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August 24, 2006

Hezbollah have suffered a setback (but are too clever to admit it) and the Israelis have scored a long-term success (but are too narrow-minded to realise it) - argues Brendan Simms

Posted by Brendan Simms

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Hezbollah and their Iranian patrons may have suffered a significant setback in their recent confrontation with Israel. Thus argues Brendan Simms, Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge.

Almost exactly twelve years ago, the IRA announced its first ceasefire, amid great triumphalism on the streets of Belfast. Many Northern Unionists were thereupon cast into despondency, despite the fact that armed Irish republicanism seemed to have set physical force to one side, edged towards the "consent" principle, and generally accepted that it would need to work within existing parameters for the time being. One wag commented that whereas the IRA had lost, it was too clever to admit it, and that although the Unionists had won, they were too stupid to realize it.

I was reminded of this remark just after the guns fell - more or less - silent in the Lebanon. Of course, Hezbollah is not IRA-Sinn Fein, it remains not merely rhetorically but actually committed to the destruction of Israel, not just the creation of a workable Palestinian state. Israel has indeed fought itself to a military stalemate equivalent to a defeat in its own eyes, and those of its neighbours; and the methods it used have been widely condemned as "disproportionate". Moreover, the Hezbollah leader Sheikh Nasrallah has gained near iconic status not only among Lebanese, including many non-Shiites - but also as an Arab and Muslim hero.

All the same, I found myself wondering whether Hezbollah might not have suffered a setback, but was too clever to admit it; and whether the Israelis might not have scored a long-term success, but were too narrow-minded to realise it.

Consider, first of all, the European response to the crisis. To be sure, there was talk of "over-reaction", but most western governments were unambiguous about the primary responsibility of Hezbollah. They may have differed on solutions, but they saw the conflict largely through Israeli eyes. The distinction which many once made between Hezbollah's struggle against Israel and the wider "War on Terror" is steadily eroding in elite minds, and rightly so. For all the huffing and puffing in the media, broad sections of the western public seem to agree. The very limited popular response to the appeals of aid agencies for funds showed that there was not much sympathy for a population which harboured terrorists committed to the elimination of a sovereign neighbouring state.

Secondly, the crisis showed Lebanese politicians that they are now drinking in the "last chance saloon" as far as Hezbollah is concerned. Christians, Sunnis and Druze and some Shiites hate Israel, but they are sick of being pawns in an Iranian and Syrian power play. As the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has remarked, if it is essential to continue to resist Israel, why does Syria not attack the Golan Heights and kidnap Israeli soldiers there? Why does it have to put Lebanon back in the firing line? What about Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails? Lebanese leaders fear Hezbollah, but they also know that if they cannot rein in Nasrallah, they will be continually at the receiving end of Israeli air power and thus unable to complete the reconstruction of their country. To that extent Israeli's point has been taken.

Thirdly, the campaign has been a strategic success for the United States, perhaps more than it realises itself. To be sure, the Israelis made much heavier weather of Hezbollah than they had expected. The Syrians did not, as Washington may have hoped, expose themselves to devastating attack by intervening. Nor were the French - yet - able to open up a new front in the war on terror, by deploying to Lebanon under a Chapter VII "enforcement" mandate. All the same, the massive and unforeseen Israeli retaliation has knocked the Iranian strategic timetable off balance.

For at the end of the month, the deadline for Iran to fulfil the demands of the United Nations Security Council concerning its nuclear ambitions runs out. Teheran had openly threatened not only a belligerent response in general, but in particular to open a new front against the United States on the Lebanese border. Hezbollah was, as one Hamas newspapers described it a fortnight ago:

a shield for Iran against an attack on its nuclear reactor.
Kidnapping the two soldiers had been conceived as merely the first in a series of escalations. The intention was clear: to turn a debate about Iranian weapons of mass destruction into yet another round of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Now Tehran will have to think again. It will be censured by the Security Council and sanctions imposed, or at least threatened. Will it then hurl Hezbollah against the Israelis, as it had promised to do? That will be militarily difficult, for although the organisation acquitted itself well in a purely technical sense, the recent campaign has severely disrupted it. The greatly expanded UNIFIL will get in the way; and the Israelis will not withdraw until it has fully deployed.

More importantly, it will be politically next to impossible to launch a full-scale attack on Israel from a standing start. The last confrontation was carefully generated as an act of solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza. A new round would be widely interpreted within Lebanon as a sign that Hezbollah was an Iranian stooge, rather than a patriotic organisation.

