Escalation in the Middle East 16.7.2006

Escalation in he Middle East

Today, Singapore, 16/07/2006

 The conflagration that broke out last Wednesday, in the wake of Hizbollah’s attack across Israel’s internationally recognized border with Lebanon, has now been escalated by both Hizbollah and Israel and, unless quickly contained by skillful statesmanship and restraint, still has the potential to become another Middle East war involving multiple participants with far-ranging implications.

 It is reasonable to assume that Hizbollah’s fairly soft-spoken Hasan Nasrallah did not quite believe that Israel would lash out with the force it has. All he wanted to do was catch a ride on Israel’s bloody exchange with the Palestinians in Gaza and, by abducting two Israeli soldiers, obtain the means to help release Hizbollah and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. His expression of support for Palestine to regain some of the relevance the movement has lost since Israel’s withdrawal form Lebanon in 2000, may now become the movements undoing. Since the present exchange started, the Israel Air Force has been obliterating Hizbollah’s bases in Southern Lebanon with fearsome accuracy.This in addition to hitting transportation and other civilian infrastructure in Lebanon to make operations difficult for Hizbollah and drive home to a shell-shocked Lebanese government that Israel holds it responsible for Hizbollah’s attack across its border. Israel is also enforcing an air and sea embargo on Lebanon putting considerable pressure on Beirut, a tourist destination which until a few days ago, was bustling with thousands of tourists from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States .  With Beirut’s airport out of service thanks to a bombed runway, these are now trying to get home via the Beirut-Damascus highway which also has been bombed to prevent reinforcements reaching Hizbollah from Syria.

 Syria which has been supporting Hizbollah for many years and has been the conduit for thousands of Iranian rockets many of which are now hitting the North of Israel, has made only minor statements. President Bashar Assad realizes that any false move could bring Israel’s wrath down on Damascus putting an end to his regime which has been a serial trouble maker, a member of the axis of evil and a thorn in the side of the Bush administration who suspects Syrian collusion with the insurgency in Iraq, just one close border away. Being in such a sensitive position, Assad must know that whatever he does or says, may just be misinterpreted and cost him his job and country.

 Iran, probably having been aware of Hizbollah’s intentions beforehand, is also uncharacteristically restrained and, beyond promising Lebanon money to repair the damage inflicted, has limited itself to warning Israel against drawing Syria into the fray suggesting that this could ignite an Islamic front against Israel. While President Ahmadinejad’s warning may be over the top, it should not be ignored by Israeli decision makers when contemplating further moves.

 Interestingly enough, a weekend emergency meeting of Arab League Foreign Ministers in Cairo couldn’t come to an agreement, being stymied by Syria, Yemen and Sudan who were unwilling to agree with the moderates lead by Saudi Arabia who wanted to wrap Hizbollah’s knuckles for starting this mess.

 On Thursday night two Katyusha missiles hit Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, causing only minor damage. Originally, Hizbollah had declared that any Israeli attacks on the city of Beirut would result in retaliation on Haifa, a heavily industrialized city with many high-value targets. Hizbollah was quick to announce that it was not behind the launch. This disavowal, hardly true, may be an indication of the severe pressure the movement is under but it did not prevent Israel from bombing Hizbollah’s compound in Beirut Friday morning and again on Saturday. Since then there have been more than one hundred missile launches against Israeli towns in the vicinity of the Lebanese border and on Sunday morning came a full scale attack against Haifa causing damage and casualties. The missiles were of Syrian provenance which should put some sweat on Bashar Assad’s forehead who would like to stay out of what appears to become a losing proposition for HIzbollah.

 The conflict is now settling into a steady-state exchange of bombs and missiles and for the time being it appears that Israel is withholding ground operations in Lebanon. Having learned a hard lesson from its 18 year occupation of Southern Lebanon, Israel is not quick to introduce ground forces, trying to achieve its military goals through accurate engagements from the air.

 Israel’s military moves are the outcome of two major operational failures by the army which have forced a new government, for a change run by civilians, into defining strategic aims in the middle of fighting. In the present leadership constellation there is a danger that the army, trying to make up for its failures, will try to overreach and impose on PM Olmert and his hapless Minister of Defence, dovish Amir Peretz, moves that may further escalate the situation. While the declared aim of getting Hizbollah away from the border and finally get Lebanon to implement UN resolution 1559 and establish its authority in South Lebanon, is worthy and justified, achieving it through military means only may just not be feasible. Lebanon’s call for a cease fire has, until now, not met with Israel’s approval but European mediation is continuing.

 What luckily may put a damper on military escalation by both sides, is the considerable economical fallout which is making itself felt not only in Lebanon’s tourist industry, but also in Israel. Not only have popular tourist spots in the north of the country been deserted but the Tel-Aviv stock market, fortuitously closed over the weekend after losing about 10 Billion USD in value. While the Israeli economy is strong and the budget has some slack left, the fact that Israel’s economic leadership is met on Friday to spread calming messages, gives rise for concern. The world economy is also showing signs of nervousness with oil prices zooming and stocks markets dropping.

 In the mean time, Israel’s abducted soldiers have all but disappeared from the headlines and the Palestinians in Gaza continue to suffer and launch missiles. The Middle East, always simmering, is on the verge of boiling and the US administration, diplomatically challenged the world over as rarely before, appears uniterested. Europe seems to be on vacation and the UN is, well, the UN. If this will be left for Israel and Hizbollah to work out between each other, chances are that further escalation may be in the cards with possibly grave consequences. The international community better get their act together and quickly, too much is at stake here.

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