Playing into Israel’s Hands?

Posted by Cutler on August 16, 2006
Egypt, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria

Can’t we all just get along? At least the “rejectionists”?

I have in mind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Israeli Likudnik Dore Gold who find common ground in their analysis of the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Here is an Associated Press report on Assad’s speech from Tuesday, August 15, 2006:

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad yesterday said that America’s plan for a “new Middle East” collapsed after Hezbollah’s successes in fighting against Israel…

“The result was more failure for Israel, its allies and masters,” he said.

On the same day, Dore Gold was a guest on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal (no transcript is available on-line; transcription is my own; citation is minutes and seconds into Washington Journal program). Gold was just as clear as Assad. He said Israel required a period of “tremendous introspection” and “self-criticism” because the “goals” of the campaign in Lebanon “were not reached” (40:37).

Both Assad and Gold contrasted the recent failures with with Israel’s 1982 campaign.

Assad explained,

Bashar said this war revealed the limitations of Israel’s military power.

In a 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israeli forces surrounded Beirut within seven days of invading, he said.

“After five weeks it [Israel] was still struggling to occupy a few hundred metres.”

“From a military perspective, it [the battle] was decided in favour of the resistance [Hezbollah]. Israel has been defeated from the beginning,” Bashar said.

“They [Israelis] have become a subject of ridicule.”

Gold made a similar point, emphasizing that “air platforms” can tackle long-range missiles coming from Lebanon, but ground troops are required to deal with the “greater challenge” of short-range rockets:

In Israel’s Lebanon War of 1982, northern Israel was struck by Katusha rockets, launched not by Hezbollah but by the PLO.

At that time, Israel invaded Lebanon with three divisions and within 48 hours all Katusha rocket fire from southern Lebanon into northern Israel had been terminated” (46:32).

The blame will probably fall hardest on Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. According to Time, Halutz was quoted on July 14th saying,

“In this day and age, with all the technology we have, there is no reason to start sending ground troops in.”

As the campaign wore on, Halutz began to change his tune. On July 21, 2006 the Jerusalem Post quoted Halutz:

You cannot plant a flag in the ground with an F-16.”

Even then, however, the Israeli Cabinet apparently rejected the call by Halutz for significant ground troops. According to a July 27 Jerusalem Post report:

[T]he security cabinet decided on Thursday against significantly widening the IDF’s operations in southern Lebanon, rejecting a recommendation by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz to escalate the offensive against Hizbullah…

As a result of the cabinet decision, the IDF said the operation in Lebanon… would retain its current format, according to which brigade and battalion-level forces – not division-level as Halutz had requestedcarry out pinpoint incursions on specific targets.

Whatever the actual source of the Israeli failure, the Syrian and Iranian victory dances are in full swing.

(Needless to say, Dore Gold is not celebrating the Israeli defeat–although his allies in the Likud party will certainly try to make political hay in Israel from the need for political “introspection” and “self-criticism” in light of the Kadima party’s responsibility for military failure.)

Assad: Playing into Israel’s Hands?

Syrian President Bashar Assad is not only celebrating victory over Israel. He is also going out of his way to snipe at other players in the region. A UPI report entitled “Assad Slams Lebanon Foes,” suggests that Assad used his speech to attack elements of the Lebanese government:

Syrian President Bashar Assad has snapped at anti-Syria Lebanese groups, accusing them of complicity with Israel in the war against Hezbollah.

In a speech Tuesday… Assad made it a point to brand as “traitors” the so-called “March 14″ gathering of multi-sectarian Lebanese groups opposed to Damascus…

Assad accused his Lebanese opponents of having encouraged Israel to wage war on pro-Syria Hezbollah in order “to boost their political stance” on the international level…

Assad… said the role of anti-Damascus groups is to salvage the Israeli governmentwhich was embarrassed by its defeat at Hezbollah’s hands.

They will do that either by provoking strife in Lebanon to move the crisis from inside Israel to the Lebanese scene or by forcing the disarmament of Hezbollah’s resistance,” Assad said.

Furthermore, the Boston Globe carries and Associated Press report that says Assad also implicitly attacked Arab regimes–like Saudi Arabia and Egypt–that criticized the initial Hezbollah raids into Israel:

In his speech, Assad lashed out at Arab regimes that criticized Hezbollah for capturing two Israeli soldiers July 12 and setting off the war. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan — all US allies — opposed Hezbollah’s actions at the start of the conflict.

We do not ask anyone to fight with us or for usBut he should at least not adopt the enemy’s views,” Assad said.

