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The drums are beating for a third Lebanon war

Ever since its creation in the spring of 1948, the state of Israel has rarely “not won” a war with the Arabs. One exception was the 34-day Lebanon war of 2006, which was supposed to annihilate the Iran-backed “party of God,” Hezbollah.

That feat was never accomplished and 11 years later not only is Hezbollah alive and kicking, it also remains prolifically active: politically in Lebanon and militarily in Syria, where at least 1,500 of its troops have been engaged in daily battle since 2012.

After the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, then-prime minister Golda Meir was forced to step down – not because she lost the war but because she did not win it. The Syrian and Egyptian armies were not destroyed, and neither country lost additional land, as was the case in 1967. In 2009, Ehud Olmert also resigned for not winning the Lebanon war of 2006.

Ever since, officials on both sides of the border have been anticipating a third Lebanon war. This often happens during summertime, when the skies are clear and the soil is nice and firm for Israeli army tanks.

Three out of Israel’s five wars have been in the summer: 1967, 1982 and 2006. When they struck at a Palestinian camp in Jordan in March 1969, bad weather prevented Israel’s air force from intervening and led to the retreat of its ground troops, after a 10-hour battle.

A new war would be different and spell out a doomsday scenario for Lebanon, Israel, and the entire Middle East. Unlike previous conflicts, it would be a battle of survival for Hezbollah. If they lost it they would likely be finished – along with Iran’s influence in the Arab world.

Lebanon Syria Israel

Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah has often repeated his readiness for such a battle, saying that his troops would this time be on the offensive, capable of raining long-range missiles down on Israeli cities and marching deep into the Israeli heartland, perhaps even occupying settlements and towns — something he hopes would be enough to bring down the Israeli government.

This “shock and awe” policy, he hopes, would obstruct the IDF’s mobility and hinder conscription of reserves, giving Hezbollah an early advantage.

It should be noted, however, that Hezbollah has never fought on two fronts – never in anything as major as the Syrian battlefield, certainly.

And in the past neither was there a Donald Trump in the White House, willing to see the region in flames in order to settle old scores with Iran and its Lebanese proxy. Trump views those two actors as the source of the region’s every misery, and recently, his UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, identified them as the “culprits” of the entire region.

The road to war

Several recent indicators suggest a climactic war might indeed be just around the corner for Lebanon and Israel. In mid-April, Israel announced it had successfully layered its airspace with the most sophisticated anti-missile tripartite defense system ever developed.

If war breaks out, the US-backed Arrow system will handle long-range Iranian missiles, while smaller yet equally accurate ones will be blocked by David’s Sling missile system at Hatrzor Air Force Base. Drones and smaller rockets, such as Hezbollah’s famed Katyushas will be downed by the Iron Dome.

Engineering works have been under way along the border, including construction of hills and installation of new earth berms. Military drills have been conducted and spy equipment put in place on the Blue Line.

Hezbollah members salute during the funeral of fighter Mohamad al-Shami, who was killed during clashes in Syria's Aleppo. Photo: Reuters/Ali Hashisho

Hezbollah soldiers at the funeral of fighter Mohamad al-Shami, who was killed during clashes in Aleppo, Syria. Photo: Reuters

In early April, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said: “I think that Israel is the one that wants to launch a war against Lebanon and not Hezbollah.” A similar line was repeated by President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, who warned against violating his country’s sovereignty, saying that it would be met “with appropriate response.”

In late April, Hezbollah orchestrated a highly unusual and tightly choreographed tour of southern Lebanon, taking western journalists to previously restricted territory in order to show off its military might and organizational capabilities.

For the past three years Israel has occasionally hit the Syrian heartland, either near the border with Israel or in the suburbs of Damascus, targeting Hezbollah missiles and storehouses.

Israel has threatened to send Lebanon “back to the Middle Ages” if another war were to break out, while former IDF Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi added that it is forbidden to ask “who will win” in another confrontation with Hezbollah.

Major General Herzl Halevi, the chief of the IDF’s military intelligence, recently added: “There has never been an army that knows as much about its enemy as we know about Hezbollah, but still the next war will not be simple. It will not be easy.”

Settling old scores

The Israelis hoped that Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict would drain, weaken – or even destroy – the Lebanese quasi-army. Five years down the road that has not happened and nobody knows for sure how reduced its fighting capabilities are or what its exact death toll in Syria has been, with many media outlets reporting the number at 1,500.

Further, nobody knows its total fighting capacity, with most Israeli estimates putting the number at 4,100 fighters and 21,000 standing forces, and nobody can predict when and how this war will start. According to Lebanese sources, Israel won’t strike at Hezbollah enclaves south of the capital and along the Israeli border as it did in 2006.

Instead it aims at torching all of Lebanon and creating an internal uprising against Hezbollah led by Sunnis, Christians, Druze – and Shiites as well. Ultimately Israel hopes to squeeze Hezbollah out of existence or to lay down its arms under unbearable domestic and military pressure.

David's Sling is one of Israel's anti-missile defence systems that may not be able to adequately defend against Hezbollah's vastly improved missile and rocket arsenal. Israel believes Hezbollah can launch thousands of rockets a day into Israel. Photo: Wikipedia

David’s Sling is among Israel’s anti-missile defense systems. Photo: Wikipedia

There is, of course, the high risk that such a bombing spree – even if it lasts for an entire month – cannot last forever and, once it is over, will only produce greater solidarity within Hezbollah’s ranks, rather than internal collapse.

What also makes the case much harder to predict is that unlike the Palestinian commandos who were in Lebanon during the civil war, and who then packed up and left when given a new base in Tunisia, the warriors of Hezbollah are Lebanese men deeply rooted in their towns and villages.

Bombing them and killing their top commanders will not make them disappear. Nasrallah believes that while his constituency has gotten accustomed to a rough life and can tolerate power shortages and air raids, the Israelis cannot and have become a “soft people.”

In the event of war, Hezbollah – after all of its services to Damascus since 2012 – would expect help from the Syrians. Hezbollah and Iran would expect Syria to join the war by taking part in combat – but that is something the Syrian Army cannot do due to the raging battles on all four corners of Syria itself.

President Trump, meanwhile, would expect Syria to stand neutral and look the other way, which it also cannot do: this would put it in a very tight spot indeed.

In as much as Saudi Arabia would love to see an end to Hezbollah, seeing it as more dangerous than Israel itself, Saudi royals fears that such a war would completely destroy Lebanon, a country that has long benefited from Saudi investment and is considered a protectorate for the oil-rich kingdom. A full-fledged war would bring down the cabinet of the Saudis’ ally, Saad al-Hariri.

Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, certainly wants this war to happen, to settle old scores with Iran and Hezbollah, and so does President Trump.

The Israeli premier would love to rank among Israeli leaders who have fought wars and won them: leaders such as David Ben Gurion, champion of 1948, Ariel Sharon, who repeatedly crushed the Palestinians and led the 1982 invasion of Beirut, and Levi Eshkol, whose army defeated the joint armies of Syria, Egypt, and Jordan in 1967.

He cannot afford to become another Ehud Olmert, helpless at crushing the Palestinians at home, or Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border. Fighting a war, and winning it, would certainly empower Netanyahu – but in any war, nothing is guaranteed, certainly not decisive victory.

Asia Times (28 April 2017)