Lebanon's Hizbullah War Strategy Gives The US An Idea Of What It May Face In Iran.
*** The Tehran Theocracy Now Is The Boss In The 'Shi'ite Arc' Of Influences Which Runs All The Way Down To The Gaza Strip, With The Ba'thist Regime Of Syria Playing 2nd Fiddle; But Damascus Keeps Knocking On The US Door Offering Its 'Services' At A Certain Price - The Americans & French Still Are Not Buying
BEIRUT - Sponsored by the Shi'ite theocracy of Tehran and backed by the Ba'thist regime of Syria, Hizbullah by July 12 - when its war with Israel began with its capture of two soldiers from the Jewish state - had tunnelled its defences beneath all the strategic points in southern Lebanon, as well as the Shi'ite suburbs south of Beirut and parts of the eastern Beqa' plateau in which it had its operational bases. This network of defences were part of a strategy for an asymmetrical war with Israel. In a way it is a miniature of what Tehran has prepared for an eventual confrontation with US-led powers over its nuclear ambitions - its installations spread in tunnelled areas deep underground throughout Iran.
Preparations for Hizbullah's tunnelled defences had begun shortly after Israel withdrew unilaterally from southern Lebanon in May 2000. They were stepped up after the Iranian presidential elections in June 2005 in which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) won through its loyal figure, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad. By winning the presidency, Ahmadi-Nejad emerged as a new force in the conservative camp which was to take over all the sectors in Iran. (See rim2-IraqCivilWarAug7-06).
The theocracy's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei perceived the drift after he had realised, by mid-August, that the IRGC was the real power behind the new president. Not letting the IRGC have its coup, Khamenei and his allies have since blocked all the main decisions of Ahmadi-Nejad's government. But the one thing both had in common was Iran's defence strategy; and in this the IRGC was in the lead.
The IRGC's role in boosting Hizbullah's defences in Lebanon took on a new dimension after Ahmadi-Nejad came to office as president in the first week of August 2005. High-ranking IRGC strategists and engineers were sent to work on upgrading Hizbullah's capabilities in combat.
The main element in Hizbullah's (and Iran's) strategy was achieving parity with a superior military power through a set of tactical advantages, such as swift communication with the region and the outside world and a thorough system of propaganda. This is what surprised the Israeli strategists from the very first week of the war in Lebanon. At the same time, however, it was a proxy war for the US and each of Iran and Syria (see news5-LebIranUSJuly31-06).
As Israeli ground troops on Aug. 3-5 were flooding into southern Lebanon in a bid to create a buffer zone to protect its territory from Hizbullah rocket attacks, the FT on Aug. 3 reported military analysts as believing that Israel had made the same mistakes as the US in Iraq. They say its focus on high-technology warfare and tactical advantage has led it to under-estimate the strategic importance of public opinion, particularly in the Muslim world.
Anthony Cordesman, a US military analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote: "Local, regional and global perceptions of the conflict will be as important in sustaining a war, and in terminating a conflict on favorable and lasting terms, as the numbers of enemies captured or killed... Israel has failed to understand this in Lebanon as the US to some extent failed to understand it in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq".
Even pro-Israel commentators in the US say the conflict has not gone in Israel's favour, particularly since the death of dozens of Lebanese children, women and old men in Qana on July 30, and despite claims from Israeli leaders that Hizbullah had been severely diminished.
This was the first time that Israel was fighting with well-armed and, ideologically, deeply motivated forces trained by the Iranian defence system - and far more organised than their Israeli counter-parts. Through this Iran has had a message to the US.
David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says: "Rising civilian casualties in Lebanon have not been accompanied by a quantifiable degradation of Hizbullah's military capabilities". Indeed, on Aug. 2 Hizbullah fired more rockets into Israel - more than 300 - than on any day since the fighting began on July 12.
Critically though, Israeli public opinion has stuck behind its military - belying the May 2000 description by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah of Israeli society as like a cobweb in the face of conflict. But there was little doubt that Hizbullah constituted a problematic adversary. Hizbullah had made it abundantly clear to the Lebanese since May 2000 that its forces were superior to those of Israel in terms of ground combat.
In contrast with the conventional Arab forces Israel easily defeated in the 1960s and 1970s, the Shi'ite militia has become a clever exponent of IRGC's asymmetric warfare concept. Its decentralised command structure means its fighters can use their own initiative without having to consult their leaders in Beirut.
The FT on Aug. 3 quoted Doron Amir, a former Israeli military intelligence officer now with the Infinity Group, an investment house, as describing Hizbullah as a hybrid force. He said: "Hizbullah is between a guerrilla force and a normal army. It's on the border between the two. It would be a lot easier if we were fighting a country or an organised army".
Nizar Hamza, a professor of international relations at the American University of Kuwait and an expert on Hizbullah, says Hizbullah moves in groups of three-10 people, who do hit and run operations, pointing out: "Three groups might act like a triangle. If one group is hit and retreats, it doesn't mean you lose the triangle, another could still go in and attack".
Amir says Hizbullah has built its infrastructure amid the civilian population and its fighters attack Israel from civilian areas, leaving Israel with a dilemma about how to respond. Amir noted: "Nasrallah is an expert in psychological warfare".
