Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Syrian Front

Some very brief, related and unrelated thoughts on the news from today about peace talks with Syria.

1. Contrary to the claims of Shelly Yachimovich this is not a diversion. Neither the talks nor their acknowledgment have been orchestrated to save Olmert's political career. If anything, these talks put Olmert in an even more precarious position domestically than he is now.

2. We do not know what the Americans think about all this, but the agreement goes entirely against the spirit of Bush's policy since 2003. Did the Turks keep the Americans apprised of developments in the process?

3. These negotiations cannot extract Syria from the Iranian embrace. They will not deliver Hizbullah or Hamas to Israel. All they can aim at is the formalization of the relative calm that has existed on the Syrian-Israeli border since 1973 - in itself hardly be an insignificant feat.

4. The recent Doha agreement, engineered by Qatar, formally delivered Lebanon into the hands of Hizbullah and the Iranian-Syrian-(Qatari?) axis. It diverges radically from the US-Saudi policy on Lebanon that has endured until now.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ha'aretz's (Poor?) Coverage of Lebanon

Walid Jumblatt, Leader of the PSP (Photo: Wikipedia)

Like most of the Western media, Ha'aretz has done a very poor job of covering the events that transpired in Lebanon last week. With Hizbullah having imposed a de facto blackout early on in its coup attempt, few people inside or outside the country were in a position to gain a sense of what was happening on the ground. Hizbullah's own media war has added to the confusion, so that it is not at all clear who won, if anyone. Thus, I was more than a little annoyed by the coverage of Zvi Barel, who seems to have bought the line that Hizbullah scored a major victory:
Sad and tired, wearing shabby clothes and with tears in his eyes, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt stood on the veranda of his luxurious home in Beirut's Clemenceau neighborhood and explained his decision to television viewers. A few hours before the interview, he had called his political rival, Talal Arsalan, and asked him to coordinate with Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah the cessation of the fighting in Mount Lebanon, Aley, Chouf and the Maten region, the power centers of the Druze. In return, Jumblatt ordered his people to lay down their arms and hand them over to the Lebanese Army. Within the framework of the well-planned battle Hezbollah is conducting with the aim of changing the balance of power in Lebanon, the Mount Lebanon struggle, involving rival Druze families, might constitute Nasrallah's most important victory.

Contrast this with Tony Badran's (fiery) analysis over at Across the Bay:
Hezbollah had another thing coming. For three days of intensive fighting in the Shouf, and contrary to the lying info ops and disinformation of Hezbollah water carriers like this clueless Hezbollah willful tool (on whose propaganda for Hezbollah I've written in the past and will soon be ripping to shreds once again), not a single village in the Shouf fell to Hezbollah. Not Niha, like that Hezbollah watercarrier MacLeod wrote, not anything.

Quite the contrary. According to the PSP and other local sources, more than three dozen Hezbollah fighters were killed and a number of their vehicles were destroyed. The fact that they had to introduce artillery and vehicles (mounted with heavy machine guns, like so, and recoilless rifles, like so) only showed that they could not make advances into the villages.

Not just that, but Hezbollah's attack has led Talal Arslan's fighters to switch and fight alongside the PSP against Hezbollah, undermining Hezbollah's tiny Druze ally -- which is precisely why Jumblat put him in the forefront from the get go (it was not, as shrill commentators and dishonest flacks read it, a sign of "weakness." It was a shrewed move by a master tactician.).

At the end of the day, the PSP maintained control of the strategic hills of the Barouk to the east and Ras al-Jabal west of Aley, overlooking the Dahiyeh.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Countering the Qassam

Photo: Amos Yadlin (IDF)

The capabilities that the Palestinians demonstrated with yesterday's rocket attack on Ashqelon are impressive. Despite the limitations placed on them by the blockade and by occasional IDF operations, the terrorist groups in Gaza have consistently upgraded the range and power of their missiles. In comments to Ha'aretz today, Amos Yadlin, head of AMA"N (Military Intelligence Department), warned that two years from now, even Be'er Sheva might become a target. He did not announce any specific initiatives to forestall this threat.

The aims of Hamas and the other groups rocketing Israel's southern communities are various. One of the goals seems to be to pressure Israel into a truce that would result in lifting the "siege," whose effects have of course been greatly exaggerated by Hamas propagandists. Paradoxically, the Palestinians are trying to achieve this by demonstrating their ability to bomb Israeli civilians and by blowing up crossing points designed for the delivery of food and fuel.

Another aim of Hamas, which Yadlin also acknowledged in comments to the press, is to create deterrence against Israel comparable to the deterrence that Hizbullah achieved. Just like Hizbullah, Hamas wants to be able to strike at will deep into Israeli territory, turning Israeli civilians into its hostages in order to ensure that the IDF does not attack Hamas's fighters and leadership in Gaza.

