Notwithstanding numerous claims to the contrary, it seems clear that on any purely realistic set of criteria Hezbollah has suffered a significant reverse in the recent war with Israel.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Lebanese Hezbollah leader, in apologising to the shell-shocked populace for the disaster his organisation had inadvertently brought down on them, said that he would never have authorised the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers had he realised the nature and magnitude of the military response. In fact this amounts to an admission that the Israelis successfully surprised Hezbollah at the outset, responding in such strength as to catch Hezbollah tactically unprepared for conflict on the scale now unleashed.
In the course of the war the Israelis have inflicted significant casualties on Hezbollah’s military arm and, via their campaign against infrastructure and communications, greatly complicated its operational problems. At the same time it has been forced to expend large quantities of ammunition and ordnance in combat with Israeli forces or in rocket attacks on cities and other targets. It must now try to resupply along damaged or destroyed routes under the watchful eye of Israeli (and of US) intelligence gathering. Moreover, to sustain its support base, it must devote significant resources to civilian relief and reconstruction.
Indeed, the Hezbollah position has been shaken, though by no means destroyed, by the widespread realisation that it was its actions alone which brought on this latest disaster.
This is not to say that the Israelis have achieved their heart’s desire - the elimination of Hezbollah as a significant military force. Nor did they succeed in stopping the rocket attacks. But it is on this issue nevertheless that they may have won their most significant victory of the conflict.
The random rocketing of Israeli targets by Hezbollah has been one of its most effective military options; to do this on a sufficient scale requires the ability to site large numbers of rockets close to their targets. But the postwar settlement installs in south Lebanon a powerful UN force of largely Western troops to secure the area in collaboration with the Lebanese Army. As this settlement is implemented, Hezbollah will lose its easy access to much of the Israeli border.
This will push Hezbollah’s rocket launchers back to positions where larger and more elaborate weapons are needed to strike Israeli targets. This in turn means launchers which are larger, more costly, easier to detect and attack from the air, harder to import and less easily transportable in the field. It will also make it much harder to launch small-scale cross-border raids.
All in all, if the settlement as agreed is fully implemented - granted, always a questionable matter in the Middle East - the net military outcome for Hezbollah can only be rated a costly reverse.
To what extent this will spill over into an undermining of Hezbollah’s significant position in the Lebanese body politic is harder to say. But it does appear unlikely that many Lebanese, whatever their views on the wider issues, would welcome developments which threatened yet another war like that just concluded.
To this extent, the power and widespread nature of the Israeli response can be seen as the execution of a deterrent strategy whose principal aim was the erosion of Hezbollah’s Lebanese support base (that Sheik Nasrallah felt it necessary to say what he did suggests he at least feared this outcome). It probably went beyond the Israelis’ wildest dreams that they would secure the installation of a largely Western force with a UN mandate on the very ground Hezbollah has long used as a platform for its attacks.
Hezbollah’s loss of this ground would be bad enough, but beyond that there is threat of disarmament, of conversion into a purely political party with no combat arm. This could happen if the lines of communication to Hezbollah’s backers in Iran and Syria cannot be effectively restored - not just for civilian use, but to a condition where covert military shipments to Hezbollah are again possible without detection or interference.
Overall, of course, this nasty little war is just another episode in the ongoing self-torment of the Middle East. The wider conflict has in some senses been going on for millennia: its modern incarnation has continued - with a mix of hot, cold and unconventional warfare - since the late 1940s, almost six decades. It is well to consider the implications of so long a period of deadly conflict.
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