The trend rising to the surface of the Lebanon conflict in its second week is a major shift in the accent of the Middle East crisis from Iraq to Lebanon. This process is unfolding in stages.
1. Tehran set the Lebanese game in motion and Washington picked up the ball.
2. Both are in the process of relocating their military and intelligence focus from Iraq to Lebanon.
3. Under the pressure of wholesale war, Lebanon has begun fragmenting, presaging the end of the incumbent regime in Beirut. The Fouad Siniora government, Lebanon’s political machine and its powerful banking and financial sector are losing their grip on the country as a whole and may end up confined to Beirut and its environs.
4. For the first time in 15 years (since the 1991 Gulf War), the United States has set aside its old dream of working closely with Arab armies and is openly patronizing Israel’s armed forces, the IDF, in battle.
5. The brunt of the war on terror in the Middle East has begun to shift off the shoulders of the American army to those of the IDF. This places a huge burden on Israel at the cost of its own national security, but also sets the scene for drawing down large sections of the American military presence in Iraq.
6. The war has virtually derailed the Washington-Paris collaborative project for rebuilding a democratic Lebanon free of Syria and downgrading the Assad regime. In the process, Jacques Chirac’s ambition to restore French influence in the Middle East has gone by the board.
7. Bashar Assad‘s intelligence-geared dynasty in Damascus has fully recovered the key position it occupied from 2000 as the logistical center for the distribution of fighters, arms and money to every anti-American force operating in the Middle East, from Saddam Hussein to the Palestinians, al Qaeda, the Iraqi Baathists and Hassan Nasrallah. Syria’s strategic position is strengthened.
Israel undertook a major initiative for radical change Wednesday night, July 19, by instructing some 300,000 South Lebanese civilians to relocate north of the Litani River. This brought the number of Lebanese torn from their homes to about 800,000, one-fifth of the total population of around 4 million.
A stretch of territory of 1,000 sq. miles (out of Lebanon’s total 4,005 sq. miles) is thus doomed to be stripped of inhabitants and transformed into the primary arena of confrontation between the Israel army and Hizballah in the weeks and months to come. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s strategic experts estimate that this period could realistically stretch into a year or more.
Past the point of no return
Our experts see this process as having advanced past the critical point of no return. It may be unstoppable, unless one of the two sides suffers a sudden resounding defeat and is thrown out of the conflict.
Israel’s war tactics have deprived Hizballah of its main political, military and intelligence leadership hub in the Dahya district of southern Beirut. This setback is comparable to throwing the radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army out of their Sadr City strongholds in Baghdad, or Hamas out of the Gaza Strip.
Hizballah has been driven to scatter its forces to points north of Beirut (Specifics in a separate article on the Hizballah in this issue).
But the intelligence assumption is that they are able to regroup and rearm and in command of sufficient fresh fighters to send down south in small squads to take on Israeli special forces. After that, they may soon reach the point where they can resume rocket fire into Israel.
It is more than probable that Hizballah will not fight this next stage of the war alone. The Shiite terrorists have a number of options:
First: The huge flood of Shiite inhabitants forced out of their homes and cut off from their livelihoods in the south will offer a pool for the recruitment of thousands of young men, who will be given crash courses in guerrilla warfare and pushed back into the south to liberate their homes and expel the “Israeli invader.” Tehran and Damascus will lay on a good supply of weapons and cash to fund this new intake.
Second: Iraq’s fiery Moqtada Sadr, who commands the largest and most powerful Shiite force in Iraq after the US army (some 25,000 militiamen under arms), is an old crony of the Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah. They belong to the same generation of Shiite revolutionary fundamentalists, both in their forties. They first became friends in their twenties, as students at the same religious seminary at Hawaza run by Sadr senior, Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Sadr, revered by millions of Shiites worldwide, who was put to death on Saddam Hussein’s orders.
