Lebanon has once again become a pawn in a game between internal and international powers, and the result may be that everyone loses.
BEIRUT, Lebanon - It's become as much a war of propaganda as of missiles and Katyusha rockets.
The perception of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) bogged down in southern Lebanon is countered with commando raid footage reportedly showing Israelis striking deep inside Lebanon in an operation in which they capture five Hezbollah leaders.
Hezbollah, for its part, markets the recent tragedy of the civilian deaths at Qana on its Al Manar television station. Meanwhile, no one, from the Lebanese Army to the Red Cross, does much to try and clarify post facto the discrepancy in the number of fatalities there, which were initially touted as high as 60, while the actual evidence and official tally now stands at 28.
Three weeks in and it's clear that few are blameless in this conflict: Hezbollah for the kidnapping of IDF soldiers and the barrage of rockets they fire toward northernIsrael from southern Lebanon, Israel for what many in the international community consider a disproportionate response to the provocation, and the West, specifically the U.S. and Britain, for not endorsing an immediate cease-fire that could have helped prevent so much death and destruction; the casualties may now include the West's foreign policy interests in the Middle East.
But once again the biggest loser, it seems, is Lebanon. The country had finally turned the economic and political corner from its devastating civil war in 70s and 80s and was also asserting — with the exception of the presence of the armed Hezbollah militia in the south — a sense of its own sovereignty after Syrian troops departed its soil in March 2005.
Lebanon was more interested in economic growth than military might, pumping billions into hotels, restaurants, resorts and business. The hope was to regain the title of "the Paris of the Middle East," and for a short time it succeeded.
"Lebanon is just a souk (a marketplace)," said one Beirut businessman during its period of rapid growth. "But it has no political clout whatsoever."
Except, perhaps, as a pawn of both international and internal forces.
Pro-Hezbollah posters abound in
Some Middle East observers believe that Lebanon's failure to invest in a strong military — one with sovereignty over the entire nation, including the strongholds of Hezbollah's militia in the south — may have been its undoing.
Disarming the Hezbollah militia was a key provision ofUnited Nations Resolution 1559, which was focused on ending foreign influence in Lebanon — in particular, which had an overt presence in Lebanon, but also , whose religious, political and financial ties to Lebanon's Shia Hezbollah movement are well-documented.
By any standard, disarming Hezbollah was not an easy thing for Lebanon to do politically or militarily. The great fear was that any attempt could lead to renewed civil war.
Through democratic elections, Hezbollah became a significant part of the Lebanese government in 2005, taking 23 seats in parliament through an alliance with another Shia party, Amal.
And Hezbollah's militia is widely considered a resistance force in Lebanon, even by some who oppose them politically. The militia has taken credit for ending Israel's long occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. (The occupation was first aimed at destroyingYasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization, which was attacking Israel from Lebanon. Later, Israel focused on undermining the Syrian and Hezbollah presence on in southern Lebanon.)
The latest confrontation has escalated so quickly that it threatens to spark a region-wide conflict.
One Middle East source with an intimate knowledge of Hezbollah, who wishes to remain anonymous because he's still involved in back-channel negotiations, says that Hezbollah's July 12 kidnapping of the two IDF soldiers was instigated, in part, by the earlier reneging by the Israeli government on a prisoner swap with Hezbollah.
"These kind of kidnappings are perpetrated by both sides," says the source. "The Israelis have routinely landed helicopters in Lebanon, scooped up people and taken them back to Israel. It's nothing so extraordinary."
Nothing but the timing.
"With the kidnapping of the IDF soldier in Gaza," the source says, "the IDF felt particular humiliation. Then, when it happened in the north too, they were able to bring pressure to take the 'Destroy Lebanon' plan off the shelf and implement it very quickly. Remember, both sides have been preparing for this conflict for a long time."
But the results of the plan have been far different than both sides had anticipated, says the source.
"You've got to empathize with the enemy to the extent to that you don't have a cartoon character that you're fighting, but someone that might be smarter than anybody in your administration."— Milt Bearden
"In short, what we're seeing are attacks that cause damage to civilian infrastructure, including Christian areas and Lebanese forces. The aim of this was to convince the population to turn on Hezbollah to put pressure on it to disarm. In practice, the opposite happened.
"After the first attacks there was disquiet among groups in Lebanon about what Hezbollah had done (in kidnapping the Israeli soldiers). Now people are shocked and enraged that it seems like the U.S. has given the green light to destroy their country. They're shocked to think their friends like the U.S., France, Saudi Arabia are colluding to let Israel destroy Lebanon."
Former longtime chief of United Nations Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) Timor Goksel says he believes that Hezbollah also miscalculated in their provocations of Israel.
"Hezbollah thinks very carefully about the consequence of their actions before they act. Usually it's a checklist, how will the action affect Hezbollah first, then Syria, then Iran," Goksel says.
