The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University has just sent me the latest edition of their “Strategic Assessment” quarterly. It contains the usual mix of good-sense realism with ideologized chauvinism that most SA editions have: maybe the mix here is about 75:25.
I was particularly interested in the two pieces on the 33-day war of 2006 (which the Israelis call “the Second Lebanon War”, conveniently forgetting the two significant engagements of 1993 and 1996 in their numbering system there.) I was reading these as a follow-up to the INSS’s book on the Second Lebanon War, which I referred to a little here, a couple of weeks ago.
The first of these pieces is by Daniel Sobelman, whom I’ve generally considered to be a fairly sober analyst. He’s looking primarily at the changes that the 33-day war (33-DW) brought about in Hizbullah’s political status within Lebanon. A crucial topic.
He starts off by, in my judgment, mis-stating something rather serious. He writes,
Several events converged to bring twenty-nine years of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon to a finale: the string of political assassinations, the withdrawal of the Syrian military from Lebanese soil, and of course the Second Lebanon War.
I would say, instead, that the 33-DW helped to shore up a level of Syrian influence within Lebanon that prior to July 12 was at a much lower ebb than it was after August 14, 2006. And that, overwhelmingly because of the humiliation that Siniora and the rest of the determinedly anti-Syrian “March 14 forces” experienced within Lebanon during the war.
Though a serious misjudgment, that line of argument did not turn out to be the central thrust of the piece, which was more on Hizbullah’s political fortunes within Lebanon, rather than Syria’s. (And the two notably do not track exactly with each other other, though they do influence each other.)
Sobelman starts off with an interesting argument, noting that the (staunchly anti-Hizbullah) Lebanese daily An-Nahar now publishes a number of news reports that Hizbullah “undoubtedly views as sensitive from a security perspective”, and that this “reflects the profound change that has altered the country’s political climate and the rules of the game within Lebanon to the disadvantage of Hizbollah.” This is an interesting use of evidence, though it’s quite possible it doesn’t tell the whole story.
He notes, in my view correctly, that,
public opinion in Israel seems focused on the military aspects of the Israeli campaign against Hizbollah… But today the outcome of the war must be measured not simply by the number of rockets that Hizbollah succeeded in firing into Israel for thirty-three days, or the organization’s success in rehabilitating its military capacity…
He then continues to make clear that it is the political outcome, as measured primarily by Hizbullah’s status within Lebanon’s society and polity, that is the crucial metric.
The goal of Olmert and Halutz when they launched the 33-DW was, we can recall, to destroy Hizbullah both militarily and also, if possible, politically, within Lebanon. As Sobelman readily concedes, they did not succeed in the military part of this. But I think he over-states the degree to which they succeeded in the political part.
In interviews granted after the two previous campaigns against Israel – “Operation Accountability” in July 1993 and “Operation Grapes of Wrath” in April 1996 – Hassan Nasrallah indicated that he measured success primarily according to Hizbollah’s ability to continue firing rockets into Israel until the end of the campaign; the success, as he saw it, in dictating the rules of the confrontation to the IDF; and the success in preventing Israel from driving a wedge between Hizbollah and the Lebanese public. From Hizbollah’s perspective and according to these parameters, the organization defeated Israel. However, in contrast to 1993 and 1996, the ceasefire of August 14, 2006 left Hizbollah much less protected than in the past. Neither Operation Accountability nor Operation Grapes of Wrath unleashed internal processes in Lebanon…
This is correct. The crucial difference was, of course, that by 2006 the Syrians had been out of Lebanon for a year already. (Which is why Sobelman was so wrong in saying in the lede graf that it was the 33-DW itself that diminished the Syrian position in Lebanon.)
So then, in December of 2006, Hizbullah and its allies from the Free Patriotic Movement launched their big street sit-in action against the Siniora government in the heart of downtown. That did not succeed, but neither was it rebuffed. Instead, it led to the political impasse in which the country has been locked ever since (and which I am about to go and experience firsthand.)
Given that the Syrians have not been militarily present in Lebanon at all since July 2005, I think the failure of the March 14 forces to impose the rest of their agenda on Lebanon– that is, its Hizbullah-disarmament part– indicates that Hizbullah did not “lose” the 33-DW at the political level in anything like as clearcut a way as Sobelman suggests.
In many other respects, though, Sobelman presents what seems like a fair and sober assessment of the balance inside Lebanon. He notes,
While declaring that Hizbollah possesses weapons that could decide the outcome of the next war, Nasrallah made sure to point out that his statement was actually intended to prevent war. Hizbollah, which needs significant additional time to recover from the last war and rebuild the homes of its constituencies, has reached the conclusion that it should lower its profile with regard to the armed struggle against Israel.
Much depends on regional developments. [Under-statement of the year, that! ~HC] … In any case, in recent years Hizbollah has proven that it can adapt to changing conditions, even when this has meant somewhat tempering its ideology. Today Hizbollah is again checking its limits and, as always, remaking itself. The results of this process will be determined to a great extent by the solution to the current crisis in Lebanon.
The second article in SA on Lebanon is by Amir Kulick, an analyst I haven’t encountered before. His piece is titaled The Next War with Hizbullah. I find that an intriguing subject, because I am always interested in how military planners, and strategic analysts outside of the military, learn from their experiences during war. And Kulick gives us an example of such learning which, if it is broadly replicated within the relevant government circles in Israel, foretells a much more aggressive and destructive Israeli campaign next time.
First, then, we have his assessment of Hizbullah’s military performance during the war:
It is clear that Hizbollah’s balance statement at the end of the fighting was mixed. Politically, despite its efforts to portray the campaign as a “divine victory,” the organization incurred severe criticism at home. Furthermore, much of its military infrastructure was damaged….
