How To Distort Reality – Predicting War in Lebanon

[tweetmeme] This week the notion of a war between Lebanon and Israel resurfaced with a fury.  If you have been following the blog you know that I have been following the rumors of war for a while now.  The most recent predictions of war started because of an article in the Jerusalem Post, one in Commentary Magazine and finally one from the GLORIA Center. Although the war horns seem to be deafening, the consequences for war remain too high for both sides and the likelihood of war remains the same as Netanyahu or Nasrallah making a strategic miscalculation.

Although Hezbollah is stronger than 2006, it cannot politically afford to be seen as the aggressor

The Jpost article underlined the Israeli intention to hold not just Lebanon responsible for Hezbollah aggression, but to include Syria in the conflict as well.  Any attempt to take out Hezbollah without taking out its sources of arms (see: Iran and Syria) would be futile.  The author, Jonathon Spyer, believes that any future conflict with Hezbollah will involve a ground invasion into the Bekaa valley of Lebanon to disrupt the flow of arms from Syria.  Such a move would inevitably force Syria into war.  Indeed Israeli Minister Without Portfolio Yossi Peled has said that if Israel found itself in another conflict against Hezbollah, the Jewish nation would hold “Syria and Lebanon alike responsible.”

There is not much to argue with in the article in the JPost, but that is only because the article does not say much.  It reiterates what everyone who pays attention to the region already knows; mainly, Hezbollah has re-armed with help from Syria and that the next conflict will inevitably include Syria.  It does, however, serve to increase the chances for war by continually pushing the delicate balance between Israel and Hezbollah.

Spyer ends his article by saying that any conflict with Hezbollah that does not take Syria and Iran into account would be useless.  He does not, however, speak much about Iran in the article, focusing much more on the Syrian influence.  Enter Michael Totten, stage right.  Totten, in his article in Commentary, argues that Hezbollah is simply the “the Lebanese branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps” and that Hezbollah is an irrational player in the Middle East:

Hezbollah itself has been deterred from picking fights for a while, but that period seems to be winding down now that it’s better armed and equipped than ever before. Nasrallah has lately been threatening a war that will destroy Israel, “liberate” Jerusalem, and “change the face of the region…”

There will most likely be no resolution to the Hezbollah problem as long as the Islamic Republic regime in Iran exists in its present form, but it may yet be possible to stop Hezbollah from doing something stupid again.

The main point of the article is that Israel must expand the conflict to include Iran and Syria.  Totten relies heavily on yet another article by Spyer, from early in December of last year, in which Spyer argues that Hezbollah is delusional and is likely to initiate a new conflict with Israel.  Most of Spyer’s conjecture originates from Hezbollah’s new manifesto.

Israel has warned Syria that Damascus ricks war by continuing to supply Hezbollah with arms

In the three articles, Totten and Spyer link Hezbollah to Iran – a connection that cannot be denied – and argue that the only way to win the next, inevitable war with a delusional, irrational Hezbollah is to expand the conflict to include Syria and Iran.  It is true that the only real way to dispose of Hezbollah is to cut off its supply of arms, but, unfortunately, Spyer and Totten come off looking like they misunderstood the situation or intentionally distorted it.  Furthermore, their articles show them to be much more hungry for war than the actual decision-makers on the ground.  This, I suppose, is a good thing, as war between Israel and Hezbollah in the immediate future is unlikely (although not impossible) due to the political consequences for both sides.

Spyer’s main arguments center around the new manifesto that Hezbollah produced last year.  The new manifesto, however, is only slightly different from the groups original open letter.  Both documents state that the US and Israel are the enemy, freedom in Palestine is important and that Hezbollah must protect Muslims.  The slight differences in the two are meant to validate the continuation of the Hezbollah militia by linking it to the security of Lebanon as well as the resolution of the Palestinian issue.  Spyer, however, concludes (my emphasis):

Hezbollah’s new manifesto condemns the United States as the “root of all terror,” and a “danger that threatens the whole world.” The document also reiterates the call for the destruction of Israel, describing the need to “liberate Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa” as a “religious duty” for all Muslims. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that these sentiments are intended for the printed page only. Indeed, recent visitors to Lebanon speak of a high, almost delusional state of morale among circles affiliated with Hezbollah. In the closed world around the movement, it is sincerely believed that the next war between Israel and Hezbollah will be part of a greater conflict in which Israel will be destroyed.

Even the support of the US would not be able to shield Israel from the political backlash of another war as destructive as the one in Gaza

Here Spyer distorts reality.  The parts of the manifesto that he quotes were also evident in the original open letter – published in 1985.  From its establishment in 1985 Hezbollah has fought Israel’s occupation of Lebanon and Syria, but has never truly tried to put an end to Israel.  Certainly when Hezbollah made the same threats in 1985 they were simply made for paper; what has changed?  And, while it is true that Hezbollah feels more confident than in 2006 (it is stronger now), there is no evidence other than Spyer’s own conjecture to believe that Hezbollah is intent on starting a conflict with Israel in order to destroy it.  Nor is Hezbollah delusional (as Spyer argues); even if Nasrallah believes that he would be able to inflict damage during an asymmetric war with Israel, he understands that Israel would be able to bring destruction to Lebanon and Hezbollah if it wanted.  He also understands that Israel is constrained by the international community’s criticism following the war in Gaza.  The bellicose rhetoric by Hezbollah is thus not an indication of intent, but rather a slick reading of the current political atmosphere and a move to further justify Hezbollah’s presence in a complex Lebanese society.

