The Next War – Lebanon/Hezbollah/Israel
On Feb 12 the Lebanese Pres. Michel Aoun said of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah that it is an integral part of the country’s government, he said “as long as Israel continues to occupy lands… we feel the need to have the resistance army as a complement to the Lebanese army's actions” and Hezbollah is ‘not contrary to the state project… it is an essential part of Lebanon’s defense."
This assertion was not taken lightly by the Israeli side, Israel's Minister Naftali Bennett has bluntly told the Haaretz that the ‘next Lebanon War must hit civilians where it hurts’. In the usual Israeli dehumanizing manner, Bennett says, ‘The Lebanese institutions, its infrastructure, airport, power stations, traffic junctions, Lebanese Army bases – they should all be legitimate targets if a war breaks out… If Hezbollah fires missiles at the Israeli home front, this will mean sending Lebanon back to the Middle Ages’.
But what has brought the two sides to such a heated confrontation, when apparently things were looking calm between them? Hezbollah originated in the 15years long Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) with Iranian support. Whereas the PLO was ousted from Lebanon at the end of this war, Hezbollah emerged as the most persevering and the strongest militia in Lebanon.
In 2006, war broke out again between Lebanon and Israel when Hezbollah killed 3 Israeli soldiers and abducted two in a border skirmish. Israel in its vainglory quickly turned for all-out war, deciding to punish the whole Lebanese people for the deeds of a few thousand Hezbollah fighters. Thousands of Lebanese were killed, Lebanese infrastructure was turned into ruins and over a million Lebanese and 500,000 Israelis were displaced.
There was widespread international condemnation of Israel for their indiscriminate use of fire-power over Lebanese civilians. Israel fired 4.6 million munitions into southern Lebanon, 90% of which were fired within the final 72 hours of the war, when the conflict had already been largely resolved by UN Security Council. Whole villages were covered by cluster bombs and phosphorus munitions.
George Bush responded on the war by saying that Hezbollah was responsible for starting the war, and that they had suffered a defeat at the hands of Israel. He said of Hezbollah, "how can you claim victory when at one time you were a state within a state, safe within southern Lebanon, and now you're going to be replaced by a Lebanese Army and an international force?” But to his miscalculation, Hezbollah has not been replaced, rather has become the backbone of the Lebanese army today.
Bashar al-Assad on the other hand claimed that the Arab resistance against Israel would continue to grow stronger. He said, ‘Your weapons, warplanes, rockets and even your atomic bomb will not protect you in the future’. Analysts of the war asserted that merely by surviving in an asymmetrical military conflict with Israel, Hezbollah can be credited a military and political victory in the conflict.
How did Hezbollah survive and thrive in a place where the PLO was ousted from? It had the backing of Iran and Syria. While the Arab world was also strongly behind the PLO, there was dissent against their liberal stance in religious conservative sectors, and whence each Arab state wanted to the champion of the Palestinians and the Bait al Quds, many of them also had growing ties with the west that they were not ready to forsake – for these reasons the support that PLO would get would be not be without political infringements.
But Iran’s support for Hezbollah was not a publicity stunt for them, but rather an existential need. Iran is the only Shia state in the world and has always felt dry of natural allies. For this reason, especially after the Iranian Revolution, Iran made a policy of aligning with large Shia populations around the world – trying to reorganize them politically and voicing against Shia repression wherever it was found. Iran’s export of it revolutionary ideology among Shia communities makes it a threat to Sunni Muslim states, in a way comparable with the Communist threat to the Capitalists.
Khomeini wanted the awakening of the Iraqi Shia’s behind him, relations with the Alawite Bashar al Assad were emboldened, Lebanese Shia were patronized and the natural pivot of this whole belt of allegiances was the unwavering cause of the Bait ul Quds – reliably long-lasting, legitimate and part of the Shia belief system.
