Much of the Western commentary on the violence in Lebanon has not been about the events themselves but about the commentators’ feelings about the warring parties. Israel’s staunch friends and apologists would not admit that the IDF has done anything wrong, or that it could do anything wrong, even if the whole of southern Lebanon were turned into a sandbox, and Beirut, into a replica of Dresden. On the other hand, those who dislike Israel have gleefully grabbed the opportunity to vent their feelings under the cover of righteous indignation. In both cases, a multifaceted story with far-reaching geopolitical implications has been reduced to a crude morality play whose lessons are essentially unrelated to the reality on the ground.
That reality is complex but not inscrutable. Lebanon is being destroyed for the second time in three decades, and her ordeal was triggered by external forces acting in pursuit of interests that are different from those of most Lebanese citizens.
In the 1970’s, the Palestine Liberation Organization came to Beirut after being expelled from Amman. It quickly shattered the precarious balance between Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, and Druze and caused a civil war that eventually involved Syria, Israel, and various international peacekeepers. The war soon acquired religious undertones and caused an exodus of Lebanon’s Christians, who have declined from a simple majority before 1975 to perhaps one third of the country’s population today.
After a halting recovery, it appeared that Lebanon was capable of becoming, once again, the commercial, financial, and entertainment center of the Middle East. Downtown Beirut had regained its old charm, while new office towers appeared on its skyline. The remaining Syrian troops departed in early 2005, and the tourists came back. Thousands of expatriates also returned from Western Europe and the Americas, bringing with them many skills essential to a “New Middle East.”
Once again, however, outside forces were determined to use Lebanon as the object of their geopolitical designs. The second round of Lebanon’s destruction began on July 12, when Hezbollah, a Shiite militia inspired, trained, and financed by Iran, staged a series of sudden cross-border attacks on Israeli soldiers, killing eight and abducting two. In the days that followed, hundreds of Hezbollah rockets were launched against population centers deep inside Israel, including the predominantly Arab city of Nazareth.
For over two decades, the “Party of Allah” has been a state within the Lebanese state. Its stated objective is to fight Israel, which has enabled Hezbollah to gain support in the Arab street even among the Sunnis, who are usually distrustful of the “heretical” Islamic sect. Nevertheless, the group’s underlying geopolitical agenda reflects Iran’s interests. In the long term, Tehran seeks to create a transnational Shiite domain that will extend from Iran across the Fertile Crescent and all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran’s short-term interest in igniting Lebanon was to deflect attention from her own nuclear program that had, in the weeks preceding the flare up, caused even the forbearing Europeans to lose patience and start talking of a concerted international action against Tehran.
The Israeli military’s response was immediate, indiscriminate, and, on the whole, ineffective. In military terms, its massive air strikes that killed hundreds of civilians and degraded Lebanon’s infrastructure were unable to cripple Hezbollah’s military capability or to disrupt its command-and-control structure. By early August, it became apparent that only a large-scale deployment by Israel’s ground forces could possibly accomplish that. On the other hand, for the IDF to return to Lebanon after six years would represent an admission of failure to manage the turf from a distance. It could also draw Israeli troops into a trap that would provide the focal point for every devout jihadist and Arab nationalist in the world. Israel can ill afford a new imbroglio so long as Gaza remains volatile, the West Bank restive, and Hamas ready to strike again along the long and winding Green Line.
In political terms, the Israeli response was disastrous. It turned even the Christians, who were anything but Hezbollah’s natural allies, against Israel. Such uniform hostility was in sharp contrast with the late 1970’s and early 80’s, when the Israelis were able to create tactical alliances with various Lebanese factions and a long-term partnership with the Christian leader in the south, the late Major Haddad. The indiscriminate nature of Israel’s response has reduced the scope for such political creativity. The scenes of civilian suffering, such as the ghastly footage of the aftermath of the air raid on Qana on July 30, circumscribed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s maneuvering space to the point where his forces need to regard every Lebanese villager as hostile and potentially dangerous. With a more nuanced response, Israel could have sent the message to Lebanon’s non-Shiites that those who were to blame for the violence were the ones who were getting punished most severely. Once the bombs started falling on everyone equally, Israel turned every segment of Lebanese opinion against her.
A political solution is possible even at this unpromising stage, but it will require the development of a new Syrian policy in Washington. Syria is not interested in Iran’s geopolitical designs, but she is interested in gaining Western approval, in general, and the recognition of the legitimacy of her current regime by Washington, in particular. The current alliance between Syria and Hezbollah makes strategic sense as long as the United States treats Syria as part of the “Axis of Evil”; but Bashir Assad can be divorced from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and his mentors in Tehran. Unlike the latter, Assad is not an Islamic fundamentalist, and he might be willing to consider a reasonable offer comparable to the one made to Libya’s Colonel Qaddafi in 2003: Stop creating mischief, and we’ll let you reign in peace.
The Middle East still offers the United States a considerable scope for creative action. The first task is to reject any immutable “givens” and to recall that, in that volatile region, America has permanent interests—stability, fighting Islamic terrorism, securing energy supplies—and no permanent attachments. Her friendships, as well as her animosities, should be dependent on any given actor’s impact on those interests.