Moreover, it would create unstoppable momentum - so far resisted by Beirut - for the deployment of a substantial French force under a Chapter VII mandate south of the Litani. This would be a catastrophe for Hezbollah - and Iran.

All this makes it more likely that Tehran will ramp up the pressure on the west in Iraq instead. But the Iraqi Shia were noticeably quiet over the past month - "resistance" looks less attractive to the faithful in Basra than in Bradford - and the Grand Ayatollah Sistani pointedly did not call for an armed jihad in solidarity with Hezbollah.

The Shiites of Iraq note too that Hezbollah is prominent in the oppression of their fellow-Shia Arabs, who make up the majority population in Iran's oil rich province of Khuzestan. Indeed, these Ahwazi Arabs are protesting that while the regime is throwing money into the reconstruction of southern Lebanon, whole swathes of their own region have remained starved of central funds since the Iran-Iraq war which ended fifteen years ago. In short, Shia Arabs are a much greater danger to Tehran than to the United States.

Those who have bet on Hezbollah enjoy an unexpected windfall, but they would be well advised to spend their money quickly.

Dr Brendan Simms is Reader in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.


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As one not an expert in this topic, but one who has been following the matter closely, I agree with the major premise of this article: Hezbollah is weakened. Iran has been false footed and is off balance.

Iran will not gain any shock or distraction if the Lebanese border flares up again because many people predict that is exactly what will happen, and soon. So that option has already been taken into account by most.

Iran must also worry about Syria which is walking around with a big "kick me" sign stuck on its back. Regime change Syria may be the next matter on the table because it is the only practical way to save Lebanon. If so, Iran is losing options.

However, I doubt that the French will ever deploy a sizeable and effective force to Lebanon. I think most people believe that the French do not have the political will to undertake such a task and the U.N. will not authorize a chapter VII force in the area.

Posted by: rich at August 25, 2006 03:55 AM
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Brendan Simms has got incredibly close to touching upon the reality of what the recent Israeli-Hizbollah conflict was about. The key is in Simms' assertion that:

The Syrians did not, as Washington may have hoped, expose themselves to devastating attack by intervening.
First, no nation would risk starting World War Three simply because a couple of its low-ranking squadies were stupid enough to get caught by the enemy. Secondly, it is now quite clear that Israel had prepared for its attack on Hizbollah long before the two soldiers were captured. Thirdly, it is equally clear that the US colluded with the Israelis in their plan to attack Lebanon and had supplied Israel with the weapons and munitions needed to do the job; again, preparations for the build up for the attack began long before the two soldiers were captured.

The motives are also now crystal clear it was the aim of the Israelis and the US to provoke Syria to retaliate to an Israeli attack on Hizbollah. In turn, the strategy was to be that when Israel struck back at the Syrian retaliation, this would in turn provoke Iran to join the affray which, in turn yet again, would allow the US to become directly involved against Iran. In other words, Iran was the ultimate target.

Despite the pounding that Israel was delivering to the Lebanese people, the Syrians resisted responding. As the deaths of innocent civilians on both sides climbed the world clamoured for a cease fire. Despite the mounting death toll however, the US vetoed a cease-fire to allow more time for the Israelis to provoke Syria by increasing the ferocity and frequency of attacks on Hizbollah and the south Lebanese people. Syria still did not respond. In the end there was only one option left that may induce the Syrians to strike invade southern Lebanon. It didn't work and by this time the world had had enough and so, reluctantly, a deal was struck and the war was stopped.

On the basis of Israel's declared war aims having their soldiers returned and destroying Hizbollah Israel and, by default, the US, lost. And on the basis of its covert aims of inducing Syria and Iran to enjoin the fight, Israel and the US also lost.

The war was to be one that was started by 'them' and not 'us'. There was no way that either the US or Israel could be seen to cast the first stone against Syria or Iran; world opinion would not have tolerated it and the stated casus belli that Israel used to launch their attacks on Lebanon would have been even more transparent than they are now.

All of Simms' assertions about the causes of the war and the idea that Iran somehow was directing Hizbollah in order to confront the world over its, Iran's, so-called nuclear weapons ambitions are based on the notion that Israel was responding to an attack by Hizbollah when it captured two of Israel's soldiers. The fact that we now know that the Israeli attack on Lebanon was pre-planned renders Simms assertions to be invalid and proves that it was, indeed, Israel and the US that wished to confront Iran.

Posted by: Damian Lataan at August 29, 2006 07:46 AM
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Maybe the leaderships of both sides are saying "The operation was a success, but the patient died."

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at August 30, 2006 10:27 AM
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