So why would Hezbollah all of sudden risk that?
"They (Hezbollah) changed the rules of the game," he says. "It used to be, 'Keep it simple, keep the attacks to the disputed Shebbah Farms region and keep it away from civilians.'"
Now, he believes, even though Hezbollah has gained popular support on the so-called "Arab street," the destruction wrought on Lebanon could have long-term political implications that don't bode well for the organization.
"How important is it for you to have one thousand people marching in the streets of Cairo supporting you? What about your capabilities [in Lebanon]? I think they made a gross misjudgment. This will end at one point. What happens then?" he asks.
An Israeli air strike near Tyre, Lebanon
The same question is raised on the Israeli side. Was there also a miscalculation in a military response that has caused 900 civilian deaths so far, as Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said Thursday, thousands of injuries, and billions of dollars in infrastructure damage to Lebanon? Israel has even attacked Lebanese army bases, while at the same time hectoring the Lebanese government to get control of its southern border.
Goksel says this is all part of Israel's attempt to reassert its overriding strategic doctrine of deterrence.
"For the Israelis, deterrence is everything," Goksel says. "Arab nations have to believe that any strike against Israel will be met with a punitive response so costly that they will think very long before they decide to attack."
That is illustrated in Israel's military successes in 1967 and 1972, when attacks against Israel were met with a stinging response that was punitive both militarily and geographically, with Israel taking and occupying theWest Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. The message, says Goksel, was that if you fight Israel you will lose, and you will shrink.
But that concept of deterrence has been eroded recently and perhaps permanently by two factors, according to the source close to Hezbollah: America's failure to defeat the insurgency inIraq (showing the limitations of the last remaining superpower), and Israel's failure so far to put Hezbollah "on the ropes."
"Israel's claim of destroying much of Hezbollah's weapons is based on a false premise. Hezbollah isn't keeping Katyusha rockets and missiles in houses — they have weapons depots for these, sometimes deep bunkers. For two years I watched Hezbollah move back their missiles from the border area," he says.
"The air strikes haven't taken out the weapons as claimed. Hezbollah is still firing an average of 90 rockets a day. And I know they can continue (firing) at that number for several months without resupply."
In fact, on Thursday, according to wire reports, Hezbollah fired over 100 rockets into northern Israel, killing as many as eight people.
Northern Israel has suffered daily
rocket barrages from Hezbollah.
Milt Bearden, a former seniorCIA official who has extensive experience in the Islamic world, and who had also been in meetings with Hezbollah officials before the start of the conflict, agrees, arguing that a strategy to eliminate Hezbollah is "fatally flawed" and pointing out that Hezbollah is "an organic part of the 40 percent of the Lebanese population that is Shia."
Hezbollah has actually gained credibility in the region: "Hezbollah is the current darling of everybody in the Middle East," Bearden says, "mainly because of what they've accomplished by not being destroyed."
"I don't think anyone really believes you can remove Hezbollah through bombing," says the source close to Hezbollah. "It's an organization that is part of the Shia society. In fact, there will be Hezbollahs sprouting up all over the world after this. Groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are bridging that divide and it's showing how vulnerable many of the Arab governments are."
And though they've shown their vulnerability in this conflict, Bearden believes Arab governments have also found an "out" from the pressure from the West to democratize — since the U.S., to them, no longer seems like an honest broker after its response to Hamas' and Hezbollah's election victories in the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon.
"The concept of a tsunami of democracy (in the Middle East) is done for," Bearden says.
Iran has probably benefited the most from the conflict, analysts say, but Syria has also come out ahead.
"The only country that has given effective assistance and shelter to the Lebanese are the Syrians," says the source close to Hezbollah. "They've opened their borders and they are feeding and housing the people that have crossed over. And this isn't just a tactic to score cheap points — there is broad popular support among the people to help. It's not a Syrian government exercise."
Goksel believes Syria has regained what it had lost after it pulled out of Lebanon: influence.
"For Syria it's an opportunity to be needed again, to regain credibility, to be perceived in Lebanon as the friendly brother," he says. But, he adds, "they will not be back here physically."
As a member of Conflicts Forum, a group of former cold warriors who believe the West has to establish a dialogue with fundamentalist Islamic organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah to peacefully resolve crises like this, Bearden says the U.S. missed important opportunities to head off the violence.
"I've been in countless hours of meetings with some of them (Hezbollah) to where I can guarantee you that they would have welcomed a quiet dialogue with the United States," he says. "We don't do our fundamental homework anymore. You've got to empathize with the enemy to the extent to that you don't have a cartoon character that you're fighting, but someone that might be smarter than anybody in your administration."
The failure for the U.S. — or any other nation involved in the conflict — to recognize that will mean more bloodshed on both sides as forces inside and outside Lebanon continue the fight that may ultimately destroy it.
Note: You can read more of the Hot Zone's interview with Milt Bearden here.