Drums of War: Israel and the "Axis of Resistance"
Middle East Report Nº97
2 Aug 2010
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Of all the explanations why calm has prevailed in the Israeli-Lebanese arena since the end of the 2006 war, the principal one also should be cause for greatest concern: fear among the parties that the next confrontation would be far more devastating and broader in scope. None of the most directly relevant actors – Israel, Hizbollah, Syria and Iran – relishes this prospect, so all, for now, are intent on keeping their powder dry. But the political roots of the crisis remain unaddressed, the underlying dynamics are still explosive, and miscalculations cannot be ruled out. The only truly effective approach is one that would seek to resume – and conclude – meaningful Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace talks. There is no other answer to the Hizbollah dilemma and, for now, few better ways to affect Tehran’s calculations. Short of such an initiative, deeper political involvement by the international community is needed to enhance communications between the parties, defuse tensions and avoid costly missteps.
Four years after the last war, the situation in the Levant is paradoxical. It is exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous, both for the same reason. The build-up in military forces and threats of an all-out war that would spare neither civilians nor civilian infrastructure, together with the worrisome prospect of its regionalisation, are effectively deterring all sides. Today, none of the parties can soberly contemplate the prospect of a conflict that would be uncontrolled, unprecedented and unscripted.
Should hostilities break out, Israel will want to hit hard and fast to avoid duplicating the 2006 scenario. It will be less likely than in the past to distinguish between Hizbollah and a Lebanese government of which the Shiite movement is an integral part and more likely to take aim at Syria – both because it is the more vulnerable target and because it is Hizbollah’s principal supplier of military and logistical support. Meanwhile, as tensions have risen, the so-called “axis of resistance” – Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah – has been busy intensifying security ties. Involvement by one in the event of attack against another no longer can be dismissed as idle speculation.
Other restraining elements are at play. UN Security Council Resolution 1701 led to a thickening of the Lebanese and international armed presence in southern Lebanon after the 2006 war, which has constrained Hizbollah’s freedom of action while simultaneously putting the brakes on any potential Israeli military ambition. Even as both sides routinely criticise and violate the resolution – which concurrently called for the end of arms transfers to Lebanon’s non-governmental forces, disarmament of its armed groups and full respect for the country’s sovereignty – they continue to value the framework defined by it as an integral component of the status quo.
Hizbollah’s enhanced political status in Lebanon is an additional inhibiting factor, discouraging it from initiatives that could imperil those gains. Israel’s current government – its reputation notwithstanding – appears less inclined at this point to take the risk twice taken by its more centrist predecessor of initiating hostilities, seeking to prove it can maintain stability and worried about a more hostile international environment. Despite voicing alarm at Hizbollah’s military growth, it has displayed restraint. U.S. President Barack Obama, likewise, far from the one-time dream of a new Middle East harboured by his predecessor, has no appetite for a conflagration that would jeopardise his peace efforts and attempts to restore U.S. credibility in the region. All of which explains why the border area has witnessed fewer violent incidents than at any time in decades.
But that is only the better half of the story. Beneath the surface, tensions are mounting with no obvious safety valve. The deterrence regime has helped keep the peace, but the process it perpetuates – mutually reinforcing military preparations; Hizbollah’s growing and more sophisticated arsenal; escalating Israeli threats – pulls in the opposite direction and could trigger the very outcome it has averted so far. If Israel would not like a war, it does not like what it is seeing either.
It is not clear what would constitute a red line whose crossing by the Shiite movement would prompt Israeli military action, but that lack of clarity provides additional cause for anxiety. Unlike in the 1990s, when the Israel-Lebanon Monitoring Group, operating with U.S., French and Syrian participation, ensured some form of inter-party contacts and minimal adherence to agreed rules of the game, and when Washington and Damascus were involved in intensive dialogue, today there is no effective forum for communication and thus ample room for misunderstanding and misperception.
Meanwhile, an underground war of espionage and assassinations has been raging, for now a substitute for more open confrontation. The parties might not want a full-scale shooting war, but under these circumstances one or the other could provoke an unwanted one. Further contributing to a sense of paralysis has been lack of movement on any 1701-related file, from the seemingly easiest – Israel’s withdrawal from the northern (Lebanese) part of the village of Ghajar – to the most complex, including policing the Lebanese-Syrian border, resolving the status of Shebaa Farms, disarming Hizbollah and ending Israeli over-flights. Such paralysis feeds scepticism that anything can be achieved and, over time, could wear down the commitment of contributors to the UN peacekeeping force (UNIFIL).