Moqtada Sadr owes Nasrallah big
Nasrallah’s experts and the triple Hizballah-Iran-al Qaeda agent and terrorist executive, Imad Mughniyeh fashioned their Iraqi Shiite comrade’s personal security and intelligence outfit. Together, this trio has its hand on much of the smuggling traffic in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, especially the flow between Syria and Iraq of fighters, weapons, explosives, money, drugs and oil. The outbreak of hostilities in Lebanon gives the Iraqi cleric a chance to return some of the favors performed by his Lebanese friends and come to their aid.
He has already rendered two such favors – firstly, by ordering his own smuggling networks to re-consign to Lebanon supplies of weapons and fighters bound for Iraq and, secondly, by mobilizing Iraqi Shiite volunteers for Lebanon, even in the throes of the Shiite-Sunni sectarian civil war in Iraq.
Third: Iran holds in reserve several volunteer frameworks – some of them trained for suicide operations – which can be mobilized at short notice and sent to Lebanon via Damascus.
Fourth: The Palestinians, some of whom are already fighting shoulder to shoulder with Hizballah in Lebanon. Playing the Palestinian card is a natural option because Palestinian militias and Hizballah were ordered disarmed by the same UN 1559 resolution. Lebanon’s seething 400,000 Palestinians have nothing much to lose; they have little or no civil rights and their association with Syria makes them less welcome than ever by their hosts. Ahmed Jibril‘s PFLP-General Command is already funded and directed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards after placing his combat and logistical infrastructure in Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority at Hizballah’s disposal.
The radical Palestinian Jihad Islami shares the same allegiance. These two Palestinian organizations, together with the Palestinian gangs in the Burj Shimali camp east of Tyre, are shooting Katyusha rockets into western Israel as sub-contractors for Hizballah. The Israeli air force is therefore giving the Tyre region a special pounding.
Fifth: This sort of crisis presents an ideal opportunity for al Qaeda to creep in through the cracks, as it has in the last five years of the global war on terror.
Al Qaeda will creep into Lebanon through the cracks
This is what happened in the latter half of 2003 after America’s invasion in March, and again in Somalia in late 2005 and early 2006. The strong Sinai network Abu Musab al-Zarqawi planted in the Sinai Peninsula took advantage of Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 to manufacture its “al Qaeda-Palestine” in Gaza and then reach across the desert peninsula to menace the Suez Canal. Osama bin Laden’s organization will not miss the chance of another Mediterranean foothold in Lebanon. It already maintains cells in Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon. The new war is a chance to move al Qaeda fighting strength out of Iraq, after successfully provoking a sectarian war, to northern Lebanon – first to fight alongside Hizballah and, as the conflict develops, to establish an autonomous terrorist presence in the country, just as it did in Iraq.
Lebanon’s heavily factionalized Christian community, roughly one-third of the population, falls essentially into two groups – the neutrals and the active Hizballah sympathizers. The only community solidly behind the US-backed Israeli war effort is the Druzes, who make up 12% pf the Lebanese population.
Washington and Jerusalem hope that under the strong leadership of Walid Jumblatt, seen as the most fervently anti-Syrian and anti-Iranian personality in Lebanon, the Druze fighting forces will act as a barrier against Hizballah movements between the north and south.
However, since the Druzes and their leaders are protected by French special forces units and intelligence, the US and Israel will have to talk to Paris to secure their services or make do with local arrangements with the heads of the Druze clans.
The developments in the last two or three days signify not just the transposition of the brunt of the terror war from Iraq to Lebanon, but also presage a long period of war. The order of the day that Israel’s chief of staff, Lt. General Dan Halutz gave Israeli troops fighting in the north therefore focused on two main points:
He stressed Israel was in the throes of combat against extremist Islamic terrorist organizations who repudiate Israel’s right to exist and operate under Iranian and Syrian auspices. He also made it clear to the soldiers that the conflict in the north was an integrated component of the Palestinian war against Israel waged from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and would be protracted.