There’s something curious about this particular war: the politicians all seem to get what’s really going on — even the ones who are usually a bit dense — but the media seems to have completely, utterly, missed the ball. So this is probably a good time to give a bit of backstory.
(The backstory to the backstory, if you haven’t heard the news at all — a few months ago, Hamas started firing missiles at Israel fairly regularly from Gaza. A few weeks ago, they raided and kidnapped a soldier, plus killing a few more. Israel demanded his return and parked armored divisions at the border; Hamas refused, and Israel rolled in the tanks, going for both the hostage’s release and an end to the attacks. Then a bit after that, Hezbollah raided from Lebanon and kidnapped people as well; in response, Israel has essentially gone to war, and Lebanon has been getting bombed ever since. Various countries have said “bad Israel, you’re overreacting” but the response has been very noticeably muted; in fact, the US, Europe, and even the Arab League aren’t actually opposing Israel’s actions very strongly at all, and Bush signalled today pretty clearly that he’s going to wait at least another week before really trying to encourage a cease-fire at all. Why?…)
The real story started a few years ago, when Arafat was holed up in his compound in Ramallah and all sides had decided to basically wait around until he died so that political process could resume. Israel spent the time starting the wall and assassinating terrorist leaders; Palestinians spent the time jockeying for internal political position. But Gaza and the West Bank were fairly cut off from one another, and while most eyes were on the West Bank, Gaza was the scene of assassinations, infiltrations, and jockeying for power: as much by Palestinians (against other Palestinians) as by Israel. And in this situation, Iran started to smuggle its own people in, with the mission of infiltrating the local power structure. As a result, Hamas in Gaza (as opposed to Hamas in the West Bank, which is trying to turn itself into — or portray itself as, depending on who you ask — a government) is largely under the control of Iranian agents. (Hamas’ central office in Damascus has long been under their control, but the WB part of them is still somewhat more of an independent, local organization) The decision to start rocket attacks, as well as the new models of rockets Hamas has been using, came directly from Tehran: this is part of why the rockets were all coming from Gaza, not the West Bank. (And part of why the “political wing” of Hamas has been trying to stop those attacks, while the Gaza wing and the central directorate are encouraging them)
In Lebanon, the situation is even clearer. Hezbollah is a Shi’ite terrorist organization which effectively controls the southern half of the country. They receive substantial operational support from the Syrian government, and their central command & control comes from Tehran. A few months ago, after the assassination of a former Lebanese PM by Syria led to widespread protests, Syria was forced to pull its army out of Lebanon altogether; this means that Hezbollah is now Syria’s main force in that country. About a year ago, Mostafa Mohammed-Najar moved from his job as liaison between the Iranian government and Hezbollah (himself an experienced terrorist, part of the planning for the US Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 and the Khobar Towers blast in 1996) to being Defense Minister — a sign of how much significance Iran places on control in this area.
Now, a few days ago Olmert (Israel’s PM) said to the press that there is preparation here for a long-term war, and that its goal is to keep Hezbollah out of South Lebanon permanently. It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t mean that he intends to return to the Israeli occupation of a border zone; that was a mess and everyone knows it. So what did he mean by this, and who was the intended audience? Certainly not the Lebanese government; Hezbollah has a significant role there, and the government has neither the strength nor the will to make them cut back on anything. So I’m going to interpret that statement as a warning to Bashar al-Assad, who really controls whether Hezbollah can keep operating here or not. And this jibes with the less subtle warning Olmert issued to al-Assad when this started, when he had four F-16’s buzz al-Assad’s house. Lest you think Syria has been completely silent here, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli ship, killing several sailors, right around the time that they kidnapped people; that attack relie on Syrian military radars and other direct Syrian support. But al-Assad’s noises lately have been more on the lines of “oh, crap!”
