Wednesday, May 24, 2000

Leaving Lebanon

Precis: Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon does not signify a change in policy or in heart, but only a strategic shift. Israel now insists that Syria police the border for her or pay dire consequences. The United States, still peeved at Assad’s obstinacy at the recent Geneva summit, is helping Israel put pressure on Damascus.
No Cause for Rejoicing
Since progressive public opinion has been insisting for years that Israel withdraw from Lebanon unconditionally, some might argue that we are duty bound to complement Barak on his ‘brave’ step. Sections of the dove community indeed believe that Barak has finally, at least in one matter, done their bidding. It would be nice if things were so simple. Unfortunately, Israel’s decision to leave Lebanon does not auger any genuine change in the thinking of the political-military leadership Our refusal to rejoice stems from the simple fact that the Israeli withdrawal is accompanied by a series of threats that might ignite a full-scale war. These threats are part and parcel of a new, different and even more dangerous Israeli strategy. Israel found it politically and morally disastrous to fight a protracted land war against a guerrilla army in Southern Lebanon. This war had already resulted in hundreds of dead and wounded Israeli soldiers. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) was unable to bring its superior military technology and fire power into play. Soldiers died and were seriously wounded every week in a largely unsuccessful attempt to maintain control on the ground necessary to equip its forces and maintain its lines of supply. Modern western-style bourgeois democracies have somehow learned a lesson that it is imperative to stay out of this kind of confrontation, whenever possible. Instead, of the old artillery-infantry game, the latest doctrine suggests a military strategy based on air power and smart bombs.
Barak and the Israeli military establishment were far from having admitted defeat and the argument in the establishment and the media about the IDF presence in Lebanon was entirely tactical. Assuming tension and dangers along the border, is it better to defend the border by the so called security zone carved out of Lebanese territory, or is it better, considering the complications rising from the successful resistance to the occupation, to move back behind the border? The border, then, is to be ‘protected’ by military deterrence, and, if necessary, large scale bombing operations.
Before managing to leave Lebanon, the Barak administration did suffer a tremendous blow to its prestige and its deterrent capacity by hanging on to their illusions that the puppet SLA would survive an Israeli withdrawal. Barak and the IDF had hoped the SLA would use their weapons to negotiate some sort of lenience on the part of the Lebanese authorities. Instead, the SLA fell apart, forcing the IDF to leave ahead of schedule. The IDF military withdrawal was orderly, but its ally left in panic and total disorientation. Propaganda wise, it was a tremendous victory for the Hizballah. 1The Real Test
Unable to fight a land war, Barak has thrown the responsibility for the security along its northern border on Lebanon and Syria. The official Israeli view is that Lebanon is under de facto Syrian control. Should the Syrians fail to perform as demanded, they will be bombed. The rational for this kind of strategic planning is that if the Syrians really wanted to disarm the Hizballah, or any other potential threats to Israel they could do this.
Barak has justified the withdrawal by promising that any infringement of Israeli interests in the border region will be met with large-scale retaliation. . Even if we assume, that the IDF will act with angelic restraint regarding border tensions, incidents of various levels of gravity are so probable as to be almost inevitable. One could compose tens of scenarios that would spawn tension and armed confrontation by individuals and groups. For example, any minor action by any one of the many break away Lebanese splinter groups that have grown and developed precisely on the background of twenty five years of Israeli intervention in the internal affairs of Lebanon could serve as an excuse for a major Israeli operation. Given the near inevitability of further tensions and clashes on the border, Barak has used the withdrawal to issue himself a carte blanc to attack Lebanon and Syria. Barak has emphasized that he is not talking about retaliating against the local perpetrators of any small-scale violation of quiet along the border. Israel will hold Syria and Lebanon responsible for any disturbance in the border region. If they refuse to see themselves responsible for absolute quiet along Israel’s northern border, then Israel’s superior air power and the smart bombs will be activated to convince the Syrians that they are being derelict in their duty.
Thus, the Israeli withdrawal has been accompanied by the announcement of a clear, definite, new strategic doctrine. Israel will hold Syria responsible for absolute calm and quiet along its northern border. If Syria refuses this assignment or fails to fulfill it to Israeli satisfaction, then Israel will consider this a causa bella. The Israelis are claiming, with some degree of justification, that they have mobilized important international backing for their new strategic doctrine. Israel and the U.S. refuse that they must pay a price for its long-standing support for the SLA and very existence of the Israeli security zone. The zone was an essential element in Israel’s ambition to dictate policy to Beirut. This policy decimated Lebanese sovereignty and developed local forces that must be respected and heard if stability is to be restored to the region. No power play or strategic doctrine can fill the vacuum in Southern Lebanon. The sufferings, needs and aspirations of all the population of Southern Lebanon must be addressed. There must be international commitment to economic reconstruction and full respect for political importance of all the groups including the Hizballah. This is what is needed and not a new strategic doctrine that can ignite a new war in the region.

Why Must Syria Be Punished?
The accounts that we have of the failure of the Clinton-Assad summit raise more questions than they answer. We are asked to accept the following version:Clinton informed Assad that Barak is ready to withdraw to the June 1967 borders, except for a small stretch of footage on the north-eastern shores of the Lake of Galilee. Assad refused anything less than a full retreat. Barak refused to give in on his demand that the Syrians forego the pleasure of wading in the blue waters of the lake. Nobody has given any explanation of how Clinton was conned into a meeting with Assad without assuring that it would not end in a fiasco of mutual recrimination.
But the sloppy staff work by the White House staff, an interesting matter in itself, is not the main issue. Clinton, and this is quite certain, would not have agreed to meet with Assad unless all the other questions aside from the border question had been worked out in a compromise satisfactory to both sides. Why did Clinton decide to try and pressure precisely Assad, and not Barak, on the last outstanding issue of contention blocking a full peace agreement between Syria and Israel? Since the fiasco at Geneva, news reports have cited any number of possible compromises regarding the lakeshore frontage. Israel claims it cannot bend on the issue because this would endanger its water supply. However, the water issue was fully negotiated and solved to the satisfaction of all sides in a separate section of the agreement in the making. Barak, it appears was ready to convince the Israeli public that it was worth its while to make peace despite the loss of strategic advantage by ceding the Golan Heights. The strategically insignificant return of the Syrian to a few hundred meters of lakeshore would not have caused Barak any major problems. Of course, as it turns out, he did find it convenient to dig in his heels on the issue.
It is almost inconceivable that we are facing war between Israel and Syria instead of rejoicing in peace because of 150 meters of non-strategic property along the shore of the Kinneret. I find it hard to believe that this was the real reason for the breakdown, despite the fact that we do not have any other reliable information. I find it much more reasonable to try and fill in the picture by what we are seeing in the looming new round of Israeli-Syrian confrontation. The United States and Israel have decided to demand Syrian aid, assistance and cooperation in Lebanon as a precondition for any serious discussion of Syrian demands for the recognition of its own territorial integrity. In diplomatic terms, one might say that Syria must agree that its final acceptance to the U.S. alignment in the region, a process that began during the 1991 Gulf War, depends on its willingness to recognize Israel’s special, superior status in the region. Syria’s willingness to understand the facts of life will be measured by its role in establishing a new, stable situation in Southern.
Barak might succeed in convincing the U.S. to go along with its new plans.But Barak will find it more difficult to drag the U.S. with him into a new Middle East adventure. Right now, all the powers that be in the region are hurrying to reorganize Southern Lebanon. For the moment, Humpty-Dumpty is sitting on the wall.