Cease-Fire: Shaking Core Beliefs in the Middle East
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Cease-Fire: Shaking Core Beliefs in the Middle East
By George Friedman
An extraordinary thing happened in the Middle East this month. An Israeli army faced an Arab army and did not defeat it — did not render it incapable of continued resistance. That was the outcome in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982. But it did not happen in 2006. Should this outcome stand, it will represent a geopolitical earthquake in the region — one that fundamentally shifts expectations and behaviors on all sides.
It is not that Hezbollah defeated the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It did not. By most measures, it got the worst of the battle. Nevertheless, it has been left standing at the end of the battle. Its forces in the Bekaa Valley and in the Beirut area have been battered, though how severely is not yet clear. Its forces south of the Litani River were badly hurt by the Israeli attack. Nevertheless, the correlation of forces was such that the Israelis should have dealt Hezbollah, at least in southern Lebanon, a devastating blow, such that resistance would have crumbled. IDF did not strike such a blow — so as the cease-fire took effect, Hezbollah continued to resist, continued to inflict casualties on Israeli troops and continued to fire rockets at Israel. Hezbollah has not been rendered incapable of continued resistance, and that is unprecedented.
In the regional equation, there has been an immutable belief: that, at the end of the day, IDF was capable of imposing a unilateral military solution on any Arab force. Israel might have failed to achieve its political goals in its various wars, but it never failed to impose its will on an enemy force. As a result, all neighboring nations and entities understood there were boundaries that could be crossed only if a country was willing to accept a crushing Israeli response. All neighboring countries — Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, prior to the collapses of central authority — understood this and shaped their behavior in view of it. Even when Egypt and Syria initiated war in 1973, it was with an understanding that their war aims had to be limited, that they had to accept the probability of defeat and had to focus on postwar political maneuvers rather than on expectations of victory.
The Egyptians withdrew from conflict and accepted the Sinai as a buffer zone, largely because 1973 convinced them that continued conflict was futile. Jordan, since 1970, has been effectively under the protection of Israel against threats from Syria and internal dangers as well. Syria has not directly challenged the Israelis since 1973, preferring indirect challenges and, not infrequently, accommodation with Israel. The idea of Israel as a regional superpower has been the defining principle.
In this conflict, what Hezbollah has achieved is not so much a defeat of Israel as a demonstration that destruction in detail is not an inevitable outcome of challenging Israel. Hezbollah has showed that it is possible to fight to a point that Israel prefers a cease-fire and political settlement to a military victory followed by political accommodation. Israel might not have lost any particular battle, and a careful analysis of the outcome could prove its course to be reasonable. But the loss of the sense — and historical reality — of the inevitability of Israeli military victory is a far more profound defeat for Israel, as this clears the way for other regional powers to recalculate risks.
Hezbollah meticulously prepared for the war by analyzing Israeli strengths and weaknesses. Israel is casualty-averse by dint of demographics. It therefore resorts to force multipliers such as air power and armor, combined with excellent reconnaissance and tactical intelligence. Israel uses mobility to cut lines of supply and air power to shatter centralized command-and-control, leaving enemy forces disorganized, unbalanced and unsupplied.
Hezbollah sought to deny Israel its major advantages. The group created a network of fortifications in southern Lebanon that did not require its fighters to maneuver and expose themselves to Israeli air power. Hezbollah stocked those bunkers so fighters could conduct extended combat without the need for resupply. It devolved command to the unit level, making it impossible for a decapitation strike by Israel to affect the battlefield. It worked in such a way that, while the general idea of the defense architecture was understood by Israeli military intelligence, the kind of detailed intelligence used — for example, in 1967 — was denied the Israelis. Hezbollah acquired anti-tank weapons from Syria and Iran that prevented Israeli armor from operating without prior infantry clearing of anti-tank teams. And by doing that, the group forced the Israelis to accept casualties in excess of what could, apparently, be tolerated. In short, it forced the Israelis to fight Hezbollah’s type of war, rather than the other way around.
Hezbollah then initiated war at the time and place of its choosing. There has been speculation that Israel planned for such a war. That might be the case, but it is self-evident that, if the Israelis wanted this war, they were not expecting it when it happened. The opening of the war was not marked by the capture of two Israeli soldiers. Rather, it was the persistent and intense bombardment of Israel with missiles — including attacks against Israel’s third-largest city, Haifa — that compelled the Israelis to fight at a moment when they obviously were unprepared for war, and could not clearly decide either their war aims or strategy. In short, Hezbollah applied a model that was supposed to be Israel’s forte: The group prepared meticulously for a war and launched it when the enemy was unprepared for it.
