Michael Totten

“Better a Thousand Israeli Invasions...”

by Michael J. Totten
The Winograd report is a damning indictment of Israeli failure and incompetence during last year’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. I criticized the war myself from the very beginning when it became clear the Israeli Defense Forces still had no idea how to successfully deal with the Iranian-sponsored guerilla militia in the north. Now is a good time to return to this subject.
Efraim Inbar in Middle East Quarterly zeroes in on a major part of the problem.

From the first day of the campaign, [IDF Chief of Staff Dan] Halutz advocated attacking infrastructure beyond southern Lebanon to pressure the Lebanese government to counter Hezbollah.

Just about any person living in Lebanon, whether Lebanese or international and regardless of their view of Hezbollah, could have told the Israeli government that this wouldn’t work. If Dan Halutz truly believed bombing civilian infrastructure would rally Lebanese to his side, he does not have even a basic grasp of Lebanese politics.
Lebanese have rallied around Hezbollah before when they felt themselves threatened by a common enemy, not because Hezbollah is well-liked by the majority (it isn’t) but because Hezbollah is Lebanese and Israel isn’t.
The biggest reason, though, that most Lebanese won’t side with Israel against Hezbollah is because Lebanese fear civil war more than they fear anything else. They have good reasons, too. The 1975-1990 civil war wrecked far more destruction in Lebanon than any foreign invasion.
“Better a thousand Israeli invasions than another civil war,” is a refrain I heard more than once from Lebanese who detest the very existence of Hezbollah. Israeli military and defense officials would be well advised to tattoo that phrase on their foreheads before trying again to use force inside Lebanon to alter its politics. Israelis don’t have to like this feature of Lebanese political culture, but they do need to understand that it is a feature. (Call it a bug if it makes you feel better.)
If all the non-Hezbollah Lebanese suddenly became committed Zionist agents, the Lebanese government still would not and could not disarm Hezbollah. Partly this is because Hezbollah is stronger, better armed, and better trained than the Lebanese army. Partly this is because the Lebanese army was sabotaged and degraded during Syria’s 15-year occupation. Partly this is because some of the army’s officers are Syrian-appointed stooges who take their orders from Damascus. Partly this is because the Lebanese army is an army of conscripts, many of whom are more loyal to Hezbollah than they are to the state. The Lebanese army split into separate armed forces during the last civil war and will likely do so again if there is another one.
The main reason, though, even if none of the above things were true, is because Hezbollah is the private army of vastly more powerful Syria and Iran. A significant portion of Lebanon’s people find this perfectly acceptable and will continue to do so as long as Syria and Iran are willing and able to interfere in Lebanese politics. Hezbollah could be disarmed to the last man, but that by itself would not stop Syria and Iran from replenishing the weapons stocks within a mere couple of months.
Syria and Iran must be contained at the least before Hezbollah can be neutralized.
Don’t be fooled by your atlas. Lebanon isn’t a country any more than Iraq is a country. Both are geographic abstractions held together only by common currencies, common passports, and a map. They aren’t nation states like France and New Zealand. Both Lebanon and Iraq have more than one government and feature private armies controlled by third governments.
The government in Beirut is the most democratic of all Arab governments. It is also the weakest. It cannot be expected to effectively resist Syria and Iran any more than Kuwait could have freed itself from Saddam Hussein or Costa Rica could pacify and stabilize Colombia. These are not jobs for small and weak countries, especially not for weak countries divided against themselves.
Israel’s first fatal flaw last July was the assumption that Lebanon’s problems are local and can be solved in Lebanon. The Hezbollah problem is a regional one. Think globally, act locally will get Israel nowhere.
Israel’s second fatal flaw was the decision to fight an asymmetric war, which is hard, instead of a conventional war, which is easy.
Israel fought an asymmetric war with Hezbollah for years in South Lebanon and basically lost. This, after defeating three conventional Arab armies (Syria’s, Jordan’s, and Egypt’s) in six days in 1967.
The United States has been fighting a grinding asymmetric insurgency in Iraq for several years now after easily defeating Iraq’s conventional army two times.
Western armies are good at conventional war. Western armies are bad at asymmetrical war. That means relatively weak states like Syria and Iran are well advised to fight asymmetric wars whenever possible. Western armies are well advised to fight conventional wars whenever possible.
Let’s go back to Efraim Inbar in Middle East Quarterly.

Fear of escalation clouded Olmert’s strategic judgment. On the first day of the conflict, Mossad chief Maj. Gen. Meir Dagan recommended that the Israeli air force target Syrian sites. Instead, Olmert sought to placate. Israeli leaders repeatedly said that Israel had no intention of expanding its military activities to target Syria.

Therefore Syria has no incentive whatever to make peace with Israel or stop arming and funding Hezbollah. Weak Arab dictatorships have finally discovered an effective way to wage wars against Israel (and the United States). Asymmetric proxy wars work.
Israelis allowed themselves to be suckered into an asymmetric war by Syria and Iran. Instead of weakening Syria and strengthening Lebanon, they weakened Lebanon and strengthened Syria. They would be well advised not to do it again.
Israel, understandably, doesn’t want regime change in Syria. What comes after the Baath could be worse. Very well, then. Bomb the Assad regime until Assad cries uncle. However much the Israelis don’t want regime change in Syria, the Assad regime wants regime change even less. Assad will cry uncle because he has far more to lose. If his choice is to sever his relations with Hezbollah or die, he’ll sever his relations with Hezbollah. Otherwise, why on earth should he?
Assad is making noises about peace negotiations with Israel. But he doesn’t want peace with Israel. He already has peace with Israel if peace is defined by the lack of incoming bombs. What he wants is a peace “process” because he hopes it will take the heat off his government for murdering journalists and politicians in Lebanon. If Assad suddenly finds himself under attack, he might decide a peace treaty — a real one, not a peace “process” — is something worth having.