The No-Win Zone

The No-Win Zone

Mini Teaser: War in Lebanon highlights the lack of options, and victors, in the Middle East.

by Author(s): Daniel BymanSteven N. Simon

Lebanon held the attention of the world for weeks after a successful Hizballah kidnapping operation on July 12, 2006, led Israel to pummel the country in a sustained air campaign and a limited ground offensive. Almost all observers agreed the clash had enormous implications-former House Speaker Newt Gingrich even claimed the conflict was "World War III." But unlike other wars, the winners and losers were not clear when the dust settled.

Pundits were quick to proclaim Hizballah the winner, but Hizballah's leader Hassan Nasrallah openly admitted that the raid was a strategic mistake. Other analysts point to Israel's degradation of Hizballah's long-range missile capabilities, but Israelis take small comfort in this, knowing their own performance was flawed both militarily and politically. Lebanon itself suffered horribly, and though its fledgling democratic government survived and became a major player in the diplomacy that led to the ending of the conflict, militarily it was forced to stand by helplessly during the crisis.

Nor do other parties come off looking good. The United States emerged looking both cruel and ineffective in Muslim eyes. European states engaged in typical hand-waving during the war and in even more typical bickering over who would do what in a post-clash peacekeeping operation, even though this at best looks like a fig leaf. Iran and Syria, Hizballah's patrons, did better, but even they may eventually find the results a mixed blessing.

Before we can assess the results of the war, it is important to be clear on several points. Reports that Iran prodded Hizballah to attack to divert attention from the Iranian nuclear program seem to be false: The dispute over the Iranian program has been going on for years with no end in sight, and Hizballah had tried other operations in the past as well.

Similarly, the claim that this conflict was a proxy war initiated by Iran to test whether a foe like the United States (using Israel as the stand-in) could be defeated by an opponent that would fight hard and be willing to take casualties ignores the fact that far more important in Tehran's calculations are the successes that various fighters in Iraq have had against the United States. Iran did not need to launch a war in Lebanon for a reminder that Washington is vulnerable to terrorists and guerrillas.

Finally, there should be no mistake that Hizballah suffered serious losses. Though exact figures are hard to come by, the Israeli Defense Forces (idf) claim to have killed about 500 of Hizballah's most trained fighters. Many of those who remain were at least pushed-more or less-out of the area south of the Litani, at least temporarily. Air strikes and infantry sweeps probably eliminated about half of the longer-range rockets that were not expended, as well as a large number of launchers. Hizballah's elaborate infrastructure in south Lebanon was disrupted, and many of its facilities in the Beirut suburbs were razed. By the time Hizballah was pushing for a cease-fire, which winners do not normally do, its fighters were trapped in a box between the Israeli border, a blockaded coast, blown bridges and roads leading north, and a large idf force in Marjayoun, poised to march up the Beka to the east. Both Hassan Nasrallah and Mahmoud Koumati, the second in command of Hizballah's political arm, have told interviewers that Hizballah was completely surprised by the ferocity of Israel's response to the raid. Nasrallah, in a rare confessional moment, claimed that if he had known the Israelis were going to react so violently, he would not have ordered the kidnapping.

Although there is a dispute over whether Hizballah or Israel came out ahead, it is clear that Lebanon-both its people and its government-lost. The Lebanese government suffered the ultimate indignity for any regime: It was ignored. Once again it is clear to all factions in Lebanon that their government cannot protect them from foreign threats or strong domestic groups like Hizballah. In the early 1970s, the impotence of the Lebanese government in the face of Israeli-Palestinian clashes in Lebanon was a major precipitant of the Lebanese civil war. Convinced (correctly) that their government could not protect them, all of Lebanon's communal factions began to arm and organize to defend themselves, a spiral that led to civil war. We may see a return to this logic in postwar Lebanon.

The war also hurt the "March 14" alliance of anti-Syrian leaders who after the "Cedar Revolution" have schemed against Damascus and its Lebanese allies like Hizballah in order to re-establish the independence of the state. This position was always uneasy. The anti-Syrian foes were divided amongst themselves, and they recognized that they could not govern Lebanon without incorporating pro-Syrian factions, particularly Hizballah, into the government. One of Hizballah's successes is that it painted the anti-Syrian voices as pro-Israeli; the charges of Hizballah's critics that Hizballah precipitated the war and that it did so at Syria's behest were quickly drowned out by cries of anger as the war went on. Pro-Syrian politicians, long on the defensive, are now emboldened.