Spyer also warns that Hezbollah has called for the end of sectarianism in Lebanon because of the increasing proportion of Shi’a in Lebanon.  Yet he does not note that Hezbollah is in a constant battle with Amal for the support of the Shi’a, thus negating the demographic advantage of the Shi’a.  Furthermore, there is an amazing amount of obstructionism in Lebanon to the idea of eliminating sectarianism and in Lebanon.  Spyer’s claims that Hezbollah is ‘swallowing up’ the political system in Lebanon demonstrates either an intentional effort to distort the truth in order to make a fallacious point or a disturbing ignorance of the Lebanese society.

Unfortunately, Totten takes Spyer’s word for granted and displays the same impressive talent for assumption.  In fact, Totten makes two enormous (false) assertions.

Contrary to the assertations by Spyer and Totten, the fragile peace between Hezbollah and Israel is likely to be kept intact in 2010

First, he implies that Hezbollah is an irrational actor and an arm of Iran.  This is far from true.  While the organization is linked to Syria and Iran its existence is linked with a type of pseudo-nationalism.  Hezbollah has long argued that its purpose was mainly to protect Lebanon.  During the 2006 war it was the only actor to provide food, medical attention and housing to the thousands of Lebanese whose lives were destroyed by Israeli bombs.  After the war, Nasrallah was known to have admitted that if he had known the amount of destruction Israel was to inflict he would have acted differently in the lead up to war.  This admission shows two things: firstly that Hezbollah is certainly a rational actor and secondly that it can be deterred.  Furthermore, it is clear that Hezbollah supports Iran, but it is not an extended arm of the revolutionary guard.  As Abu G of Blogging the Casbah notes:

My experience with Hezbollah suggests that though they are supporters of the Iranian revolution (I mean, look at the AK’s on the flags) there is a difference between paying tribute for support and being firm believers in velayat-e faqih.

To support this difference, Nasrallah himself says that velayat-e faqih is what Hezbollah believes in, but it simply is not the right model for Lebanon. This is a clue.

And, these are the markings of a shrewd politician who plays along with the “exporting the revolution” crowd in Tehran and beyond, while understanding the local/nationalist agenda–which Hezbollah was founded on vis-a-vis Israeli occupation and the influx of Palestinians–is really the issue at hand for his Shia Lebanese.

Secondly, Totten tries to make the argument that Hezbollah has been particularly bellicose lately.  It is true that its officials have been bragging about the renewed strength of the organization, but this is, as noted above, simply understanding the political gain that can be gained from standing up to an Israel that cannot afford to preemptively attack.  Totten bases his claim on Spyer’s incorrect analysis of the new Hezbollah manifesto and the fact that Hezbollah has moved some of its long-range missile away from the Israeli border (assuring more destruction in the next war).  Disregarding the dearth of logic in such an argument, Totten totally disregards the aggressive movements of  Israel that has the entire region fearing an Israeli offensive.  Recently Israel troops mobilized in the north of country, on the border of Lebanon, for military exercises.  Even if these are merely exercises, they send a particularly pointed message to Lebanon.  Hezbollah sees itself as the protector of Lebanese sovereignty and in the face of such aggressive Israel moves will not turn and hide.  In order to maintain its reputation as protector of Lebanon, Hezbollah must respond to Israeli saber-rattling with its own.

The three articles by Totten and Spyer show either a misunderstanding of the situation in Lebanon or a warped effort to justify future Israeli action against Lebanon, Syria and Iran.  It is true, as Spyer asserts, that Israel will probably engage Syria in the next war with Lebanon – something that everyone already knew.  But despite Spyer’s and Totten’s claims, Hezbollah is still a rational actor in Lebanon who cannot politically afford to initiate war with Israel.  Even though the organization is linked with Iran and Syria, Hezbollah has its own goals that involve the territorial integrity of Lebanon.

As Gregg Carlstrom notes, neither Hezbollah or Israel want war, but they cannot appear weak to those they represent.  In the inevitably asymmetric war against Hezbollah, Israel will only be successful if they wage a war with a brutal efficiency that completely roots out Hezbollah and destroys support for the group among a Lebanese.  However, with the international eye on Israel after the Goldstone report, this would involve severe political consequences at home and abroad.  Hezbollah only retained popularity after 2006 because Israel was viewed as the aggressor in Lebanon.  If Hezbollah clearly causes a war that brings immense destruction to Lebanon, it would surely lose its popular base among Shi’a Lebanese and be further rejected by other sects.  Spyer and Totten seem to think that another war with Hezbollah is right around the corner, but war remains unlikely and will only occur if Israel wants it to.

Photos from the Yemen Chronicle, Melchett Mike, Zimbio and Great Dreams

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