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After a month of destruction and over a 1000 deaths, the war between Hizbullah and Israel has now been called off. The ceasefire seems to hold. Do we have a new Middle East?
Lebanon’s very landscape has been altered – its infrastructure destroyed and its land ravaged. But the changes in its political landscape are considerably more important. Hizbullah, an extremely powerful force in Lebanese politics before the war with two cabinet ministers and wide-ranging parliamentary and popular influence, has emerged even stronger. The high civilian death toll, massacres at Qana, and the relentless and undiscriminating Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure have pushed most Lebanese (Shia, Sunni, Christian and Druze) to forget Hizbullah’s initial provocation. Few are the voices calling for an indictment of Hizbullah for precipitating Lebanon into a crisis that would only serve them. Near-unanimously, the country stands behind them, proud of Hizbullah’s capacity to withstand the Israeli assault. Fouad Siniora, Lebanon’s prime minister and Hizbullah have stood side by side since the second week of fighting, drafting together the seven-point plan of 26 July calling for an immediate ceasefire. Popular opinion and the press backed them up too from early on. Lebanon, for a rare moment in its fractured history, experienced a semblance of national unity – despite the paradox of doing so behind a factional, non-state, religious militia representing at most twenty to thirty per cent of the country’s population.
But if Lebanon’s various factions stood together during the war, they have every reason to fall out violently in its aftermath. Lebanon’s ethno-factional divisions are systemic and irresolvable without a constitutional overhaul. Politics is a zero-sum game, and Hizbullah’s considerable growth in influence will cause resentment amongst its rivals. The crux, as it has been for years, is decommissioning. UN Resolution 1701, like every other Lebanon resolution before it, calls once more for Hizbullah to disband its militia. As Israel withdraws from southern Lebanon, it will be replaced by 15,000 regular Lebanese troops and a similar-sized contingent of UNIFIL troops. Part of their mandate, though this was left vague in 1701, is to begin that decommissioning process - a move that would almost certainly trigger some form of civil war. In the current climate of Hizbullah dominance in the political sphere, there are strong, though short-sighted, reasons for its rivals to seek pushing this issue higher on the agenda.
Both in Israel and in certain circles abroad, opinion holds that Israel has come out as a loser from its war in Lebanon. At home, most papers greeted UN Resolution 1701 as capitulation to international terrorism. Abroad, common consensus saw the war as a brutal and disproportionate act of aggression, and a massive public relations failure on the part of Olmert’s government. Combined, Israel has the worst of both worlds: it has failed to destroy Hizbullah (and in the process, it has severely damaged its doctrine of military deterrence), and has only further damaged its image in the Arab, Muslim and international communities. To much of the world now, Israel has become Goliath.
But the crisis in Lebanon represents not one, but two wars. For the conflict between Hizbullah and Israel can also be viewed as a proxy war between Iran and the US. The US not only sanctioned Israel’s attempted destruction of Hizbullah, it also abetted it by deliberately thwarting early attempts to broker a ceasefire. And while Iran itself may not have called for the initial kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, which prompted the war in the first place (although we will never know the actual truth), Hizbullah’s military and tactical robustness in the face of the Israeli onslaught is due to its supply of arms from Iran as well as to its training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. And the victors align on the macro level just as they do at the micro.
While the Lebanon debacle has obviously served Hizbullah’s purposes, it is hard not to picture the conflict in broader terms as the twitching of Iran’s asymmetric warfare wings. In the weeks before the conflict erupted, it was Iran’s nuclear ambitions that engulfed the headlines as well as policy debates over war-torn Iraq. This is no longer the case. Today, Iran is increasingly regarded as the potential saviour of Western interests in the region . With its unquantifiable influence in Iraq, its long borders with Afghanistan, its influence over Shia groups in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Lebanon, Iran increasingly looks like a force to be reckoned with rather than attacked. It remains to be seen how recent events will shape the ongoing sanctions debate on Iran, but Iran has proved conclusively, to this correspondent at least, that it will not take containment lying down.
Associate Fellow, RUSI
Background Analysis and Commentary
1. The most populat pundit in Washington today is Naval Postgraduate School Professor Vali Nasr, whose book The Shia Revival has just been published to critical acclaim. Vali Nasr – who advocates immediate engagement with Iran as a way out of the Iraq morass and makes the case for allowing Iran its rightful regional dominance – has spent the last weeks on a frantic round of interviews ranging from PBS to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”