Thursday, July 13, 2006

Hezbollah's folly and the wider war 

War is breaking out between Israel and Hezbollah, a proxy of Iran and Syria in Lebanon. The United States has stepped right up and pinned the blame on Damascus and Tehran in separate statements coming from the National Security Council and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. Cardinalpark asked some interesting questions this afternoon, particularly concerning our pending confrontations with Syria and Iran.

Syria's proximity to the field of battle and vulnerability to Israeli air and ground power put the Assad Ba'athists in grave jeopardy. Indeed, with an apparent green light from the United States and a muted response from every other relevant actor, I can think of only one reason for Israel to hold its fire: It does not know who will govern Syria once Assad is gone. Israel cannot afford to do in Syria what the United States is doing in Iraq.

There will be those who argue that the United States is trying to leverage this into an excuse for a military confrontation with Iran. I doubt it, insofar as Arab allies of the United States would be put in a very difficult situation if we went to war in overt support of an Israeli invasion of Lebanon or Syria. Perversely, I think there is a decent chance that Austin Bay is right when he speculates that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Fatah, and the Lebanese are quietly hoping that Israel weakens Hamas and Hezbollah, itself a necessary precondition to any resolution between Israel and Palestine. This war will "re-set the chess table" at a time when almost everybody thinks it is in great need of re-setting.

The culpability of Iran is an interesting question, especially in light of unconfirmed reports from Debka.com (admittedly, not a flawless source) that Iran's foreign minister has flown to Damascus. Debka argues that Iran directed Hezbollah's attack to achieve three specific objectives:

1. Iran shows the flag as a champion and defender of its ally, Hamas.

2. Sending Hizballah to open a warfront against Israel is the logical tactical complement to its latest order to go into action against American and British forces in southern Iraq.

3. Tehran hopes to hijack the agenda before the G-8 summit opening in St. Petersberg, Russia on July 15. Instead of discussing Iran’s nuclear case and the situation in Iraq along the lines set by President George W. Bush, the leaders of the industrial nations will be forced to address the Middle East flare-up.

Would Hezbollah have launched a war with Israel on Tehran's command? Perhaps. While there is no doubt that Tehran sponsors Hezbollah, people do argue over the extent to which Tehran directs its operations. The relationship between Tehran and Hezbollah is revealed in a short anecdote in Ali Ansari's excellent new book, Confronting Iran (which I highly recommend, by the way). In the days after September 11, 2001, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami saw speculation in the American media that Iran might have been involved. According to Ansari (who is neither particularly critical of Iran nor blind to its depredations), "Khatami, anxious that the blame not be associated with Iran, summoned Hizbollah leaders to Tehran to make sure they could confirm they were not involved." (p. 182)

If this remarkable anecdote is true -- and Ansari is a very credible scholar, so the odds are in favor of it being true -- we have learned three fairly obvious things about Hezbollah and Iran. First, if the president of Iran -- even a lame duck "moderate" president such as Mohammad Khatami -- "summons" Hezbollah leaders to Tehran, they come when called. In this sense, at least, Iran controls Hezbollah. Second, five years ago the president of Iran believed that Hezbollah might have had both the will and the means to pull off the attacks of September 11. If the president of Iran had to satisfy himself that Hezbollah might have attacked the United States directly, then it is safe to say that Iran believes Hezbollah is capable of a lot of violence. Third, Khatami believed that they might have launched those attacks without consulting Tehran in advance. That belief implies that the relationship is hardly master-servant.

Now, if Iran was uncertain whether Hezbollah was behind September 11, then it is also plausible that Iran did not know that Hezbollah was going to attack Israel in advance. Hezbollah may have sandbagged Tehran, and Iran's foreign minister may be in Damascus for the purpose of getting the most out of a very messed up situation.

Alternatively, Hezbollah may have acted precisely in accordance with President Ahmadinejad's orders, in which case Israel is now quite legitimately at war with Iran.

In all cases, the risks of escalation are enormous.

Comments are more than welcome.

UPDATE: Having slept on it, I have further thoughts.


By Blogger sirius_sir, at Thu Jul 13, 03:46:00 AM:

Interesting to speculate about who is pulling what strings here. As you suggest, Tehran is either in control or it's not. If it is not, then,

Hezbollah may have sandbagged Tehran,

in which case, to make a small quibble, I would argue Iran's foreign minister is in Damascus trying to find out if Assad sandbagged Tehran too--and may actually be trying to find a way to defuse the situation--or...

