Lebanese nation. But, a more prudent strategy by Hezbollah may be to unilaterally declare a ceasefire and avoid any more rocket attacks on northern Israel, focusing on the Israeli ground forces making incursions into Lebanon.

There are multiple advantages to such an initiative by Hezbollah. First, Islam forbids the harming of civilian populations and Hezbollah would thus temper its fierce resistance with a moral high ground.

Second, Israel would be hard-pressed by the international community to continue with its aerial assault on Lebanon in the aftermath of Hezbollah's unilateral ceasefire, and the more Israel sustains this the more isolated it will find itself internationally, given the tide of world opinion already horrified by the colossal damages to Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon.

With the facade of any "symmetry" between Israel's air campaign and Hezbollah's rocket attacks, which the pro-Israel US media has been aptly exploiting, thus disappearing, Israel may win the war militarily, but will sure lose it politically and diplomatically.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-authored "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume X11, issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review. He is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction .

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