November 9, 2009

COIN 101

Another war between Israel and Hezbollah had become a question of when, not if, before the latest Guardian report from Lebanon. According to one Hezbollah commander, the group expects an Israeli attack within the next year and is preparing accordingly.

Though Hezbollah frequently, and falsely, warns of invasion and would fortify its territory regardless of the odds of war, the motion towards battle is shaking the region. Record US-Israel war games, record arms seizure, Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon admitting to spying, Lebanese allegations of sabotage - peace is in the other direction.

Instead of ending conflict, the Litani River only altered its landscape. Hezbollah’s armory is no secret. Said the Hezbollah official, “Sure, we are rearming, we have even said that we have far more rockets and missiles than we did in 2006.”

According to Ronen Bergman
, author of Israel’s Secret War with Iran, Hezbollah's 40,000 rockets include Iranian-made Zelzal (range 130mi), Fajr-3, Fajr-5 (range 50mi), and 122 mm rockets (with cluster warheads) and Syrian-made 302 mm rockets. Being pushed back 20 miles from the Israeli border merely forced Hezbollah to increase the range of its missiles. Rockets also remain a deterrent more than a tactical weapon.

Rather than painting over the lines of combat, the Litani river buffer zone redrew them. While the days of reinforcing the Israeli border with arms caches, tunnels, and bunkers are over, Hezbollah maintains a presence throughout southern Lebanon. Individual villages are being “hardened” as the first line of defense and its fighters still inhabit the hills.

"We had to blow up or leave some of our bunkers and fighting positions, but we still have plenty of capabilities in the south,” said the Hezbollah commander.

But the real line of control is being established on the Litani’s northern banks, where Hezbollah is securing the entrances to Beirut and the strategic Beqaa Valley. Lebanon’s dominant agricultural region happens to house opium farms, Hezbollah training camps, and “fallout” shelters - locations considered outside of Israel’s range.

Believing that Israel realizes the southern Litani is mainly a distraction and will aim for the valley, Hezbollah's backbone, the group is busy fortifying the entire region. “We expect the Israelis to come soon," said the commander, if not this winter, then they will wait until spring, when the ground isn't too soft for their tanks."

Militaries must prepare at all times for battle so the latest information isn’t out of the ordinary. A lack of political progress makes the trend extraordinary though, counterinsurgency being equal parts politics and military. Israel and Lebanon haven’t improved relations after 1701, providing the potential spark to piling dynamite.

It's a bad sign when rumors of war are being fueled by Israel's need for a distraction. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems unconcerned with repairing Israel’s aggressive persona, criticizing the UN for not enforcing 1701 and denouncing the Goldstone report while playing the war crimes card in Lebanon.

"It is a war crime that the U.N. Security Council should have a special meeting over," he told reporters in Tel Aviv. "A major component of this shipment were rockets whose only goal was to hit civilians and kill as many civilians as possible — women, children, old people.”

While Israel won't admit that disproportionate force in Gaza or Lebanon targeted the civilian populations, the results indicate a policy of punishing their democratic tendencies. But this strategy hasn’t produced the desired reaction.

Hezbollah didn’t improve its standing in the last election and it shouldn’t have. Hezbollah suffered from high expectations, the decision to hand the entire country to the March 8th bloc being too heavy for independents. Hezbollah did what it needed to do - retain the support it had. After all, it had seen a rough couple of years.

Hezbollah didn’t make the leap, but holding its ground proved that Israeli attacks are futile. Hezbollah stands a greater chance of being defeated on the political battlefield than on the conventional. Israel can't pin down Hezbollah precisely because it forgoes the political for the military. Barring a particularly disastrous error, Hezbollah will never lose its political support among its Shia base, and hence cannot be defeated militarily.

The relative impunity Hezbollah still operates under is explained partly by its popular power and partly by Lebanese president Michel Suleiman, who, in Israel’s mind, has gone soft on the group. Suleiman sided with Hezbollah multiple times in the sense that he condemns Israeli aggression - espionage, warplanes, drones, naval routes, land disputes.

Given that both Suleiman and Hezbollah are concerned of an Israeli assault, the possibility likely factored into speeding up formation of Lebanon’s parliament. Hezbollah has ten seats in Lebanon’s parliament no matter what Israel does on the battlefield, successfully transitioning into the political stage of guerrilla warfare.

The most logical means to disarm Hezbollah is locked inside Lebanese politics. Hezbollah’s arms are a major point of contention in Lebanese negotiations and though unrealistic, Nasrallah is more likely to give his soldiers and arms to the Lebanese army than the UN.

Israel can claim Hezbollah is to blame for everything and that if it simply disarms, there would be no war. But until Israel improves the political facet of its counterinsurgency, Hezbollah will remain entrenched, loaded, and waiting.

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