Hezbollah went on the strategic offensive and tactical defensive. It created a situation in which Israeli forces had to move to the operational and tactical offensive at the moment of Hezbollah’s highest level of preparedness. Israel could not decline combat, because of the rocket attacks against Haifa, nor was it really ready for war — particularly psychologically. The Israelis fought when Hezbollah chose and where Hezbollah chose. Their goals were complex, where Hezbollah’s were simple. Israel wanted to stop the rockets, break Hezbollah, suffer minimal casualties and maintain its image as an irresistible military force. Hezbollah merely wanted to survive the Israeli attack. The very complexity of Israel’s war aims, hastily crafted as they were, represented a failure point.
The Foundations of Israeli Strategy
It is important to think through the reasoning that led to Israeli operations. Israel’s actions were based on a principle promulgated by Ariel Sharon at the time of his leadership. Sharon argued that Israel must erect a wall between Israelis and Arabs. His reasoning stemmed from circumstances he faced during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon: Counterinsurgency operations impose an unnecessary and unbearable cost in the long run, particularly when designed to protect peripheral interests. The losses may be small in number but, over the long term, they pose severe operational and morale challenges to the occupying force. Therefore, for Sharon, the withdrawal from Lebanon in the 1980s created a paradigm. Israel needed a national security policy that avoided the burden of counterinsurgency operations without first requiring a political settlement. In other words, Israel needed to end counterinsurgency operations by unilaterally ending the occupation and erecting a barrier between Israel and hostile populations.
The important concept in Sharon’s thinking was not the notion of impenetrable borders. Rather, the important concept was the idea that Israel could not tolerate counterinsurgency operations because it could not tolerate casualties. Sharon certainly did not mean or think that Israel could not tolerate casualties in the event of a total conventional war, as in 1967 or 1973. There, extreme casualties were both tolerable and required. What he meant was that Israel could tolerate any level of casualties in a war of national survival but, paradoxically, could not tolerate low-level casualties in extended wars that did not directly involve Israel’s survival.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was Sharon’s protege. Olmert was struggling with the process of disengagement in Gaza and looking toward the same in the West Bank. Lebanon, where Israel learned the costs of long-term occupation, was the last place he wanted to return to in July 2006. In his view, any operation in Lebanon would be tantamount to a return to counterinsurgency warfare and occupation. He did not recognize early on that Hezbollah was not fighting an insurgency, but rather a conventional war of fixed fortifications.
Olmert did a rational cost-benefit analysis. First, if the principle of the Gaza withdrawal was to be followed, the last place the Israelis wanted to be was in Lebanon. Second, though he recognized that the rocket attacks were intolerable in principle, he also knew that, in point of fact, they were relatively ineffective. The number of casualties they were causing, or were likely to cause, would be much lower than those that would be incurred with an invasion and occupation of Lebanon. Olmert, therefore, sought a low-cost solution to the problem of Hezbollah.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz offered an attractive alternative. Advocating what air force officers have advocated since the 1930s, Halutz launched an air campaign designed to destroy Hezbollah. It certainly hurt Hezbollah badly, particularly outside of southern Lebanon, where longer-range rocket launchers were located. However, in the immediate battlefield, limited tactical intelligence and the construction of the bunkers appear to have blunted the air attack. As Israeli troops moved forward across the border, they encountered a well-prepared enemy that undoubtedly was weakened but was not destroyed by the air campaign.
At this point, Olmert had a strategic choice to make. He could mount a multi-divisional invasion of Lebanon, absorb large numbers of casualties and risk being entangled in a new counterinsurgency operation, or he could seek a political settlement. He chose a compromise. After appearing to hesitate, he launched an invasion that seemed to bypass critical Hezbollah positions (isolating them), destroying other positions and then opting for a cease-fire that would transfer responsibility for security to the Lebanese army and a foreign peacekeeping force.
Viewed strictly from the standpoint of cost-benefit analysis, Olmert was probably right. Except that Hezbollah’s threat to Israel proper had to be eliminated, Israel had no interests in Lebanon. The cost of destroying Hezbollah’s military capability would have been extremely high, since it involved moving into the Bekaa Valley and toward Beirut — let alone close-quarters infantry combat in the south. And even then, over time, Hezbollah would recover. Since the threat could be eliminated only at a high cost and only for a certain period of time, the casualties required made no sense.
