Friday, July 13, 2007

Why weazl loves the Asia Times: Western media would never print speculative articles about Middle East geopolitical strategy

War games, mind games or the real deal?

By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - One year ago this Thursday, war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah. Ostensibly, the Israeli objective was to free two soldiers captured by Hezbollah. After the fighting began, Israel announced its true objective: to eradicate Hezbollah and its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah.

The war lasted for 33 days and failed to realize any of Israel's objectives, except destroy Lebanon, the already troubled country whose capital was once known as "Paris of the Middle East". It shattered the myth of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) being an invincible army and did wonders to Nasrallah's popularity in the Arab world after he promised - and delivered - to "bomb Haifa and beyond Haifa".

Twelve months later, the Israeli soldiers are still in Hezbollah's captivity and Hezbollah is still alive - and very active - in Lebanon. The only new reality is the stationing of 15,000 United Nations troops in south Lebanon, according to UN Resolution 1701, to prevent the outbreak of further hostilities.

When the war ended last August, many speculated that the ceasefire was only temporary and that Israel would use it as a grace period to rearm, reassess, and re-invade Lebanon.

Israel's military history shows that the Jewish state does not tolerate failure, and nor does the United States. That war, many believed, was a proxy one being fought by Israel on the behalf of the US. The Americans seemed more interested in defeating Hezbollah than Israel was. As far as the Israelis are concerned, a Hezbollah that operates within Lebanese territory and does not fire rockets at Israel is a Lebanese problem. They can live with it. As far as the US is concerned, the very existence of Hezbollah is an obstacle for its new plans for the Middle East.

The US State Department wanted the summer war because it had embraced and adopted the pro-Western cabinet of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora. According to the US, this government would help curb Iranian influence in the region, prevent the spread of Shi'ification, strengthen the position of Saudi Arabia, and weaken Syria. For it to succeed in all of the above, it had to get rid of Hezbollah.

The White House wanted this war because it could not tolerate a powerful entity like Hezbollah, which is independent from US control, operating in the Greater Middle East. President George W Bush feared that the success story of Hezbollah and Nasrallah - and their survival - would inspire similar groups to rebel against the US in failed states such as Somalia or, even worse, Iraq.

The situation in Iraq, after all, is identical to the one in Lebanon when Hezbollah was born in the 1980s. There are occupation, chaos, frustration and civil war. There are an abundance of arms, no strong central government, and plenty of Iranian influence. The Mahdi Army, for example, with its young leader Muqtada al-Sadr (who claims to be inspired by the Nasrallah model), is very capable of becoming another Hezbollah.

The Pentagon wanted this war because it was planning for a war with Iran before Bush's term expired in 2009. It wanted to test the pulse of Iranian power through Hezbollah. After all, all of Hezbollah's training, experience and arms come from Tehran.

By all accounts, the Pentagon was not pleased at the results of Lebanon 2006.

The fact that the IDF, being the strongest US-trained army in the region, could not make its way through a tiny country like Lebanon spoke volumes about how powerful Iran actually is. For years the US has suffered from faulty intelligence reports on Iran, attributed mainly to the absence of a US embassy in Tehran. In the 1980s it received reports on Iranian power from parties that wanted to portray the Islamic Republic as a weak nation.

They included, among others, members of the Iranian opposition overseas, and Saudi Arabia. The Americans were made to believe that Iran could be invaded and defeated in a breeze, explaining why they encouraged their ally at the time, Saddam Hussein, to invade in 1980. They told him the war would be quick and an easy victory for the strong Iraqi Army. They were wrong, and that war lasted for eight years and failed to bring down the Islamic Republic.

History repeated itself in cruel ways in 2006. This time the US encouraged Israel to attack Iran - by proxy - only to come out with the same conviction Saddam learned - the hard way - about the reality of Iranian power.

The summer war ruined Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and led to the downfall of his chief of staff, Dan Halutz, and defense minister Amir Peretz, who were blamed for improperly planning the Lebanon war. This reality makes it difficult for anybody to take Olmert's peace initiatives seriously. A defeated man like him cannot relinquish the Golan Heights to Syria, for example, nor can he make peace with the Palestinians. The Israeli street and domestic public opinion will not let him. He needs to right the wrongs done to his image by the Lebanon war of 2006.

Olmert seemed to have different thoughts, however, when being interviewed by the Saudi channel Al-Arabiyya (an interview that could not have taken place without the approval of Saudi authorities). He said: "Bashar al-Assad, you know that I am ready for direct talks with you. I am ready to sit with you and talk about peace, not war." Olmert added, "I will be happy if I could make peace with Syria. I do not want to wage war against Syria."

It takes war heroes to make peace in the Middle East. Everybody in the region knows that, especially the Israelis. Anwar al-Sadat could not go to Camp David in 1978 before having waged war against Israel in October 1973. Nor could Yitzhak Rabin go to Oslo in 1993 before having proved his credentials in every Arab-Israeli war since 1948. Olmert is simply no Rabin or Menachem Begin. He cannot talk peace before winning a war, otherwise the Israeli public will accuse him of selling out to the Arabs.

He needs a Round 2 with Hezbollah. If it does not happen, then he must create it. Hezbollah chief Nasrallah realizes this threat and is very keen, at every juncture, to express support for the UN troops stationed in Lebanon to show the world that he is not interested - at this stage - in going to war once again with Israel because the last war was too costly for Lebanon.