Publicity is an essential element of his Nasrallah's approach, making sure video footage of Hizbullah successes are quickly published and eschewing confrontations of no propaganda value. And Hizbullah has carefully prepared for such a conflict since May 2000. It has imported up to 13,000 of missiles, mostly from Iran and often transported through Syria.
Hizbullah has created a network of tunnels in the south. An unconfirmed report in ash-Sharq al-Awsat, a London-based Saudi-financed Arabic daily, has said North Korean experts had helped with the tunnelling.
There are wide differences in estimates of how many fighters Hizbullah has. Western estimates suggest 2,000 frontline fighters with 8,000 in support. Some Iranians claim there may be 20,000. Hamza says possibly 30,000.
A central difficulty for Israel is that its and Hizbullah's military goals are asymmetric too. Hizbullah can claim victory, even if severely battered, if it can still launch a few rockets into Israel or seize a soldier. Longer term, the balance between the two sides may be settled only in the minds of Lebanese people: whether they withdraw support from Hizbullah for provoking Israeli attacks or whether they back it for standing up to their powerful neighbour.
One element in the shift against Israel's traditional advantage is the discovery that Hizbullah has sophisticated weapons which can inflict significant damage, even with Israeli domination of the air. These weapons, including laser-guided anti-tank artillery, were supplied by the IRGC.
The Israeli military, trying strenuously to eliminate hard-to-find, well-dug-in Hizbullah launching sites, was drawn into risky bombings which killed civilians, including women and children, and spread sympathy and support for the Lebanese insurgents throughout the region and indeed the world. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking for President George W. Bush, found it necessary on July 30 to exert pressure on Israeli PM Ehud Olmert for at least a partial suspension of Israeli air strikes for 48 hours.
Ms Rice found that Lebanese PM Fou'ad Siniora no longer welcomed her. Under pressure from his own citizens, Siniora had found it embarrassingly necessary to ask that Rice stay away from Beirut. Since then, the negotiating scene has shifted to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where argument has raged about what kind of ceasefire can be considered "sustainable", as mandated by President Bush.
On July 31 in Miami, President Bush repeated a demand that Iran cease its weapons supplies to Hizbullah. But he has not been in a very good position to enforce his demand, because the tide of public opinion has shifted in the direction of Hizbullah. For Iran, on the other hand, its proxy war in Lebanon must appear to be going well and will undoubtedly embolden the theocrats to take a defiant position in the UNSC debate on sanctions against Iran for its nuclear programme. If the July 12 Hizbullah attack on the Israeli patrol was meant to provoke this confrontation, it has been successful.
However, events as momentous as the war between Israel and Hizbullah, and Israel's assault on all of Lebanon, have a tendency to impact on the entire region, where the political repercussions are likely to be serious. Signs of this have been seen in the usual channels of public opinion, including street demonstrations, political protests, fund-raising campaigns and media statements.
The Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League secretary-general offered the expected sentiments, and assorted Arab leaders have spoken out in strong terms against Israel. Some of these leaders had spoken out against Hizbullah initially, naming it as the reckless party that pushed Lebanon into its current state of siege and destruction.
Anger and protest have not been limited to the Arab world, either, as has usually been the case when Israel attacks and kills Arabs. All of this is predictable and sincere. But does not have much of a real impact. Past experience suggests that such manifestations of public anger rarely change or significantly alter the political configurations and power realities of the day in this region. Yet important signs abound that this wave of public anxiety and anger around the Arab world is different from previous ones. Demonstrations have taken place, unusually, in several GCC countries, including the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
In Saudi Arabia, the government recently put out a strong statement which spoke of the "war option" before the Arabs if peace with Israel did not happen. Riyadh singled out the US by name as needing to rethink its support of Israeli policies. On Aug. 3 in Amman, scores of senior officials, including several prime ministers, lashed out at Israel and at the US, UK and others who have stood by and watched Israel wreak havoc on Lebanon and Palestine.
Large-scale political changes in the Arab world do not happen by sudden shifts. Political tectonic plates in this region do not slip suddenly and cause public turmoil or regime change. They tend to edge away slowly every time the region suffers a major blow, until one day the region is politically very different.
In the last three decades or so, terror groups have emerged seeking public support, but without success because terror is a crime which ordinary Arabs reject. Instead, the Arabs have witnessed popular masses expressing their disapproval of prevailing policies by embracing various Islamist forces - social and religious societies, community development organisations, educational and charitable foundations, political parties, and military resistance groups. The result is evident throughout the region.
Hizbullah is both a manifestation of this process and a catalyst for it. The current war in Lebanon is likely to keep pushing Arab public opinion in the same direction. The conspicuous disenchantment of large segments of Arab public opinion with their own government policies is being exacerbated every day. The consequences are ominous in a region with so much of the world's energy reserves, and so many governments and ordinary citizens willing to use the most awful kind of violence to achieve their goals.
As a consequence of the war between Lebanon and Israel, signs of radicalisation continue to manifest themselves in various Arab countries. They may or may not be addressed, with a ceasefire now to be followed by wider political resolutions thereafter, before they take the destruction being witnessed today to other parts of the region and the world.
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|Publication:||APS Diplomat News Service|
|Date:||Aug 7, 2006|
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