The Guns of August

The recent border clash between Lebanon and Israel could make for a tense summer in the Middle East.

The border clash between Lebanese and Israeli defense forces on August 3 is the most serious incident between the two countries since the inconclusive war in 2006. Could another incident escalate into a fully fledged conflict, this time involving Syria and, in extremis, Iran?

Lebanon is facing intense domestic tension at this time. The UN Special Tribunal that was set up after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 is getting close to naming suspects in his death. It is reported that they include members of the Hezbollah. In a preemptive move, Hezbollah strongman Sheikh Nasrallah, has already blamed the outcome on a U.S.-Israeli plot. The fear is that a UN tribunal finding would exacerbate the tense relations among Lebanon’s confessional society and could even lead to a new civil war. The current prime minister, Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik, has been bending over backwards to avoid this nightmare. In an unprecedented event, he met with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and Saudi King Abdullah in Beirut on July 30 to cool passions. He has made it clear, that if Hezbollah operatives are named, they will be considered rogue elements, and this will not be a condemnation of the entire organization. But in truth no one knows how Lebanon’s Christian, Sunni, and Druze communities will react to such a serious charge. Though the tension with Israel may be a deliberate effort to distract the population from such an unpleasant domestic scene, the reality is that a new war with Israel would be devastating and could quickly escalate.

One reason relates to growing Israeli concerns about the Hezbollah military buildup in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley and reports that Syria has transferred Scud missiles which could reach Israel’s major population centers, particularly Tel Aviv. While this particular transfer has been denied by both Syria and Hezbollah, there is no doubt that vast amounts of rocketry have been flowing into the hands of Hezbollah from various sources. There are some in Israel who believe that since they mishandled the 2006 war so badly, the next time around they have to do the job much more effectively, and this would include massive use of force against all major targets in Lebanon. This could not be done without causing significant civilian casualties. The Israelis themselves would have to prepare for attacks, which will cause many civilian deaths. And here the problem of Syria and Iran looms large. Any major attack on Israeli cities by Hezbollah with new long-range rockets would provide conclusive evidence that Syria and probably Iran were in violation of UN Security Council resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war and proscribed the transfer of new weapons without the consent of the government of Lebanon. The Israelis would justify attacks on Syrian and Lebanese armed forces, as well as Hezbollah, because of these violations. Any conflict that draws in Israel and Syria could eventually bring Iran into the picture.

There are some Israelis who believe that eventually military force will have to be used against the Iranian regime because of its nuclear program. They could make the case that a good time to hit Iran would be if there was also a confrontation with Syria and Lebanon. It might be the most likely way to draw in the United States, whose military capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is formidable. It is unlikely President Obama would ever go along with such a strategy, but it can’t be dismissed out of hand. Wars, once they start, always take an unpredictable turn.

The irony is that at the very time a new Israeli-Lebanese conflict is looming, international and Israeli companies have discovered huge amounts of gas and possibly oil deposits in the Mediterranean off Israel’s northern coast. Predictably, the Lebanese have claimed that parts of the maritime area identified by Israel are in Lebanese territorial waters and have vowed to protect their rights. Israel could find itself with new access to energy wealth, much of which it could export, but with an ever-more-complicated relationship with its northern neighbor. This is going to be a tense summer in the Middle East. Analogies with Serbia in 1914 may be overdrawn, but they are not preposterous.

Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.