Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Proxy War

Amir Taheri, Prospect Magazine:
The battle of summer 2006 may be a prelude to a bigger conflict between the US and Iran

"The summer of all hopes!" This was how Sa'ad Hariri, leader of the majority bloc in the Lebanese parliament, described the new tourist season in July. He reflected the views of many of his fellow citizens. The 15-year-long civil war that ended in 1990 is a distant memory to most Lebanese, half of whom are under 30. For the first time in more than 50 summers, there were no foreign troops occupying Lebanese soil; the last of them, 14,000 Syrians, having returned home a year earlier. The cedar revolution of 2005, which had forced Syria to end its occupation, had also produced a surge of democratic energy leading to the nation's first free elections in three decades. Those elections had produced a coalition government that represented almost all of the country's 18 religious communities, and that was not beholden to any foreign power.

The Lebanese were also beginning to develop a new sense of security. The series of political assassinations, blamed on the Syrian secret services, that had started with the murder of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, seemed to have come to a halt, allowing threatened politicians, intellectuals and media people who had lived half underground for months to return to more or less normal life. READ MORE

So confident were the various communities that the bad old days of sectarian feud and foreign meddling were over that they had begun a national discussion on modernising Lebanese democracy by downplaying its communitarian features, injecting a dose of federalism and disbanding the various security services, most of them infiltrated by Syria.

There was also good news on the economic front. For the first time in four years, Lebanon was experiencing growth, with foreign investment reaching record levels. The government of prime minister Fuad Siniora, a former banker, was talking of cutting the budget deficit and reducing foreign debt. Western tourists, returning to Lebanon's holiday resorts in large numbers for the first time since the 1960s, endorsed the nation's happier mood. This was taqarun al-saadayn, the coincidence of felicitous factors that gives men a glimpse of paradise. As always, however, kismet—fate—was writing a different script. Events outside Lebanon were conspiring to transform the "summer of all hopes" into a season of death.

The first of those events was shaped around the confrontation between Iran and the international community over Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons programme. The EU, backed by the US, had offered Iran a package of economic and scientific incentives to stop uranium enrichment. Tehran had been given until the middle of July to respond to the package or see the matter referred to the UN security council and thus face the threat of sanctions or even military action. Many in Tehran, including President Ahmadeinejad, believed that the US or Israel might use the security council referral as an excuse for air strikes against nuclear plants.

The second event was Syria's dispute with the UN over the international inquiry into Hariri's murder. The UN commission of inquiry had linked the Syrian regime with the murder and demanded to interrogate senior officials, including President Assad. Not surprisingly, the Syrians had rejected that demand, offering only to let investigators talk to minor, dispensable officials. The showdown between Syria and the UN had been due to break into the open this summer.

A third set of events was unfolding in Israel, where Ehud Olmert's coalition was discovering that returning territory to the Palestinians to build a state would not automatically buy lasting peace. A year after the last Israeli soldier left Gaza, it seemed that instead of "land-for-peace," Israel was facing "land-for-war," as Hamas, now running the Palestinian authority, and other radicals used Gaza as a base for attacks against Israel. Israel suspected that much of Hamas's fighting capability, and part of the cash that kept it alive, came from Tehran via the Hizbullah movement, founded by Iran in 1982.

There was a further thread in this tangled web of middle eastern conflict. The new Iraqi government faced a rapidly expanding sectarian war in which the Mahdi army, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a junior cleric, was emerging as the deadliest of the Shia militias. And what was the Mahdi army? In the words of Sadr: "The Iraqi face of Hizbullah."