Oqab Sakr, a Lebanese analyst, said Assad’s remarks were tantamount to “a final divorce from the Arab regimes and a full marriage with Iran.”

Quite a bit is riding on whether Oqab Sakr is correct in his assertion that Assad has initiated “final divorce” proceedings from Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

It is the notion of such a divorce that leads Juan Cole to suggest that in these attacks,

Al-Asad is playing into Israel’s hands

[He] seems to want to pit Hizbullah against the reformers. But that is exactly what the Israeli hardliners were hoping for, as well.

According to the Boston Globe article, Assad has already prompted an Egyptian backlash:

A front page editorial in a state-run Egyptian newspaper derided Assad’s speech–a rare overt criticism by one Arab government of another. Al-Gomhuria daily scoffed at Assad, saying he was celebrating “a victory scored by others.”

“You should be prepared now for political and economic pressure put on you because of this speech,” it said.

Assad’s bold tone is intended to cement his earlier political victories in Lebanon–discussed in previous posts here and here.

If Assad is risking a backlash, it will not likely emerge independently from Lebanese political officials like Prime Minister Siniora or Lebanese MP Saad Hariri. They may have the will to battle Syria and disarm Hezbollah, but they almost certainly lack the power to do so.

Unless, that is, they have the support of the Saudis. Hariri and Siniora will both take their cue directly from the Saudis.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Daily Star reported that Siniora was under pressure from Hezbollah–back in January 2006–to declare that “the resistance is not a militia.”

At first, Siniora resisted.  According to the Daily Star:

A spokesperson for Premier Fouad Siniora told The Daily Star Monday: “The Cabinet cannot say explicitly that Hizbullah is not a militia, because it will cause Lebanon problems with the international community.”

Shortly thereafter, however, Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Abdel-Aziz Khoja was quoted in the Daily Star as saying,

[Saudi Arabia] is proud of Hizbullah’s achievements,” adding that the “disarmament is an internal issue and should be resolved by the Lebanese.”

In almost no time, Siniora reversed himself and the Lebanese government officially declared that Hezbollah was a resistance movement, not a militia (presumably meaning it would not have to be disarmed under the terms of UN Resolution 1559). Hezbollah promptlly ended its boycott of the Lebanese government. On February 2, 2006 the BBC reported:

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora told the Lebanese parliament on Thursday that Hezbollah had always been considered a resistance movement.

“We have never called and will never call the resistance by any other name but the resistance and it is a national resistance and we will not use any other expression to describe it but national resistance,” he said.

Then, as now, Siniora will take his cue from the Saudis.

So, in turn, will the French–who seem unlikely to put much into a multinational force unless Hariri and Siniora are prepared to disarm Lebanon.

According to the Financial Times:

French officials on Tuesday insisted Paris would resist leading a bolstered international force in southern Lebanon without Lebanese government assurances that Hizbollah, the militant Shia group, would be disarmed.

Paris’ requirements were spelled out on the eve of Wednesday’s visit by Philippe Douste-Blazy, French foreign minister, to Beirut – a visit likely to prove pivotal in deciding the fate of the multinational UN force proposed to police the fragile ceasefire between Hizbollah and Israel.

Officials in Beirut made clear that the army would not clash with Hizbollah and risk provoking internal conflict. Late on Monday, Elias Murr, Lebanon’s defence minister, told the local LBC television that the army had no intention of disarming Hizbollah in the south.

He suggested that Hizbollah understood that weapons could no longer be visible in the buffer zone, but said that if troops came across missiles they would not take them away.

Much, then, depends on the Saudis. Presumably, the future of the “marriage” (between Iran and Syria, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt, on the other) is the main topic today when the Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki meets in Jeddah today with Saudi Arabia’s King Abudullah.

Would love to be a fly on the wall for that meeting!

2 Comments to Playing into Israel’s Hands?

  • So I guess it’s confirmed. Bashar al-Assad is now fully placing Syria in opposition to the US-friendly league of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The fire in his speech seems like he’s trying to eliminate the possibility that his relationship with Iran could some how be the object of triangulation for the US in its dealings with Tehran.

    No surprise from Egypt, however. When I was there, an American passport got me a long way. Seems like Cairo is willing to stick its neck out and go after al-Assad and even threaten economic sanctions or the like.

    Again to reiterate Jonathan’s enthusiasm. WTF is going to happen in that meeting between Abdullah and Mottaki? Whose names will be dropped and what are they talking about?

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