The first alarm bells began ringing at Israeli military Intelligence – AMAN – headquarters early last week. Aerial and ground reconnaissance had picked up movements showing Hizballah had embarked on full mobilization, placed its South Lebanon-based forces on the ready, opened up its weapons stores and consigned thousands of armed fighters to Beirut, the capital.
Hizballah gunmen were ordered to reach the capital with all possible speed by any means available.
The haste of these steps should have pointed to something unusual afoot.
Monday, May 5, Israel air force reconnaissance planes swept South Lebanon at low altitudes. They reported back that armed Hizballah gunmen, notwithstanding their orders to reach Beirut without delay, were avoiding the fastest and easiest route along the coastal highway connecting the ports of Sidon and Beirut, and heading inland for the longer way round through mainly Christian domains.
En route, they halted at a way-station Hizballah had set up outside the predominantly Christian town of Jezzine, west of the Litani River, and were told to head north through the Jabal el Barouk chain of hills up to another Christian town of Ain Zhalta, just south of the main west-east Beirut-Damascus highway.
There, Hizballah had not long ago lined up a dense array of anti-tank batteries (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 349 first reported a week ago).
From there, Hizballah’s troops were told to carry on northward as far as the Christian town of Baabdeh east of Beirut and then start infiltrating the capital in small, inconspicuous knots. On no account were they to get into clashes with other forces, whether Sunni Muslims, Druzes or Christians loyal to the Siniora government. If challenged, they were to back off and choose another entry-point to Beirut.
Not to worry, said AMAN chief
Traditionally the Christian centers on this inland route north avoid taking sides in Lebanon’s endemic sectarian strife because they have too much to lose, squeezed as they are between strong Shiite and Druze concentrations.
All this confidential data, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report, was placed before the AMAN commander, Air Force Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin.
The next day, May 6, Yadlin passed it on with his evaluation to prime minister Ehud Olmert, defense minister Ehud Barak and chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi.
Yadlin read the Hizballah movements as a routine element in a mock exercise to time the passage of its fighters between two regions of Lebanon. He did not reckon they presaged any out-of-the-ordinary developments.
This evaluation was passed on to US and French intelligence agents based in Lebanon.
Wednesday, May 7, Hizballah gunmen, who by then had quietly massed in the capital, unleashed a general offensive on the Sunni neighborhoods of West Beirut, the stretch of highway linking the city to the international airport to the south and its sea port.
They attacked – and laid to siege – the mansions of the two pillars of the pro-Western government, majority Sunni leader Saad Hariri and the head of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, the fiercely anti-Syrian Walid Jumblatt.
The two men, who both believe their fathers’ assassinations were plotted in Damascus – albeit in different periods – were eventually rescued by the Lebanese army.
The government building including prime minister Fouad Siniora’s office was likewise encircled.
It took Hizballah fighters five days, up until Sunday May 11, to smash their way to control of most parts of Beirut. With very little resistance, they managed to bring Lebanon closer to civil war than at any time since sectarian strife ravaged the country from 1975 to 1990.
A straight line may drawn between the Israeli intelligence chief’s misreading of Hizballah’s intentions and the fall of the Lebanese capital into Hizballah’s hands, and the Iran-Syrian-Hizballah axis’ fourth success in two years against the loose front made up of the United States, France, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Where were US, French, UNIFIL’s eyes?
Success No. 1 occurred in the July-August 2006 war, when the Israeli army failed to break Hizballah strength and halt its rocket blitz against northern Israel.
Success No. 2 was the Palestinian Hamas coup of June 15, 2007 – a lightning uprising on lines similar to the latest Hizballah operation – which drove Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah-ruled Palestinian Authority out of the Gaza Strip.
Success No. 3 was the takeover of Basra and sections of southern Iran in April 2008 by an Iranian Al Qods Brigade unit actively assisted by a Hizballah offshoot.
Success No. 4 was Hizballah’s seizure of major portions of Beirut, incapacitating the Siniora government and undermining its authority. The national army was seen to have turned away from its loyalty to the government and fallen under the sway of Hizballah.
(More about this in the next article).
While in no way detracting from the Israeli military intelligence chief’s blunder – and its implications for a future conflict with Iran and Hizballah, which has been widely predicted for this year – a question must be asked: Where were the eyes and ears of the powers pledged to uphold the pro-Western Lebanese prime minister and his regime when all this was happening?
US intelligence maintains a presence in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon to keep Siniora and his administration safe.
And the US Sixth Fleet’s warships hover close to Lebanese shores.
An unfortunate outcome for war on terror
Siniora’s other allies, France, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are all deeply involved in Lebanese affairs and committed to protecting its government.
And what happened to the United Nations peacekeepers, the multinational UNIFIL and its intelligence arms, expanded in 2006 by the Security Council and mandated to monitor and prevent armed Hizballah movements in the South?
How could they have missed the hectic Hizballah activity under their noses?
Did no one notice what Hizballah was up to when it conscripted large numbers of troops and opened up its armories (in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701)?
In the final reckoning, the entire multinational, inter-Arab machine, put in place to preserve the Siniora regime and a semblance of law and order in the country, simply caved in and let itself be bamboozled by a well-planned, focused Hizballah offensive.
Iran and Syria, which was ousted from Lebanon in 2005, are the winners.
And, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources point out, it was a triumphant week for Hizballah, an organization branded by the United States and the West as terrorists.
Israel and the United States were placed squarely on the losing side in Lebanon against Iran and Syria and the global war on terror.
How this reverse came about and its impact on the pro-Western forces’ situation in the Middle East will be studied in detail in the next two articles.