Saturday, April 17, 2010

A New Middle East War on the Horizon?

For months now there have been rumblings in both Israel and Lebanon about imminent war: Hezbollah has been re-armed to recoup munitions destroyed in Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon; Hezbollah's influence in the Lebanese political system has risen; ties linking Hezbollah with Syria and Iran have been firmed up, rather than (as the US and Israel were trying to accomplish) diminished; some in the IDF are looking for payback for the embarrassment that Hezbollah dealt it in 2006; and Israel's stance toward the Palestinians (i.e., the status of Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements) and the putative "peace process" has only hardened.

Nonetheless, until very recently Israel was probably liking its chances in the region, and was convinced that it still retained the kind of  tactical initiative that it exercised (for example) with its air strike on an alleged Syrian nuclear facility in 2009.  It was able to do so with impunity.  The Syrians dared not launch any military response to what was a provocation - indeed, an act of war - on Israel's part.  The military balance of force was too heavily in Israel's favor.

As of today, it still is, but it's obvious that Syria's possible supplying of Scud missiles to Hezbollah tips that balance more in Hezbollah's (and, by extension, Syria's) favor.  Hezbollah would have the capability of launching a missile strike that could reach anywhere inside Israel.  The Scud missile is notoriously inaccurate, and the IDF's missile defense system would likely be able to knock some of them down.  But bear in mind how alarmed Israelis were - and how brutal was the Israeli response - when Hamas was firing much smaller rockets into Israel from Gaza.  Scud missiles are potentially many, many times the threat.

And, I suspect, they are a threat that Israel will not be willing to live with.  Israeli leaders - and their backers on Capitol Hill - will be clamoring for the US to make appropriate threats against Syria.  But Mr. Obama - and Mr. Sarkozy - have been working to engage Mr. Assad, with Mr. Obama having gone so far as to nominate - for the first time in five years - a new ambassador to Damascus (his confirmation in the Senate is pending - and may in fact be endangered by this development).

And it will not have escaped the attention of the Israeli leadership that there is a burgeoning feeling in the US (signified by General Petraeus' recent Congressional testimony) that Americans are waking up (finally) to the reality that Israel's acting with such impunity toward Palestinians and its other Arab neighbors has a direct effect on US interests in the Middle East and Central Asia - including the well-being of US soldiers.  They can hardly expect the US to come running to Israel's support if Mr. Netanyahu decides to take some sort of pre-emptive military action against Hezbollah.

What are Israel's likely options?
  • The scary one = proceed with a pre-emptive military strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon.  The dangers of such a response are self-evident:
  •  Hezbollah would launch reprisals against Israeli cities and towns;
  •  Iran might take actions against the now-withdrawing US contingent in Iraq, as well as threaten the petroleum-shipping route through the Straits of Hormuz, if the US supported Israel's actions (as Mr. Bush did in 2006 - remember Condi Rice's comforting assertion that the destruction was really OK, as it signaled the "birth-pangs of a new Middle East"?);
  • the people and infrastructure of Lebanon would be devastated.  (Israel has made it clear that in its view, since Hezbollah is a legitimate political party in Lebanon and an elected presence in its parliament, the entire country of Lebanon will be held to account.)
  • a new refugee problem would be created in the Middle East
  • a new generation of "terrorists" would be spawned.
  • A better option = sit down with the Syrians, and negotiate seriously - SERIOUSLY! - to return to Syria the Golan Heights, which Israel grabbed up during the 1967 war and has colonized ever since.

The importance that Syria has attached to regaining the Golan from Israel was recently raised by Josh Landis in an essay for Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel.  Prof. Landis also reminds us, though, that Mr. Netanyahu has sworn never to return the Golan to Syria.  He also notes:
The larger question. . . is not whether Syria has delivered Scuds to Hezbollah. Syria has been rebuilding Hezbollah's missile supplies ever since they were largely exhausted during Israel's 2006 incursion into Lebanon. It will continue to do so as long as Israel refuses to trade land for peace. Syria says it will no longer have any reason to arm Hezbollah once it gets the Golan back and can sign a peace agreement with Israel.

Syria understands that the reason Israel will not return the Golan Heights is because of the terrible imbalance in power between the two countries. So long as there is no peace, Syria will feel compelled to arm itself and its allies. Only this week at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, we were reminded that Israel has hundreds of atomic warheads that can be delivered by missile, plane, and submarine. What's more, Washington continues to supply Israel with large amounts of military aid and cutting-edge military technology. Israel accuses Syria of trying to change the balance of power by introducing Scuds to Lebanon, but from Syria's point of view, it is Israel that has skewed the regional balance.

Israeli officials, when faced with the Golan question in private or at conferences, explain that the reason Israel refuses to strike a deal with Syria is that the country is too weak. It has nothing to give Israel in exchange for the Golan, which has been Israel's quietest border for 35 years. In the face of this debilitating weakness, Syria will do what all weak states do: find powerful allies and try to arm itself. It must also rely on nonstate actors, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. In short, it will struggle to right the balance of power. Some commentators have argued that  Syria ought to simply renounce its current path, make a rapproachment with the West, and by doing so get back the Golan and normalized relations. But the notion that Israel would give Syria back the Golan if it renounces Hezbollah and Iran is naive. The Palestine Liberation Organization renounced violence some time ago and has little to show for it.
Bottom line: If there's to be peace (ergo, no war, no more destruction of lives, no new "terrorists" engendered), it's Israel that needs to make a move.  Netanyahu won't make that move.  The ball is in Mr. Obama's court.

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