Since the start of the current Middle East crisis, analysts have been trying to figure out who is responsible for this mess. Who had made the crucial decisions that triggered the fighting between the Israeli military and the Hizbollah guerrillas and that has resulted in death of many Israeli and Lebanese civilians, including children, and the destruction of villages and urban centers in both countries. And why were these decisions made in the first place? Or to put it in more stark terms: Qui Bono? Who benefits from what seems to be to anyone watching the horrifying images on television, an un-winnable war as well as a major humanitarian crisis?
Some observers have speculated the Iranian and Syrians who have been the main source of financial and military assistance to the Hizbollah, have encouraged the Lebanese-Shiite militia to kidnap two Israeli soldiers, a move that led to Israeli military retaliation and ignited the round of violence that we are witnessing now. Underlying this theory is the two basic elements in any prosecutor’s charges against an accused: motive and opportunity.
According to this argument, Iran’s leaders who were facing pressure from the U.S. and its allies to end the government’s alleged nuclear military program, including a possible threat sanctions by the UN Security Council decided to use Iran’s proxy, Hizbollah to deliver a blow to America’s proxy, Israel, had hoped that an ensuing regional crisis would shift attention from the nuclear crisis. Similarly, Syria’s Bashar Assad who was forced by the Americans and the French to withdraw from Lebanon and was being isolated diplomatically by Washington was trying to strengthen his government’s position in the Levant through the forceful Hezbollah’s action. In the final analysis, both Tehran’s Ayatollahs and Damascus’ Baathists could have benefited from the crisis since it would have demonstrated to the Americans that they trying to isolate them was costly and that they have no choice but to engage them if 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 the Hizbollah as a viable military force and as a result not only deal a blow to its patrons, Iran and Syria, but also to strengthen the power of the democratically elected and pro-western government in Beirut. The 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 Hizbollah targets in Lebanon. And in any case, how can one explain Israeli decision to respond to the kidnapping of its soldiers by using military force instead of negotiating its release with the Hizbollah the way 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 Hizbollah and weakening Iran and Syria?
The above speculations are all, well, speculations. And the cliché goes: we may never know what really happened. After all, historians are still trying to figure out who is really responsible for the start of World War I which ended up transforming the political map of Europe, and are continuing to debate the reasons for crucial decisions that were made during World War II and other military conflict and crises in the twentieth century, including the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s doubtful that the main player in the current crisis that has the potential to develop into t WWI-like conformation will reveal how and why they made their decisions.
And it is quite possible that much of what has happened was the product of a bunch of leaders “muddling though,” as each responds to the other’s move without having a coherent long-term strategy. Perhaps all that the Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah wanted was to exchange the kidnapped Israeli soldiers with Lebanese Hizbollah members who are in Israeli jail. It is quite possible that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expected that based on advice from his military, that a limited air campaign would force the Hizbollah to release the Israeli soldiers. Nasrallah may have calculated that Olmert, the new Israeli Prime Minister Olmert who had limited military experience would hesitate to use military force against the guerillas. Or Olmert was concerned that that was indeed Nasrallah’s line of thinking and wanted to demonstrate to the Hizbollah leader that he was wrong. And it is not inconceivable that the respective patrons of Israel and Hizbollah were drawn by their clients into this crisis a la the Tails that Wagged the Dogs.
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 draw as a way of demonstrating that it “won,” the fact is that the only question will be: Who ended up losing more the other. From that perspective, there is little doubt that the tiny country of Lebanon will probably be regarded as the biggest loser. Lebanon who has just gone through its much celebrated Cedar Revolution, getting Syria to withdraw its military troops from the country, followed by the holing open democratic parliamentary elections and the gradual strengthening of its economy, has now been transformed into an basket case, with its two major economic sectors, tourism and commerce, totally destroyed. Best case scenario: A long process of economic rebuilding and political reconciliation that would involve the disarming of Hizbollah. Worst case scenario: The country collapses into another long and bloody civil war that helps Hizbollah establish gain more power.
Even if Israel succeeds in destroying the Hizbollah’s military infrastructure in southern Lebanon, it will find itself in a more vulnerable position in the Middle East. Not only would it find itself confronting a more hostile Arabs world, but its failure to win the military confrontation with Hizbollah in a swift manner – this is the nation with a military that had defeated thee Arab countries in six days in 1967 -- is bound to raise major questions about its ability to deter future challenges to its survival by non-state groups as well as states in the region. American leaders are also going 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 proved to be a “burden” for U.S. interests this time.
Hizbollah may have gained some short-term benefits from the crisis as Arabs and Moslems hail its success in standing up to mighty Israel. But the Lebanese-Shiite militias will be blamed by many Lebanese for the destruction of their country, a sentiment that could increase pressure on the Hizbollah to disarm. A refusal to do that by the militias could lead about a civil war in which the militias could find itself isolated and unable to count on outside aid. If anything, Hizbollah could prove to be the weakest link in a Shiite Crescent led by Iran and backed by a Shiite-led Iraq.
From the American perspective, the crisis marked the final collapse of President Bush’s ambitious plan to remake and “democratize” the Middle East. Bush policies have created the conditions for strengthening of the influence of radical Arab-Sunni (Hamas in Palestine) and Arab-Shiite forces (in Iraq). Now both Iraq and Lebanon are facing the prospect of civil wars and there is no end in sight to the Israelis-Palestinian conflict in the Holy Land. U.S. support for Israel during this war has helped to tarnish further its image among Arabs and Moslems.
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 Hizbollah on civilian centers in Israel will probably only fuel western concerns about Iran’s nuclear military capability along the lines of “If Iran’s ally, Hizbollah was willing and able to inflict so much damage on Israel with the somewhat primitive Katyushas, imagine what Iran would be willing and will be able to do if it had nuclear weapons.” 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 agree on returning the occupied Golan Heights to Israel as part of an Israeli-Syrian peace accord (and there is no sign that Israel would take such a move on its own).
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 towards accommodation and help revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But don’t hold you breath.