The main reason for that is that right now, Bashar al-Assad’s life really sucks. His father was a dictator ruthless even by Middle Eastern standards; his older brother, Basil, was being groomed for the
thronepresidency, but he died in a car crash in 1994 and Bashar was called back from his life in London as an optometrist to learn how to rule a country. He’s done so since 2000, but has been having trouble establishing clear and absolute rule over the various factions. Now is the hour when we find out just how skilled a dictator he is.
His first option is to stay the course. In this case, Israel has made it pretty clear that they’re going to do whatever it takes to do something nasty to him, and they can do it, no question. This means that he would need a lot of Iranian aid to keep from sinking (i.e., serious and direct military support). Even if he somehow were to avoid his country being conquered and/or destroyed, it would leave him as a permanent satrapy of Iran. If Iran doesn’t give him that level of backing, then Israel will be able to remove him and do serious damage to Hezbollah, but that opens up the rather nasty problem of who would succeed him. (He’s bumped off most of his competition but not all of it) OTOH, for Israel it may be an option to let Syria wallow in chaos for a while; there’s enough Shi’ite population there that it isn’t a likely back door for al-Qaeda.
The alternative is for him to make concessions, but keep his links to Iran strong. He would need to make Hezbollah and Hamas return their hostages, of course, and put serious reins on them to satisfy Israel, but the question is how much, and could he offer enough guarantees to make Israel not attack him? But on the other hand, if he makes too many concessions, he becomes a ripe target for assassination by either Syrians (who see him as weakened) or Iranians (who see him as an obstacle to their control). This is compounded by the fact that Syria had to pull back considerably from Lebanon after the Hariri affair; it’s now a big point of national pride and regional politics for him to maintain Hezbollah as his force in Lebanon, and failure to do so could open him up to trouble domestically.
And what about other countries? Bush’s remarks to Blair at G8 suggest that the US and Europe are on roughly the same page, planning to wait a bit (a week or so) to let Israel clean out Iran’s operations more thoroughly before starting to broach a cease-fire. (Condi’s probably going to head over around then) Oddly enough, the Arab League has been remarkably quiet on the subject as well; the general interpretation of this is that they’re really not hot on the idea of Iran spreading its geopolitical influence that far west, and quite frankly, if Israel is willing to clean them out of the area, Egypt and Saudi aren’t going to complain. (The whole “Shi’ite Crescent” concern is really visible here: we have Iran, Iraq which is having a war that may put Shi’ites on top there and thus offer safe passage to anything Iran wants to move, Syria which is mostly Shi’ite and in Iran’s pocket, Lebanon which is in Syria’s pocket, and now they want to start a war with Israel and simultaneously to set up bases in Gaza, which are also good forward bases to stir trouble in Egypt? I would be worried too.)
So the game plan I’m expecting to see over the next few weeks is as follows. The public statements of various countries are going to stay at roughly their current point for a week or so, and then there’ll be the start of a public cease-fire effort. This is the various countries’ way of signaling to al-Assad that they’re all quite willing to back pretty much anyone against his schemes involving Iran, so he should really, seriously consider cutting the ground out beneath Hezbollah’s feet. He needs to figure out a way to exit this and save face: conceding enough to Israel to keep himself from getting hosed by that side, while suppressing assassination domestically (by force) and also convincing Iran that he’s still a useful ally to them, and that they shouldn’t back some other Syrian instead. His father might have been able to pull that off; now we’ll see what he’s made of. (Very likely, we’ll see that he’s made of about 70kg of bone and muscle, as well as about ten pints of blood)
The fact that foreign pressure has lined up so uniformly behind Israel suggests that he may need to make a lot more concessions than he initially planned. So there’s a real chance that this could work, forcing Iran’s foreign-infiltration schemes to back down in a very effective manner. This could then play into future negotiations involving Iran’s nuclear ambitions as well.
So when you read in the paper some editorial talking about “Israeli overreaction,” just realize that they’re talking about something that nobody in the political game is even thinking about. Those hostages were casus belli, and the bombing we’re seeing isn’t just about them by a longshot.