Iran's foreign minister may be in Damascus for the purpose of getting the most out of a very messed up situation.

If the second, then it's possible Tehran may not have been sandbagged at all, and may in fact be controlling Hezbollah--through Damascus--from afar.

At this juncture I'm not sure which is the more worrying prospect.  

By Blogger FrauBudgie, at Thu Jul 13, 08:35:00 AM:

Thankyou for the sobering analysis.

I can't help but remember Assad's protests a few years ago ... "I'm an opthalmologist, d@mmit!, not a tin horn dictator ..."  

By Anonymous Olddeadmeat, at Thu Jul 13, 08:54:00 AM:


Very interesting analysis.

Whatever happens, we will be committed to back Israel's play - even if it is war with Syria.

Signalling that we are prepared to do that might get Syria to reign in their dogs in Lebanon.

Iran is more problematic - Israel can reach them with air assaults and covert ops, but a conventional ground assault mean we effectively commit to war with Iran as well.

We may go to war if Israel pushed and if Iran remains obstinate, but the more I think about it, the more it difficult it appears. Factors for us include - the effects on Iraq's stability, logistics, the expense (in blood and gold), the capability of Iran's army (we should expect both more competence and motivation than Iraq's), the state of our military (are we ready? if not, how long until we are?), and what do we do with Iran after we win?  

By Blogger Mycroft, at Thu Jul 13, 09:07:00 AM:

Interesting analysis -- but I disagree on the last point. I don't think it was uncommon in the Cold War for presidents here to call in the CIA after a nasty assassination or coup somewhere and ask if any of our people could have been involved, somehow. That doesn't mean that our people went off the reservation, but sometimes even secondhand warnings or contacts, at the time disregarded, can be embarassing. Nor does it mean that the CIA doesn't work for the president.

If Iran ordered its proxies to attack Israel, it may have been aimed at taking Iranian nukes off the agenda as everybody in the region focused on something else. That wasn't something we could prevent, but for a distraction, it's in Iran's best interests if the situation is protracted, with continuing low-intensity skirmishes.

I don't know if they counted on the Israelis retaliating with massive force, as they are doing, which may end the situation quickly, and in a way that cannot be easily calculated. Also, as you say, it threatens to smash Hamas or Hezbollah, with the effect of pulling Iran's fangs, when the nuclear issues *does* come up again.  

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Thu Jul 13, 12:08:00 PM:

Thanks for the analysis, Hawk, I'm having a hard time (a) getting my head around this escalation, and; (b) finding anyone who can talk about it with any authority/competence.  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Thu Jul 13, 12:42:00 PM:

Maybe Israel doesn't attack Syria because she's more interested in finding her soldiers than trying to start WWIII. One hopes.

I don't buy this "Iranians started it" theme. I think it's silly. But in addition to the distraction, they gain a lot of influence. Not so much on the international scene (though our calling on them as a powerbroker could help internationally), but in Iraq. Jews are killing Shia, and honestly, they're good at it. How does that play out in Iraq? I'm going to guess bad for our occupation and good for the Iranian influence in Iraq.  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Thu Jul 13, 12:57:00 PM:

Bill Roggio has an interesting piece on Imad Mugniyah, Hezbollah's chief of military operations, who is likely the mastermind behind this latest operation.

The man has a long and storied history: Mugniyah began his career in terrorism in the 1970s with Force 17, the personal bodyguard detachment for Yassar Arafat, and later joined Hezbollah. His more infamous terror attacks include the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63; the October 1983 simultaneous truck bombings on the U.S. Marine and French paratrooper barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines and 58 French soldiers; the hijacking of TWA 847; the kidnappings and murders of U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic personnel in Beirut; the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1992, killing 29 people; the bombing of an Israeli cultural center in 1994, killing 86 people. He is suspected of direct involvement in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. servicemen.

Mugniyah has extensive links with the Iranian intelligence services, and has been directly linked to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and recently deceased al-Qaeda in Iraq commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

I have heard it suggested that Iran planned this latest incursion as distraction to take world attention away from their nuclear program. Perhaps. If so, they likely imagined the world would react as it has previously, with little curiousity about who might be acting behind the scenes.

Tehran's calculation may be that it can still manipulate terrorism events to its advantage, but I think those days are over. Too many people are now onto their game. These pigeons are coming home to roost. (And Tehran may well know it. Is it conceivable that Iran may actually be trying to tamp down this fire before it gets out of control? Or are they, like Saddam prior to Desert Storm, banking on nuclear deterrence before it has become operational?)  

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