by Nasr Salem (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 2, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1429)
There is open talk of impending war in Lebanon these days. Lebanese of many factions are speculating about potential scenarios for another war being waged on Hizbullah by Israel. These discussions concentrate on the question of when, rather than whether, such a war will erupt. However, despite the diversity of visions, they all agree about a large-scale war that will be more intense and destructive than the 34-day war against Hizbullah in summer 2006 that followed Hizbullah's operation on July 12, 2006, in which two Israeli soldiers were captured and three killed. Whenever it comes, this large-scale conflict will probably dwarf the previous war; it could well inflame the entire Middle East.
From Israel's standpoint, the rationale for such a war derives from the ignominious setbacks its army suffered during its confrontation with Hizbullah in southern Lebanon in 2006. Hizbullah shattered Israel's military thinking, which was based on employing a combination of state-of-the-art air-power, hi-technology weapons-systems and lightning attacks to overrun enemy posts or occupy vast swathes of enemy territory (or both). Hizbullah's tactical preparedness enabled it to use guided anti-tank missiles to destroy advancing Israeli tanks and to rain short- and intermediate-range missiles on Israeli targets throughout the war, despite the Israeli air force's apparently absolute dominance of the skies. Israel's much-vaunted Arrow missile program proved useless against these incoming low-flying missiles. Hizbullah fired a total of approximately 4,000 rockets at Israel during the 34-day war. It also destroyed at least one Israeli naval vessel, the INS Hanit, using an Iranian-made C-802 Noor guided missile. Another war, therefore, will seek not only to redeem the image and restore the diminished prestige ofIsrael's army, but also to eliminate the threat posed by Hizbullah, which not only managed to survive repeated Israeli aggression but has also managed since then to replenish its stores of arms and munitions.
The main lesson Israel derived from that war is that heavy dependence on air power and artillery bombardment cannot root out Hizbullah. Only a major conventional ground offensive might eliminate Hizbullah. So the war Israel is preparing to launch is likely to involve columns of tanks advancing northwards through the Beqa'a plateau along the Syrian border in easternLebanon. This will enable the invading troops to avoid having to make their way through the areas patrolled by the Lebanese army and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) south of the Litani River in accordance with Security Council resolution 1701, which was the diplomatic means of ending the war of July-August 2006. Such a ground offensive, in which two or three reinforced armoured infantry divisions – between 30,000 and 45,000 troops – would take part, will certainly be accompanied by an intense campaign of airstrikes targeting Hizbullah positions and civilian areas where the party maintains wide popular support, such as the southern suburbs of Beirut, aiming to cause massive economic and human dislocations. Israeli planners could choose targets to suit various options ranging from limited air-strikes to a more comprehensive set of strikes against a wide array of targets. Supporting squads of special forces belonging to Israel's Sayaret or special ops, amphibious contingents, and specialised engineering units would try to infiltrate Hizbullah areas to destroy underground systems of tunnels and bunkers, missile and artillery positions, weapons-depots and vital installations.
With diplomatic support from the US, Britain and France, the UN Security Council would pass a resolution to expand UNIFIL's mandate to deploy forces along the Syrian-Lebanese border. The ultimate objective would be to cut off the lifeline supplying arms and ammunition to Hizbullah through Syria. UNIFIL, which is made up largely of troops belonging to NATO countries, is likely to be responsive to the interests of the US and its strategic Middle East ally, Israel, and will by no means be neutral with respect to Syria and Hizbullah.
The fighting will certainly be fierce. Unlike the regular Arab armies the Israeli army is used to routing in the battlefield, Hizbullah is a formidable adversary with an impressive record of military achievements. Over the past quarter of a century, Israel's experience of engaging Hizbullah fighters has been chastening and humbling, to say the least. Since the guns fell silent in August 2006, Hizbullah has been busy rehabilitating its armed wing and preparing for the next war. It has reportedly managed to replenish its stores with stockpiles of advanced Russian-made anti-tank missiles and short-, intermediate- and long-range surface-to-surface missiles that are able to deliver larger payloads to targets deep inside Israel's borders. Thousands of fighters and new recruits have undergone intensive training as well.