These two aims suggest a number of different responses.
  1. Israel might agree to a truce and to the conditions imposed by Hamas, in return for an end to rocket attacks (diplomatic solution)
  2. Israel might acquiesce to Hamas's regime of deterrence and cease attacking its forces, in the hopes of quiet
  3. Israel can opt for its own policy of deterrence (military and economic)
  4. offensive operations to destroy the Palestinians' rocket-firing capabilities (military)
  5. defensive measures to limit the impact of the rocket strikes (military)
The problems with these options are as follows:
  1. Gives Hamas time to build up its forces for the next round; given the organization's ideology and support/pressure from Syria and Iran, it will not be turned into a pacific neighbor
  2. Same as above without even a formal set of protections; liable to break down at any moment.
  3. Hamas does not care if Palestinian civilians die as a result of IDF operations; in fact, images of civilian deaths or injuries aid its cause.
  4. the IDF has so far proven unable to do this; its efforts in this area during the Lebanon War of 2006 were unimpressive.
  5. expensive and so far ineffective
As I have said before, none of these options are particularly appealing or likely to be effective in ensuring the long-term interests of the state and its population. For this reason, I do not anticipate any changes in Israeli or Palestinian policy over the next 2 years but rather a continuation of the type of attrition that we have observed since the withdrawal from Gaza. I also doubt that we will see the release of Gilad Shalit anytime soon.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ashqelon Hit Hard

The katyusha or Grad rocket attack on Ashqelon today surely marks a new chapter in the war between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza. Since the disengagement from Gaza, we have seen a steady erosion of red lines, as more and more Israeli civilians have come under fire from Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups in the Strip. It may be important at the political level to distinguish among the various factions carrying out the rocket attacks and to evaluate particular motives. For the military, however, these kinds of considerations are irrelevant. What matters is that Palestinian terrorist groups have acquired and preserved the means to strike major Israeli population centers, despite a much-maligned "siege" of Gaza and numerous air force as well as ground operations. And even though the latter have often claimed the lives of many Palestinians - civilians and fighters - Israel has not been able to establish effective deterrence. Neither diplomatic nor military means have so far been able to protect Israeli civilians from these attacks. Despite countless announcements about an imminent truce this past year, we seem no closer to calm on the southern border than before. With Prime Minister Olmert's political career in limbo and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Labor) possibly facing challenges from inside and outside the party, we may end up seeing the kind of major ground operation that the Israeli right has been agitating for. Such an operation may also be accompanied by assassinations of Hamas's political leadership.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Hizbullah is not Hamas; Beirut is not Gaza

The reports from Beirut look eerily similar not only to scenes from the annals of Lebanese civil war but also to what we saw in Gaza before Hamas's takeover. Again, it looks like well-equipped but unmotivated US-backed militias are surrendering to their disciplined anti-American counterparts. At least this is the impression that one would get from the coverage in Ha'aretz and the Western media. The following description is rather typical:
Hezbollah took control of Muslim west Beirut on Friday, tightening its grip on the city in a major blow to the U.S.-backed government. Shi'ite opposition gunmen seized control of several Beirut neighborhoods from Sunni foes loyal to the United States-backed government, street battles that left 11 dead and 30 wounded, security officials said (Ha'aretz).
In reality, however, the situation in Beirut is quite unlike what transpired in Gaza; furthermore, various factions' pro- or anti-American orientations are less relevant than this kind of reporting assumes.

First, the military "victory" that Hizbullah and co. are now celebrating will not automatically give the party political power. Whereas in Gaza, one entity, Hamas, basically faced another, Fatah, the Lebanese political landscape is far more fractured. Hizbullah and its allies will not be able to impose their will on the Lebanese population. In fact, while Hamas could make claims about having public opinion behind it, the sectarian politics of Lebanon make this impossible for Hizbullah. The humiliations endured by Future Movement fighters and by Sunni civilians will only stiffen their resolve against Hizbullah. The latter's claims to representing all of Lebanon and its (quickly-forgotten) promises to use its weapons only against Lebanon's enemies have been unmasked once and for all.

What then can Hizbullah gain from its victories on the ground? No one doubted that Hizbullah had the most formidable military force in Lebanon, so a demonstration of its power is not a real gain. Did the party hope to showcase the impotence of the Lebanese Army and security forces? What purpose did forcing Hariri's TV station off the air serve? All of these actions look like bullying without a clear plan. Furthermore, the longer Hariri and Jumblatt as well as Beirut's pro-government Sunni, Christian, and Druze populations stay under siege, the more restive their coreligionists in northern Lebanon, Beqaa, and the Chouf will grow. These frustrations can hardly bode well for the Shiite population, which despite the patronage of Hizbullah and Iran, is hardly economically self-sufficient.

Seeing that it cannot gain much from a military victory, Hizbullah may, as Jeha writes, very well be "looking for surrender."

For coverage see Jeha's blog (with the usual awesome graphics), Blacksmiths of Lebanon, and Charles Malik.