The key to unlocking this situation is – without neglecting the central Israeli-Palestinian track – to resume meaningful negotiations between Israel on the one hand and Syria and Lebanon on the other. This is the only realistic way to shift underlying dynamics and, in particular, affect Syria’s calculations. Without that, Damascus will continue to transfer weapons to Hizbollah, the Shiite movement will successfully resist pressure to disarm and Israel will keep on violating Lebanon’s sovereignty.
There is scant reason for optimism on the peace front, however. That means little can be achieved, not that nothing can be done. The most urgent tasks are to restore momentum on 1701 by focusing on the most realistic goals and to establish consultative mechanisms to defuse tensions, clarify red lines and minimise risks of an accidental confrontation. Better channels of communication would help. At present, the U.S. is talking mainly to one side (Israel), keeping another at arm’s length (Syria), ignoring a third (Hizbollah) and confronting the fourth (Iran). The UN might not have that problem, but it has others. It has too many overlapping and uncoordinated missions and offices dealing with Lebanon and the peace process and thus lacks policy coherence. One option would be to empower its mission in Lebanon so that it can play a more effective political role.
Nobody should be under the illusion that solving Ghajar, beefing up the UN’s role or even finding new, creative means of communication between Israel, Syria and, indirectly, Hizbollah, would make a lasting or decisive difference. They undoubtedly would help. But Lebanon’s crises for the most part are derivative of broader regional tensions; until serious efforts are mounted to resolve the latter, the former will persist. In the meantime, the world should cross its fingers that fear of a catastrophic conflict will continue to be reason enough for the parties not to provoke one.
To the U.S. Government:
1. Intensify efforts, including at the presidential level, to re-launch Israeli-Syrian and, as a consequence, Israeli-Lebanese peace negotiations in parallel to Israeli-Palestinian talks, persuading Prime Minister Netanyahu to reiterate the commitment made by past Israeli leaders to a full withdrawal to the lines of 1967 assuming all other Israeli needs are met.
2. Initiate a high-level and sustained dialogue with Syria aimed at defining both a clear and credible pathway toward improved bilateral relations and a compelling regional role for Damascus in the aftermath of a peace agreement.
3. Press, in the context of resumed peace talks, Syria to halt weapons transfers to Hizbollah and Israel to cease actions in violation of Lebanese sovereignty.
To the UN Security Council:
4. Ask the Secretary-General to review the various missions and offices dealing with Lebanon and the Middle East peace process, with the aim of developing a more coherent and comprehensive policy and enhancing coordination among them.
To the UN Secretariat:
5. Consider, in the interim, consolidating implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701 in the office of the Special Coordinator (UNSCOL), with a view to more effective engagement with the various parties.
To the UN and the Governments of Israel and Lebanon:
6. Revive momentum toward implementation of Resolution 1701, focusing on the most immediately achievable goals, by:
a) pursuing discussions toward resolution of the status of Ghajar, under which Israel would withdraw from the northern (Lebanese) part, and UNIFIL would assume control, with a Lebanese army presence; and
b) using such discussions to initiate talks on conditions necessary for attaining a formal ceasefire.
To UNIFIL troop contributing countries, particularly those in Europe:
7. Reaffirm commitments to maintain the current level of troop contributions.
8. Pursue a policy of active patrolling, in order to prevent any overt Hizbollah presence in its area of responsibility, while conducting outreach efforts to the civilian population.
9. Investigate, publicly condemn and take appropriate action against flagrant violations of Resolution 1701, particularly attempts to resupply Hizbollah and Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty.
To the UN and the Governments of the U.S., France, Turkey, Israel, Syria and Lebanon:
10. Consider establishing a Contact Group or, alternatively, more informal consultative mechanisms, to discuss implementation of Resolution 1701 and address potential flashpoints, focusing on:
a) a commitment by relevant parties to refrain from provocative statements and actions;
b) an end to implicit or explicit threats to harm civilians or damage civilian infrastructure in any future war;
c) a halt to targeted assassinations; and
d) immediate intervention in the event of a violent incident so as to de-escalate the crisis.
To the Government of Lebanon and Hizbollah:
11. Make every effort to discourage and prevent hostile action by the civilian population against UN personnel and property.
To the Government of Lebanon:
12. Substantially increase the number of troops deployed in the South and provide them with enhanced training and equipment.
Beirut/Jerusalem/Damascus/Washington/Brussels, 2 August 2010