Moreover Syria’s relations with Lebanon were not recent, Lebanon was actually a part of the Ottoman Syrian Province until its demise in WW1. Until then Lebanon was a Muslim Arab state like the rest of the Ottoman states, but the French tried to change that. They not only cut of Lebanon from Syria, but with the farce census conducted in 1932, counted 53% of the Lebanese as Christians. On the basis of this census they ensured that Christians would constitutionally dominate Lebanon’s politics. According to the Lebanese Information Center (2013 report), at the time Lebanon had 34.35% Christians and 65.47% Muslims (excluding emigrants). After independence the French and the US aimed to make Lebanon a western tourist hub and their economic pivot into the Middle East. Notably the French and British used Lebanon as conduit for oil from the Persian Gulf, this also enriched Lebanese banks and for a time period economy thrived.
But the Syrians had centuries old relation with the Lebanese. Earlier in 1976, the Ist Lebanon Israel War had ensued, Suleiman Frangieh, then Christian president of Lebanon, who was a personal friend of Hafiz al Assad, formally requested Syria to intervene – with this a new era of Syrian influence in Lebanon began. Hafiz despised the PLO for its connections with the Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni Islamist who were against Alawite rule in Syria. So at that time the Syrians fought with the Maronite militias against PLO, while Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya and Egypt were behind the PLO – and the US and France were like run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.
In 1976 Syria entered Lebanon with 12,000 troops, gradually increasing its forces to 40,000 in the 15years long war. The Syrians effectively controlled the whole northwest of Lebanon and tried to ensure that the following presidents would be of their liking. While Israeli forces returned in 1990 with the end of the war, the Syrian troops stayed till 2005. And while all militias in Lebanon were dissolved in 1990, and PLO was evicted, Hezbollah was allowed to remain.
Critics say that Syria has a dominating influence over Lebanese politics. The 2005 assassination of PM Rafik Hariri, who had strong ties with the Saudi Royal Family, is widely blamed on Syria. Before the US left Iraq in the December of 2011, it had ignited the Syrian Civil War in March of 2011. The Americans may have thought that by bifurcating Baghdad from Sunni Iraq and later by isolating Assad from Sunni Syria, they would have made a large chunk of Sunni to rule on – but to their demise, the Shia’s in Baghdad, with full support of the Iranians, opted to have the whole of Iraq and to collectively strengthen Assad in Syria too.
From 2013 onwards, financial and arms support was boosted for Hezbollah, and it effectively secured the south of Syria for Assad. Later when Russia decided to intervene militarily in the war in 2015, the US and its allies were forced to practically retreat from Syria as losers. The Syrian forces, numerous pro-Assad militias, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah have made it impossible for the US-backed ‘good rebels’ stand their ground.
All in all, US failures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have led to the weakening of Israel’s staunches partner the US, and along with it the weakening of US allies in Europe. In contrast the Iranian allegiances in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have emerged stronger. Especially Hezbollah is much more battle-hardened and more heavily weaponized then ever, as it has recently been equipped with sophisticated Russian and Iranian firepower. If we see the way the Arab Spring, that was abducted by the US for conducting multi-frontal wars throughout the Arab world, as their bid to win another century of hegemony over global affairs – it would be right to say that these failures depict that they won’t be getting that one more century.
And this threat might become an existential one for Israel. Because the way things are going, if the US is not seen as a global superpower and if in the sway of things Russia comes at par with the US, Israel will not have the same security it feels with the strong US backing in the UN, where the international community regularly condemns Israel’s acts against its neighbors. Israel – that was created in the shadows of the two World Wars, will not afford to slack at this time of a possible changing of the global order – and war has always been the easier option for Israel.
If Russia and their ally Iran need to assert their power against the US at this time, Hezbollah is their final frontier, which can challenge US’ deeply allied friend Israel. And perhaps for the US, Israel might be the last bastion from which it can expect a victory in the Arab world.
In case of the dire scenario of Israel’s attack on Lebanon, there is a fear that Israel may extend the war to Gaza against Hamas too. This war will also pit the Sunni Arab states like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE against the Shia powers, whom they anticipate for their regional ambitions. The devastation of this war will bring to the people and property of Lebanon might be irreversible, but Hezbollah would not stop from inflicting the same to the Israeli population.
Does humanity need another war? Can the UN bring a just and peaceful resolution to deeply hurting global issues? Or will millions be displaced, maimed and killed again?