Friday, July 21, 2006

The fog of war

Prince Hassan of Jordan, on the radio last weekend described how we are heading into the abyss: Gaza... Lebanon... Iraq... Iran... North Korea... Third World War. It is not the first time he has spoken in these terms. If you prophecy disaster consistently for long enough, you are bound to be right in the end.
 At the time of a previous crisis, I noted the worrying prospect of Israel extending its 'war on terrorism' to Lebanon. Prince Hassan, on BBC Radio 4 on 25 Mar 2004, spoke of the possibility of 'Beirut in rubble' (again). See also Moshe Ya'alon's 'icy warning'. Lebanon was not sucked in then. So why now?

A few weeks ago, there was a sort of armed stand-off between Israel and the Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon, much as there had been for the last six years. Things changed when Palestinian militants emerged from a tunnel into Israel and captured a soldier. Subsequently, Hezbollah captured two more soldiers in a raid into northern Israel.

The captured soldiers Israeli rhetoric talks about them being 'hostages kidnapped by terrorists'. But many regard them as legitimate targets and prisoners of war. Their capture was an act of war (that can be qualified in various ways: the war was undeclared; the act was unprovoked).

The Rockets Qassam missiles launched by Hamas were said to be the real reason for Israel's attacks on Gaza. Most comment, though, concludes that these were mainly an irritation. Hezbollah's Katyusha rockets, on the other hand, are now causing Israel real pain.

Hezbollah launched its actions, it could claim, in solidarity with Hamas and the Palestinians in Gaza. Other people claim it acted to further the interests of, or on the instructions of, Iran and Syria. Whichever of these you believe, Israel's actions in Gaza gave Hezbollah their pretext.

Iran The election of the new President last year could have been a turning point, though people say he is not the ultimate power in Iran. But Ahmedinejad's rhetoric has undoubtedly contributed to the worsening atmosphere.

Many have looked with suspicion on the timing of Hezbollah's attack. Iran was due to meet on Thursday 13 Jul with the 6 major powers (EU3, US, Russia, China) in Paris. Attention was drawn away from this meeting, where Iran's nuclear programme was to have been discussed. (Ali Larijani made a stopover in Damascus on his way back from Europe - FT 15 Jul.) But Iranian representatives were reported at the weekend (15-16 Jul) to have described the 6 powers' proposals as satisfactory. Furthermore, it is unclear whether Hezbollah could capture Israeli soldiers whenever they wanted to, not to mention whether Iran and Syria have such a close operational control over them.

Israeli spokesmen claim that they withdrew in 2000 'from the last inch' of Lebanese territory. But this is disputed: 'Hezbollah, with broad Lebanese political support, says the Shebaa Farms area is occupied Lebanese territory - but Israel, backed by the UN, says the farms are on the Syrian side of the border and so are part of the Golan Heights...' Another outstanding issue is the Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails. I am not sure what the exact status of these is.

Escalating violence On Wednesday 12 Jul, as well as capturing the two soldiers, Hezbollah launched Katyusha rockets, targeting the town of Shlomi and outposts in the Shebaa Farms area. The town had been targeted before. Israel responded with airstrikes. Hezbollah responded by launching Katyusha rockets deeper into Israel.

As I said myself, Israel's attacks in Gaza can well be described as disproportionate. It is harder to make the case for this regarding the attacks on Hezbollah (though things like attacking Beirut International Airport can be criticized): Israel can claim it is acting in legitimate self-defence. Hezbollah's actions have given Israel a pretext, to attempt to demolish their infrastructure in Lebanon.

Jim Muir on the BBC, 19 Jul, said that Israel's military operations did not seem to be being successful, since two Israelis had been killed and only one from Hezbollah. But it's not a football match: attackers usually take more casualties than defenders; that doesn't mean they aren't achieving their objectives. Whether Israel's actions will achieve its objectives in the long run is another question.

I don't claim to have covered all the issues here. As the title of the post may suggest, I've tried to pick out some of the themes  from a confused situation. I've also highlighted a couple of things from the past. More to follow hopefully. More views: belgraviadispatchdoves_eyeJoshua Landis/syriablog.

Update: Channel 4 News reported last night the remarks of Christopher Hill, Assistant Secretary of State, to a Senate Committee,  that Iranian representatives were present at North Korea's missile test.  A few hours later, the State Department withdrew the claims, saying that Mr Hill had "misspoke", according to the  BBC WS.  (This seems to have disappeared from the online world; I looked on Google, the BBC, NYT websites.  State had this;  no mention of Iran - "That concludes my remarks, Mr. Chairman, and I look forward to your questions"; see on the Foreign Relations Committee website - the link at the top seems to be to an audio.)  What are we to make of this?  My guess is that the first version is the true one;  Mr Hill is the negotiator on North Korea;  but the people looking after the Iranian side withdrew the remark because of "sensitivities".  This could be good news or bad news.

Update 2: Worth listening to: BBC (R4) this morning (their security correspondent pointed out that the number of rockets fired has fallen from140 to 50);  Bernard Kouchner on France Inter. The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury have weighed into the debate.

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