This analysis, however, excluded the political and psychological consequences of leaving an enemy army undefeated on the battlefield. Again, do not overrate what Hezbollah did: The group did not conduct offensive operations; it was not able to conduct maneuver combat; it did not challenge the Israeli air force in the air. All it did was survive and, at the end of the war, retain its ability to threaten Israel with such casualties that Israel declined extended combat. Hezbollah did not defeat Israel on the battlefield. The group merely prevented Israel from defeating it. And that outcome marks a political and psychological triumph for Hezbollah and a massive defeat for Israel.
Implications for the Region
Hezbollah has demonstrated that total Arab defeat is not inevitable — and with this demonstration, Israel has lost its tremendous psychological advantage. If an operational and tactical defensive need not end in defeat, then there is no reason to assume that, at some point, an Arab offensive operation need not end in defeat. And if the outcome can be a stalemate, there is no reason to assume that it cannot be a victory. If all things are possible, then taking risks against Israel becomes rational.
The outcome of this war creates two political crises.
In Israel, Olmert’s decisions will come under serious attack. However correct his cost-benefit analysis might have been, he will be attacked over the political and psychological outcome. The entire legacy of Ariel Sharon — the doctrine of disengagement — will now come under attack. If Israel is thrown into political turmoil and indecision, the outcome on the battlefield will have been compounded politically.
There is now also a crisis in Lebanon and in the Muslim world. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has emerged as a massive political force. Even in the multi-confessional society, Hezbollah will be a decisive factor. Syria, marginalized in the region for quite a while, becomes more viable as Hezbollah’s patron. Meanwhile, countries like Jordan and Egypt must reexamine their own assumptions about Israel. And in the larger Muslim world, Hezbollah’s victory represents a victory for Iran and the Shia. Hezbollah, a Shiite force, has done what others could not do. This will profoundly effect the Shiite position in Iraq — where the Shia, having first experienced the limits of American power, are now seeing the expanding boundaries of Iranian power.
We would expect Hezbollah, Syria and Iran to move rapidly to exploit what advantage this has given them, before it dissipates. This will increase pressures not only for Israel, but also for the United States, which is engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in a vague confrontation with Iran. For the Israelis and the Americans, restabilizing their interests will be difficult.
Now, some would argue that Israel’s possession of weapons of mass destruction negates the consequences of regional perception of weakness. That might be the case, but the fact is that Israel’s possession of such weapons did not prevent attacks in 1973, nor were those weapons usable in this case. Consider the distances involved: Israeli forces have been fighting 10 miles from the border. And if Damascus were to be struck with the wind blowing the wrong way, northern Israel would be fried as well. Israel could undertake a nuclear strike against Iran, but the threat posed by Iran is indirect — since it is far away — and would not determine the outcome of any regional encounter. Certainly, the possession of nuclear weapons provides Israel a final line from which to threaten enemies — but by the time that became necessary, the issue already would have shifted massively against Israel. Nuclear weapons have not been used since World War II — in spite of many apparent opportunities to do so — because, as a weapon, the utility is more apparent than real. Possession of nuclear weapons can help guarantee regime survival, but not, by itself, military success.
As it stands, logic holds that, given the tenuous nature of the cease-fire, casus belli on Israel’s part can be found and the war reinitiated. Given the mood in Israel, logic would dictate the fall of Olmert, his replacement by a war coalition and an attempt to change the outcome. But logic has not applied to Israeli thinking during this war. We have been consistently surprised by the choices Israel has made, and it is not clear whether this is simply Olmert’s problem or one that has become embedded in Israel.
What is clear is that, if the current outcome stands, it will mean there has been a tremendous earthquake in the Middle East. It is cheap and easy to talk about historic events. But when a reality that has dominated a region for 58 years is shattered, it is historic. Perhaps this paves the way to new wars. Perhaps Olmert’s restraint opens the door for some sort of stable peace. But from where we sit, he was sufficiently aggressive to increase hostility toward Israel without being sufficiently decisive to achieve a desired military outcome.
Hezbollah and Iran hoped for this outcome, though they did not really expect it. They got it. The question on the table now is what they will do with it.