When a terrorist attack targeted a Spanish contingent of UN troops this summer, Hezbollah immediately denounced it and distanced itself from any violence against the UN. Hezbollah leaders fear that somebody will attack Israel - or Israel will feign an attack - and then blame it on Hezbollah, using the ordeal as a pretext to relaunch war against Lebanon. This time, unlike the case in 2006, the Israelis will be more prepared for Hezbollah.

Amid all of this tension comes a puzzling factor - increased media talk about a military confrontation between Israel and Syria. That would have been possible in July 2006. As the war dragged on in Lebanon, Olmert found it increasingly difficult to explain to the Israelis why his army was not winning a battle against a small group of guerrilla warriors. It was feared that if pressure rose within Israel, Olmert would attack Syria to prove to the Israelis that he was serious and capable of fighting the problem (Hezbollah) and its backers (Syria and Iran).

Part of that argument still stands. Olmert is still in a difficult position and, on the anniversary of the war, has solved none of Israel's worries with Hezbollah. A Round 2 with Lebanon, however, would seem more likely than a Round 1 with Syria. The Syrian Arab Army, although untried in battle for many years, is well armed and well trained. It can fire real missiles at Israel - not just Katyusha rockets. It has a military pact with Iran. There is no real reason to attack Syria unless Olmert wants to fabricate an excuse to go to war against the Syrians.

That can easily be done in a variety of ways. One way would be if an attack were launched against Israel by one of the many armed groups in Palestine. This attack would be blamed on Hamas, which is supported by the Syrian government. Already there is a campaign to root out Hamas from within the occupied territories, with Israel attacking it from outside and Fatah fighting it from within.

Proponents of the Israel-versus-Syria war claim such a conflict would lead to a weaker Damascus and the flushing out of Hamas. All of that, naturally, would incapacitate Hezbollah. Another way to wage war on Syria would be if hostilities were created on the Lebanese-Israeli border, and then blamed on Damascus.

On July 11, the Jerusalem Post quoted a recent intelligence report saying that war with Syria is possible if Olmert does not find a peaceful solution for his problems with Syria. The newspaper added that if war were to break out, it would be many times worse for Israel than its confrontation with Hezbollah last year.

Some people believe that Syria is the one interested in war, not Israel. They point to an alleged massive Syrian troop buildup along the Golan Heights. Supporters of this argument claim that such a war would do wonders for Bashar al-Assad's government in Damascus (just as the October 1973 war served his father's career) and make it increasingly difficult for Arab countries allied to the US, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon or Egypt, to support any anti-Syrian maneuvering in the international community, or through the UN.

In his inauguration speech at the new Syrian Parliament in May, Assad noted that war was possible with Israel because "there is no progress in the peace process and there is not any contact with Israel, whether secretly or publicly, because Israel is not ready for the just and comprehensive peace which needs strong leadership that can take decisive decisions".

The deputy chief of staff of the IDF, Major-General Moshe Kaplinsky, came out this week, however, saying the opposite, claiming that war with Syria is unlikely. He added, however, that Israel is ready to counter any attack, coming from Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria or Iran.

"I hear the voices but to the best of our assessment, which is also my personal assessment, we do not expect a war this summer from Syria," Kaplinsky said. Israel's mobilization on the Syrian border was in response to Syrian troop movement, he added, calling it a "defensive" measure. He also noted that "Hezbollah is rebuilding itself. But we are ready for all possible scenarios."

Part of this preparation is training 70% of Israel's reservists and exercising military units along the Golan. One of Israel's most famous units, the Golani Brigade, has just completed high-profile war games. Guy Hazoot, the officer in charge of the 91st Division deployed along the border with Lebanon, noted: "The worst case is war, and we have to be prepared for the worst case."

According to further press reports from United Press International, quoting "well-informed sources in Washington", a "confrontation between Syria and Israel may happen this summer".

Dennis Ross, the Middle East envoy under former US president Bill Clinton, was quoted in the online edition of Yedioth Aharanot saying that there is "a risk of war" between Syria and Israel this summer. He added, "The Syrians are positioning themselves for war."

Somebody out there, either on the Israeli side or the Syrian one, has read his Middle East history too well. In May and August 1973, Sadat repeatedly threatened to go to war against the Israelis. Frantic, Israel would mobilize to fight, and Sadat would do nothing. Every time, the mobilization would cost Israel about US$10 million. Because he always threatened to go to war against Israel and never did anything, nobody believed him when he threatened war in 1973. That is exactly what Sadat wanted.

One week before the war on October 6, 1973, the Egyptian Army began moving toward the Suez Canal. Israeli intelligence, detecting large troop movement toward the canal, did not do anything in response, thinking this was one of Sadat's many failed promises of war. He needed these gestures, they believed, to build his reputation in the Egyptian street. Movement of the Syrian Army toward the Golan Heights at the same time was puzzling but not worrying because Israeli was convinced that Syria would not go to war without Egypt. That explains, among other things, why the Israelis were caught off guard on October 6, 1973.

And today, the mobilization of troops has become an old joke in Syrian-Israeli relations. Whenever one party mobilizes, the other goes on alert, and nothing happens. Will it be different in 2007?

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst

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