There is some hope, but only some. The Lebanese government did survive, while many observers feared its complete collapse. Also, Prime Minister Siniora emerged as a skilled operator, becoming the key interlocutor for Lebanon with the international community. Nevertheless, today, the Lebanese government's bargaining position vis-à-vis Hizballah is far weaker. un resolutions that call for disarming Lebanese militias like Hizballah are thus even farther from fulfillment.

In contrast, Damascus emerged as a winner. Since the collapse of the Syrian-Israeli negotiations in 2000, Jerusalem had simply ignored the al-Asad regime's political demands regarding the Golan Heights and other disputes. Even more worrisome for Damascus, the "Cedar Revolution", combined with French, U.S. and Arab pressure, forced Syria into a humiliating military withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005. An unusually tough-minded un investigation into the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (who Syrian agents probably killed) implicated the highest echelons of the Syrian regime. Both at home and abroad, Bashir's regime was in a corner.

This picture has changed completely. Many of those displaced from the war fled to Damascus, increasing Syria's leverage and, as noted above, fewer Lebanese are now ready to challenge Syria. The Hariri investigation, which depends heavily on cooperation from Lebanon, is dead for now. Lebanese are now cowed, rather than emboldened, in their willingness to confront Damascus. Syria has emerged as the only credible guarantor of Hizballah's future good behavior there, and Israel has been reminded that it will not have peace with Hizballah unless it has peace with Syria. Similarly, Syrian cooperation is necessary to prevent Hizballah from being rearmed, particularly with regard to larger conventional systems. This dual role as Hizballah's backer and Hizballah's controller has long fit with Syrian foreign policy. As Michael Doran contends, "Ever since the 1980s, Syria has played this game of being both the arsonist and the fire department."1

The situation for Syria is not risk free. Should the conflict reignite, Israel might decide that it is more effective to punish Hizballah's sponsor rather than the weak Lebanese government. Syria must also worry that Hizballah, its longtime ally and proxy, is becoming the dominant partner in their relationship. There is no sign that Hizballah is going to break with Syria, but Damascus in the past has always preferred to keep its proxies dependent and vulnerable.

Iran is basking in the reflected glory of its Lebanese proxy. Iran has long seen Hizballah as a triumph for the Islamic revolution, having helped create and sustain the organization in its early years. And, in contrast to a number of Arab states that criticized Hizballah at the onset of the conflict, Iran could once again point to its demonstrable record of support for anti-Israel forces.

Because Hizballah's defiance reflects well on Iran, the clerical regime is likely to rearm Hizballah, helping it replace (and probably upgrade) the systems that Israel destroyed. This rearming is almost impossible to stop, as Syria is likely to covertly cooperate with this effort and Lebanon's porous borders and tradition of smuggling make a sustained interdiction campaign difficult. Israeli leaders will fulminate against this rearming and perhaps launch a daring commando raid to stop a particularly troubling weapons system from entering Lebanon, but such limited efforts will have at best a marginal impact on Hizballah's effort to resupply and would be seen as reflecting a lack of faith in unifil (which may be deserved).

Hizballah, of course, needs Iranian assistance to rebuild from the material losses it suffered. Nonetheless, the fight greatly enhanced Hizballah's prestige outside of Lebanon. Its capacity to rain missiles on targets as far south as Haifa at the height of Israel's ground incursion electrified Arabs on both sides of the Shi‘a-Sunni divide. Hizballah, once again, showed it is the only Arab force that can stand up to Israel militarily.

Hizballah is even stronger in Lebanon itself. Most Lebanese think that Hizballah won the war.2 The leadership's ability to put massive aid from Iran to use as soon as the guns were silenced confirmed its status as the only effective organization in Lebanon, in marked contrast to the Lebanese government (and the West), which has not provided relief to devastated areas and is torn by infighting on what to do next. The post-hostilities phase has reinforced Hizballah's position among its core constituents as the party of courage, integrity and reliability, and it still retains the initiative militarily.

Essay Types: Essay