May 31, 2006

Leave Beirut Out of It

Yesterday I wrote “The UN blames Lebanon for starting the latest round of fighting [on the Lebanese/Israeli border], which is dumb.” I am slightly surprised that only two people argued with me in the comments, but I'll explain what I meant here in any case.

If the UN were somehow forced to blame either Lebanon or Israel for the recent clashes on the border, of course Lebanon should be blamed. Shots were fired from that side first. But Lebanon/Israel is a false dichotomy. Hezbollah physically exists within the borders of Lebanon. But Hezbollah's capital is Tehran. Its sidekick capital is Damascus.

Lebanon is a sort-of democracy. It is also, in some ways, a failed state. As recently as 1990 it was the Somalia of the Levant. The government existed in name only. The country was carved into de-facto cantons ruled by local warlords and foreign occupation forces. Most Lebanese militias were disarmed at the start of the 1990s. But Israeli occupation forces remained in the south until 2000. Syrian occupation forces remained until 2005. Hezbollah, forged in Lebanon by Iran during the chaos of war, has yet to be disarmed despite the fact that most Lebanese fear and loathe them. Lebanon is not yet a sovereign country. The Beirut government has no writ in Hezbollah-occupied territory, and the military is not allowed to enter those regions. One of those two regions is the Lebanese/Israeli border. (The other is in the suburbs south of Beirut.)

Lebanon cannot disarm Hezbollah alone. Any attempt to do so will restart the civil war. And Hezbollah would win. It is insanely not in Lebanon's interest to do this.

Hezbollah would win for a host of reasons. They are better armed. They are better trained. They are battle-hardened after slugging it out with the Israeli Defense Forces for years.

Lebanese army soldiers are bored conscripts who receive almost no training. Most would rather drink beer and chase girls than stand around all day at checkpoints and on street corners with machine guns trying to make Lebanon look like it's an orderly place. (It isn't.) The last thing they want to do is shoot at Lebanese and be shot at by Lebanese.

Hezbollah fighters are fanatics who can't wait to die. They are supported by governments far more powerful than the one in Beirut. And they are supported by at least one government that is violently hostile to the one in Beirut.

The UN and the US brokered a ceasefire after Israel threatened to bomb Beirut if Hezbollah's katyusha rocket attacks didn't stop. I have my doubts that Israel would actually bomb Beirut. The IDF officer I spoke to in Israel knew full well that Beirut has no control over Hezbollah. But it's not his decision, and I don't know what his higher-ups know and don't know. If the threat was an empty one designed to bring on a ceasefire, it worked. If Israel actually intended to bomb Beirut, the Middle East might get a lot more dangerous in the near future.

Most Lebanese supported Hezbollah when Israel occupied South Lebanon. They didn't appreciate Israeli occupation any more than they appreciated Syrian occupation. Now that Israel is out, Hezbollah is rightly seen as a throwback to the hated era of war. The quickest way to undo that progress is to make the Lebanese people fear Israel more than they fear Hezbollah and Syria. Neither Israel nor Lebanon would benefit from that scenario. But it would suit Syria and Iran perfectly well.

It isn't fair that Israel has to endure missile attacks because the Beirut government is too weak and divided against itself to take on Hezbollah. It isn't Israel's fault that the Lebanese army is a pipsqueaker compared with better-armed, better-trained, battle-hardened foreign agent militia. But that's how it is. And that's how it will be while the Baathists rule in Damascus and the mullahs rule in Tehran. If Israel must use military force against a foreign capital, rather than against Hezbollah directly and strictly, those are the addresses.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 31, 2006 1:40 AM
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