On the other hand, the organization can claim success for its operational doctrine. Its forces inflicted many losses on the IDF in local combat, and above all, Hizbollah never ceased its bombardment of the Israeli home front, even in the face of massive air activity. The organization’s logistical forecasts also proved correct, given its success in preserving a large inventory of ammunition, thereby enabling Hizbollah soldiers to hit Israel with large numbers of rockets during every stage of the fighting (an average of 150-200 rockets per day were fired). From the organization’s perspective, these actions both brought about an end to the fighting and severely shook the “Zionist entity.” From this vantage, the operational balance was positive.
At the same time, a number of weak points in Hizbollah’s operational preparations surfaced…
Kulick then looks at the changes that he believes Hizbullah’s military has made in order to (a) correct deficiencies it identified during the 33-DW, and (b) deal with the new constraints placed on its freedom of action by UNIFIL’s broader deployment within Lebanon and other present realities– though his judgment is that “the deployment of Lebanese and UNIFIL forces in southern Lebanon has had relatively little effect on Hizbollah’s military deployment and recovery of its military capabilities.”
Kulick does, certainly, give Hizbullah the credit of being a smart, learning organization. (As does Sobelman.) He also concedes that it, “in effect represents most Shiites in Lebanon” and that this “gives it a reliable political and social base, beyond the purely military sphere.”
He predicts that Israel’s
next campaign with Hizbollah is expected to resemble the previous one to some degree: missile bombardment of the Israeli home front, a heavy Israeli air response, and possibly a more extensive [Israeli] ground operation than in the past.
Personally, I am not so sure of that. In my estimation, Hizbullah’s leaders are inventive and their organization strong and disciplined. They might do something very different indeed– including, refusing to play to Israel’s military strengths by refusing to fight militarily at all… Who knows?
Anyway, Kulick evidently has high hopes in the IDF being a learning organization, too; and he lays out how he believes the IDF can innovate in all the key dimensions of warfare, in the “next” war against Hizbullah. This is where his article becomes very scary indeed….
Okay, I just made and uploaded a table in which I compiled the operational prescriptions Kulick listed at the end of his article, and my comments on those prescriptions. So you’ll need to go and read them there.
I confess, that before I examined them closely, I found these prescriptions to be– as I noted above– “scary.” But on closer examination they look highly unrealistic. They suffer from these key shortcomings:
1. Above all, Kulick fails to define the political-strategic end-state that the war he describes– which in his view, should include the insertion of sizeable ground forces into Lebanon, as well as stand-off actions– should aim at. But surely, what the past five years have shown us is that, if countries do indeed intend to use forces overseas, then the key stricture of the Powell Doctrine regarding the necessity of having an Exit Strategy is more important than ever. Kulick says nothing about this! All he seems intent on is suppressing or destroying Hizbullah’s military capacity completely. Okay… but then what??
2. Also, as subsidiary point to this, if the IDF has been successful in– as Kulick urges– identifying and “neutralizing” (i.e., in IDF parlance, killing and destroying) Hizbullah’s command and control structures, then how does the termination of the conflict get negotiated? An even worse form of quagmire looms herein.
3. Finally, Kulick’s plan requires the IDF to raise and maintain sizeable and very capable ground forces as well as, presumably, doing everything else it has been doing in past years: maintaining up-to-the minute air superiority, building a nuclear-armed navy, spending millions of person-hours running the movement control system in the West Bank, terrorizing Gaza, etc etc. Where will it find the recruits/reservists willing to sustain this kind of commitment? There was a reason the ground forces performed so poorly in the 33-DW. Mainly, it was because they hadn’t done any serious operational training for many years. Kulisk’s plan would require Israel to revert once again to being a highly militarized helot state carrying a huge manpower burden in its military. Do Israelis want that? How many years (or decades) would this have to continue? And why should Israelis even consider doing this, if the outcome is– wait for it!– yet another lengthy and debilitating quagmire in Lebanon like the one that followed the 1982 invasion??
Well, I hope I’ve made my point there…
My larger point is that my reading of all these recent INSS materials has confirmed and strengthened my judgment that the 2006 chapter of the IDF’s decades-long saga of experience in Lebanon has now proved that, in that theater, military force alone is less capable than ever of bringing about politico-strategic achievements of any lasting value.
There has to be a better way in which Israel can deal with the threats its people face from across their northern border. And guess what, there is! It is called “a comprehensive negotiated resolution of all the remaining strands of Israel’s longstanding conflict with its Arab neighbors.” (As I urged most recently, in this CSM contribution.)
And yes, that certainly includes a final peace agreement with both Syria and Lebanon, as well as the Palestinians.
The Syrians are certainly eager to resume the negotiations for such an agreement; and I am just about certain that once Syria is engaged in this way, all the Lebanese parties– including Hizbullah— will follow along in its slipstream.
The Syrians went to Annapolis in November 2007. Before that, they engaged in serious and ultimately very constructive negotiations with Israel in 1991-96, which came close to reaching a final agreement in January 1996.
So why doesn’t Olmert seize the opportunity to re-engage with them now? And why do Israelis in general still engage in the delusion that there must somewhere be a “military quick fix” to all their problems with their neighbors? And why does the US government just let Israel maintain this belligerent and anti-humane position towards its neighbors, while the US continues to shovel money and political support into Israel?
I don’t really know the answer to those rhetorical questions. What I do know is that the lessons of the 33-DW– as of the US’s strategic failures in Iraq and Afghanisation– are all well worth studying.