Hizbullah's preparations are for a two-war scenario, in which it will find itself fighting, at the same time, both Israeli forces and Lebanese militias belonging to political factions affiliated with the pro-western government of Lebanese prime minister Fouad al-Siniora. The scenario posits that the Israeli assault will be coordinated with Lebanese pro-government militias that will move to control certain areas in Mount Liban and northern Lebanon, thus denying Hizbullah freedom of movement throughout the country and providing safe corridors and bridgeheads for invading Israeli troops. Over the past year, there has been a heated drive by both loyalist and opposition factions to arm themselves and train fighters in preparation for an impending internal war. Should such a scenario materialise, Hizbullah will concentrate on fighting the invading Israeli troops, whereas its allies in the Lebanese opposition will engage and attempt to crush the threat posed by pro-government militias.
An Israeli push into the Beqa'a valley will almost certainly provoke Syria to respond, thus igniting a major regional war. The Syrians have long been aware of the limitations of their army, with its ageing Soviet-era tankforce and old MIG and Sukhoi fighter jets, as well as of Israel's vulnerability to surface-to-surface missiles. That has led them since the 1990s to incorporate a North Korean element into their military thinking. This element is based on the utility of missile stockpiles as both a deterrent and an essential component of defence strategy. Syria has also learnt the lessons of the Hizbullah-led resistance in Lebanon and the Iraqi insurgency. Special units have been trained in the tactics of guerrilla warfare. These units can be mobilised if necessary to engage Israeli military formations with frontal hit-and-run attacks, to disrupt their supply lines and to harass their forces' positions behind the frontline and the theatre of operations.
Further complicating this scenario are indications that Israel is preparing for simultaneous wars against Syria and Iran. Israel might use Syria's entry into the war as a pretext to launch air-strikes against Iran's military, nuclear and other strategic installations, thus setting off retaliatory ballistic missile strikes against Israel and US military installations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf region. Without such Israeli bombardment against the Islamic Republic, Iranian troops might still be sent to fight alongside Syrian troops. Syria and Iran have signed a mutual defence agreement which commits the Islamic Republic to come to Syria's aid if it is subjected to military aggression.
This conflagration might eventually develop into a confrontation involving US troops. It is difficult to imagine an attack against Iran that does not have a direct effect on the anti-US resistance in Iraq. Iran could use its ties to some groups inside Iraq to initiate attacks directed against US troops stationed in the country. There is also the possibility that Iranian troops might cross the Iraq-Iran border and engage US troops inside Iraq. Were this to happen, the entire Middle East could be transformed into one enormous war zone.
None of all these preparations and planning means that such a broad Middle East war is inevitable. The war scenario, especially in its extreme version, might not come to pass. But in the light of the escalating tensions engulfing the region, it is certainly conceivable that US and Israeli military plans for all-out war on Hizbullah, Iran and Syria have reached an advanced stage of readiness. However, several factors work against the likelihood of direct US involvement in such a war. For one thing, the US is not in a position to fight another major war. US forces and military capabilities are already overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another war in the Middle East would drive up the already high price of crude oil and the soaring American deficits (the costs of Washington's misadventures in both Iraq and Afghanistan are estimated to have reached a staggering $3,000 billion so far), with highly damaging consequences for the US economy. As for Israel, it is unlikely to win quickly, if at all, in another war against Hizbullah, whether it involved Syria and Iran or not, even if it marshals all the ground, sea and air components of its military juggernaut. A long-drawn-out war would limit Israel's ability to avoid casualties on a scale that would sap domestic support for the war. It is true that such limitations and uncertainties render any new Israeli military misadventure a highly perilous exercise for Israeli leaders and their blind supporters in the US government. But with such a crazed, arrogant, warmongering clique of decision-makers in Washington and Tel Aviv, who refuse to learn from history or their own experiences, it is always prudent to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
To err on the side of caution is the best form of far-sighted wisdom.