Since the start of the current Middle East crisis,
analysts have been trying to figure out who is responsible for this mess. Who
made the crucial decisions that triggered the fighting between the Israeli military
and the Hezbollah guerrillas, which has resulted in death of many Israeli and
Lebanese civilians and the destruction of villages and urban centers in both
And why were these decisions made in the first place? Or to put it in more
stark terms: Cui bono? Who benefits from what seems to be, to anyone
watching the horrifying images on television, an unwinnable war as well as a
major humanitarian crisis?
Some observers have speculated that the Iranians and Syrians who have
been the main sources of financial and military assistance to Hezbollah
encouraged the Lebanese-Shi'ite militia to kidnap two Israeli soldiers, a move
that led to Israeli military retaliation and ignited the round of violence we
are witnessing now.
Motive and Opportunity
Underlying this theory are the two basic elements
in any prosecutor's charges against an accused: motive and opportunity. The
argument goes as follows: Iran's leaders were facing pressure from the United
States and its allies including a possible threat of sanctions by the
UN Security Council to end the government's alleged nuclear military
Thus, Iran decided to use its proxy, Hezbollah, to deliver a blow to America's
proxy, Israel, in hopes that an ensuing regional crisis would shift attention
from the nuclear crisis.
Similarly, Syria's Bashar al-Assad forced
by the Americans and the French to withdraw from Lebanon and being isolated
diplomatically by Washington was trying to strengthen his government's
position in the Levant through Hezbollah's actions.
In the final analysis, the ayatollahs in Tehran and the Ba'athists in Damascus
could have benefited from the crisis since it would have demonstrated to the
Americans that trying to isolate them would be costly and that the Iranians
and Syrians would have no choice but to engage them in order to contain further
instability in the region.
Mirror-imaging this speculation is the suggestion that both Israel and its
patron the United States had hoped to use this crisis to destroy Hezbollah as
a viable military force. As a result, they would not only deal a blow to Hezbollah's
patrons, Iran and Syria, but also strengthen the power of the democratically
elected and pro-Western government in Beirut.
Bush's Green Light
Analysts who advance this line of reasoning suggest
that U.S. President George W. Bush had given a "green light" to Israel
to launch its fierce military campaign, noting that the Americans rushed a delivery
of precision-guided bombs to Israel to help it destroy Hezbollah targets in
And in any case, how can one explain the Israeli decision to respond to the
kidnapping of its soldiers by using military force (instead of negotiating for
their release, as it had done in the past) if not by concluding that the crucial
move has a larger strategic objective favored by Washington and Jerusalem: wiping
out Hezbollah and weakening Iran and Syria?
We May Never Know
The above speculations are all, well, speculations.
And, as the cliché goes, we may never know what really happened. After
all, historians are still trying to figure out who was really responsible for
the start of World War I, which ended up transforming the political map of Europe,
just as they continue to debate crucial decisions made during World War II,
the Vietnam War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It is quite possible that much of what has happened was the product of a bunch
of leaders "muddling though," as each responded to the other's move
without having a coherent long-term strategy.
Perhaps all that Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, wanted was to exchange
the kidnapped Israeli soldiers for Hezbollah members who are jailed in Israel.
It is also possible that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expected that a
limited air campaign would force Hezbollah to release the Israeli soldiers.
Nasrallah may have calculated that Olmert
who, unlike his predecessor Ariel Sharon, had limited military experience
would hesitate to use military force against the guerillas. Or perhaps Olmert
was concerned that that was Nasrallah's line of thinking and wanted to demonstrate
to the Hezbollah leader that he was wrong.
But one thing is becoming clear: There will not be any major winners coming
out of the latest bloody conflict in the Middle East. Notwithstanding the "narratives"
each side will try to spin as a way of demonstrating that it "won,"
the real question will be, "Who lost more?"
No Winners, Only Losers
From that perspective, there is little doubt that
the tiny country of Lebanon will probably be regarded as the biggest loser.
Lebanon had just gone through its celebrated Cedar Revolution, getting Syria
to withdraw its troops from the country. This was followed by open democratic
parliamentary elections in May and June 2005, and the gradual strengthening
of its economy.
Now, almost literally overnight, the country has now been transformed into
a basket case. Its two major economic sectors tourism and commerce
have been completely destroyed. Lebanon's best-case scenario: A long process
of economic rebuilding and political reconciliation involving the disarming
Worst-case scenario: The country collapses into another long and bloody civil
war that helps Hezbollah gain more power.
Even if Israel succeeds in destroying Hezbollah's
military infrastructure in southern Lebanon, it will likely find itself in a
more vulnerable position in the Middle East. Not only will it be confronting
a more hostile Arab world, but its failure to win the military confrontation
with Hezbollah in a swift manner remember, this is the nation that once
defeated the Arab armies in six days in 1967 is bound to raise major
questions about its ability to deter future challenges from the region's other
nations and non-state groups.
U.S. leaders are also likely to begin questioning their long-held axiom that
Israel is a "strategic asset" of the United States in the Middle East.
Some would argue that it has proved to be more of a "burden" for U.S.
interests this time.
Short-Term Gains, Long-Term Losses
Hezbollah may have gained some short-term benefits
from the crisis as Arabs and Muslims hail its success in standing up to mighty
Israel. But the Lebanese-Shi'ite militia will be blamed by many Lebanese for
the destruction of their country, a sentiment that could increase pressure on
Hezbollah to disarm.
A refusal by Hezbollah to do that could lead to a new Lebanese civil war in
which the organization could find itself isolated and unable to count on outside
aid. If anything, Hezbollah could prove to be the weakest link in a "Shi'ite
crescent" led by Iran and backed by a Shi'ite-led Iraq.
From the U.S. perspective, the crisis marked the final collapse of President
Bush's ambitious plan to remake and "democratize" the Middle East.
Bush's policies have created the conditions for strengthening the influence
of radical Arab-Sunni forces (Hamas in Palestine) and Arab-Shi'ite forces (in
Threat of Civil Wars
Now both Iraq and Lebanon are facing the prospect
of civil wars, and there is no end in sight to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
in the Holy Land. U.S. support for Israel during this war has helped to further
tarnish its image among Arabs and Muslims.
And contrary to earlier expectations, it is not clear that Iran and Syria have
strengthened their bargaining power vis-à-vis Washington as a result
of this crisis. The attacks by Hezbollah on civilian centers in Israel will
probably only fuel Western concerns about Iran's nuclear military capability.
(If Hezbollah was able to inflict so much damage using primitive Katyusha rockets,
imagine the damage a nuclear Iran could do.)
Reassessing Strategic Ties
It is not inconceivable that Washington and its
allies will try now to "detach" Syria from Iran and co-opt it into
the pro-Western camp. But it is very unlikely that the United States will be
willing to press Israel to return the occupied Golan Heights as part of an Israeli-Syrian
peace accord (and there is no sign that Israel would make such a move on its
The only possible good news resulting from the crisis has to do with the bad
news. The rising influence of the radical forces in the Middle East could create
incentives for the more moderate elements in the Arab world and Israel to step
up the efforts toward accommodation and help revive the Israeli-Palestinian
peace process. But don't hold your breath.
Originally published on the Executive Channel of TheGlobalist.com.