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Renewed Conflagration in West Asia

Dr. Rushda Siddiqui was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • July 26, 2006

    The conflict involving the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) on two of its borders shows all signs of drawing the entire region into a new round of crisis. Though the current conflict may have been set off by years of hostilities between Israel and its regional adversaries, it is not a simple replay of the previous clashes. With new governments in place in the three key nodes of the crisis - Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority - and fighters within the radical Islamist groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, eager to assert their agendas, the region is going through a period of dramatic and radical change.

    Technically, the ongoing conflict in the region, involving Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah, is part of Israel's counter-terrorism policy, which aims to wipe out the infrastructure of the terrorist groups and to neutralise all threats to Israel. With this aim, the Israeli government has been stalling all efforts of Hamas to form a government by refusing to negotiate with the elected government, imposing an economic blockade on Palestine, and implementing the policy of targeted killings of the leaders of Hamas and the Hezbollah, among other measures. The current aerial bombings are aimed at destroying the infrastructure of the Hezbollah leadership in Lebanon and creating a buffer zone in the south of Lebanon. Armed skirmishes between the IDF and the military wing of the Hamas and Hezbollah have been on the rise since the election of Ehud Olmert in March 2006, who had threatened to take unilateral steps to set borders for Israel if peacemaking remains frozen. Though Fatah has been trying to get Hamas to give up on its hard line approach towards Israel and work towards averting the humanitarian crisis being caused by the blockade, it failed to stop a confrontation between the armed wing of the Hamas and the IDF. The Hamas-Fatah agreement of June 2006 could never be signed due to the eruption of the conflict plaguing the region now.

    As far as the Hezbollah's renewed hostilities with Israel is concerned, it is important to remember that the Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon is a state and an entity unto itself. The governments are aware of Hezbollah's activities - social, political and military - and its popularity. They are consequently wary of touching them. It is because of the Hezbollah that Israel's counter-terrorism policy is two pronged: one to deal with the military challenge of an armed assault, and the second of fighting a psychological war.

    The Hezbollah has had extremely close relations with the Hamas particularly from 2000, and has been trying to teach political and military techniques to Hamas. While there is no direct evidence of co-ordinated attacks, analysts believe that the two kidnappings were part of a larger plan reflecting a trend that began several years ago. Though they have very different ideologies, they have but one common enemy - Israel.

    Hezbollah's entry into the fray has been termed as adventurism by the Saudis and other Arab leaders, something that even Sheikh Nasrallah admitted to in his July 16 speech. Hezbollah seems to have calculated that it could take advantage of the Gaza crisis. It is not that it was unaware of the ferocity of an Israeli backlash, but it is this very backlash that has given it immense ground both inside and outside of Lebanon. For the international community today, the disarming the Hezbollah has become a secondary issue compared to limiting the scale of Israeli retaliation. Kofi Annan, in his meeting with Condolezza Rice, while criticising the Hezbollah also sought a halt to the Israeli assaults.

    It is also widely believed and advocated by the US and Israel that the governments of Syria and Iran have been funding and providing military and logistic support to Hamas and Hezbollah, despite Damascus and Tehran denying the link and distancing themselves from the current situation. The approach of the West and Israel has been to get the governments of Syria, Palestine and Lebanon to act against the Hamas and the Hezbollah. Israel's current exercise aims to destroy the military capability of the two organisations, and then ask the states concerned to step in with their own troops, something that these governments are averse to doing. Moreover, it is due to the presence of international troops in Lebanon that Hezbollah is supposed to have grown in popularity and strength.

    Israel's assault on Lebanon is intended to send a broader message too, at a time when it has largely given up on trying to negotiate for peace and security and is instead trying to establish these on its own. It is being widely argued that interference in another country's sovereign territory in such a blatant manner would cause fledgling democracies, particularly Lebanon's, to fail. This and other reasons are making regional governments press the United Nations or ask the US to step in and staunch the spread of violence.

    Significant from the point of view of religious fundamentalists and the governments of the region is the validation of the fundamentalist propaganda, that it is not only Israel but the entire Western world that is hostile to Islam and the Arab population. As Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said on July 15, "Certain powers have given Israel every capacity to do whatever it wishes," and that this had hit hopes for peace. It is expected that with time it is this very bias of the West that will be encashed by the militant organizations in the region. The governments of the region, though not very supportive of the actions of the Hezbollah or Hamas, are wary of the continued violence as it would swing popular opinion in their own countries in favour of these organizations, which would make it difficult for them to counter or even control their activities.

    The armies in Lebanon and Syria, their governments fear, might get drawn into the conflict. On July 22, the Lebanese government warned that it would officially join the war if Syria were attacked. If Iran or Syria get drawn into the conflict by the actions of either Israel or the US, it will become very difficult to stop the rest of the region from getting involved. The state armies, and not just the militia organizations, are likely to get involved. By pressuring the Arabs into taking action, the US and Israel might just be unleashing a major conflict in the region. For the governments to survive, they would need either external support or might just end up backing the militias in the region. With the US allowing the IDF another three-odd weeks to complete its task, and negotiations not making much of headway, instability in the region is expected to rise.

    It is a typical catch-22 situation for the governments. If like Iran and Syria they have a strong military, then they become terrorist states, and if like Lebanon they have a weak army, and Israel moves in to "correct" the situation, either the militias get strengthened or Israel ends up occupying the place. Already, by July 23, the IDF has moved into Maroun al-Ras in South Lebanon, and is asking residents of South Lebanon to flee. It is expected to stay there till either international forces or the Lebanese army moves into the area. This move has already displaced and rendered over 800,000 Lebanese citizens homeless. As the humanitarian crisis keeps growing in Lebanon, the hostility towards Israel is growing in the region.

    How effective the United Nations' proffered solution or US negotiations would be is also debatable, as both Israel and the Hezbollah are not ready to stop or even halt their actions temporarily. There are three possible inferences to the scenario. The first is the gross failure of the IDF counter-terrorism policy of targeted killing. It is due to the failure of intelligence gathering for targeted killings that entire villages, town and cities are being bombed. Only after 12 days of constant shelling of Lebanon were the Israelis able to capture two Hezbollah activists. The second is the assertion by Olmert that he is an independent leader in his own right, capable of taking his own decisions and leading the country into a protracted war to counter its enemies. Finally, Israel's occupation of parts of southern Lebanon in Arab eyes is tantamount to fulfilling the right wing Israeli rhetoric of 'Eretz Israel' or 'Greater Israel.'

    The crisis indicates that it is not the UN or any other international body, but the US that can effectively intervene in the region. The US is the key player and if its biases lie with Israel, it would just make for more violence, no solutions and end in a dead Middle East peace process.