Finally, another event, less well understood in the west, was also unravelling within Lebanon itself: a power struggle within Hizbullah, as the authoritarian style of its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, began to come under criticism from factions inside or close to the movement. A number of prominent Hizbullah figures questioned Nasrallah's habit of excluding them from high-level decision-making on security grounds. The argument advanced by Nasrallah's critics was simple: the party had succeeded in driving Israel out of southern Lebanon in 2000 and thus had no reason to continue as a semi-clandestine armed group. With 14 seats in the 128-seat parliament and two cabinet portfolios (for water/power and employment) in the Siniora government, it was time for Hizbullah to become a mainstream party, relinquishing the weapons it claimed it needed against Israel. Nasrallah and his group also faced criticism on theological grounds, because they regard Iran's leader Ali Khamenei as the "supreme guide" of Shi'ism while more than 90 per cent of Lebanese Shias follow either Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, or Ayatollah Muhammad-Hussain Fadhlallah in Beirut. By late June, Nasrallah, for the first time since taking over in 1992, .

How did these events combine to trigger the conflict?

Iran was anxious to divert attention from its confrontation with the UN over the nuclear issue. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the most radical president of the Islamic Republic since the 1980s, has been projecting a new image of revolutionary Iran as the leader of the Muslim world in a "clash of civilisations" with the US. His dream has faced one big problem: Iran is a Shia power, while the overwhelming majority of Arabs, and other Muslims, are Sunnis. The only way for a Shia power to claim pan-Islamic leadership was to promise to "wipe Israel off the map."

Ahmadinejad's message was simple: where pan-Arabism, Arab socialism and Sunni Islamism had failed to deliver, revolutionary Shi'ism under Iranian leadership would succeed. It was necessary for Ahmadinejad to drag Israel into a limited but costly conflict to expose its vulnerability. The place to do that was Lebanon, where the pan-Shia Hizbullah movement, with sustained support from Iran, had been preparing for another round of asymmetrical war against Israel since the previous round ended in 1996.

Syria too needed a diversion, and saw a new crisis between Israel and Lebanon as convenient. A mini-war between Israel and Hizbullah would revive the idea that there is "no peace in the middle east without Syria." It would divert attention from the Hariri murder investigation, tempt Washington into reviewing its policy of shunning Syria, and persuade conservative Arab states that they needed the Ba'athists in Damascus to counterbalance the rise of Iran.

The new Israeli government might not have wanted this conflict in Lebanon. But it knew that southern Lebanon, from where Israel had withdrawn its troops six years earlier, had become another example of "land-for-war." Back in 2000, Olmert and his then party, Likud, had criticised the handover of southern Lebanon to Hizbullah; he could not now allow Hizbullah to use southern Lebanon as a base for a new offensive. Israel also knew of the thousands of missiles, including advanced anti-tank ones, supplied by Iran to Hizbullah, and of the preparations that Hizbullah had made for a long conflict with the Jewish state. In his television address declaring "victory" over Israel on 14th August, Nasrallah claimed that the main reason for his success was the fact that Hizbullah had spent years preparing for the fight. The unexpected difficulties that the Israelis faced in southern Lebanon seemed to confirm this claim.

For its part, the US has regarded Lebanon as part of the broader Iranian battlefield, which also includes Syria. Some American analysts looked on with a mixture of admiration and trepidation as Iran extended its influence to the shores of the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. (In June 2005, Iran's defence minister Ali Shamkhani boasted that for the first time since the 7th century, Iranian power had returned to the Levant.) Yet any plan to create a new "American" middle east—based on open societies, democratic institutions and market economies—was unlikely to succeed without substantial policy changes, if not actual regime change, in Tehran. The new Iranian leadership was determined to defeat the Bush strategy by offering its alternative vision of an "Islamic" middle east. Provoking a mini-war in Lebanon was the surest way of isolating the pro-western democratic forces and moderate Arab elites that Bush wished to mobilise in support of his vision.

Lebanon was the natural choice for the proxy war that may be the prelude to the main conflict between the US and Iran. After Bahrain, Lebanon is the smallest Arab state. It covers territory less than 1 per cent of Iran's. It also has the highest proportion of non-Muslims in the Arab world—some 40 per cent of the population (in other Arab states, non-Muslims account for between zero, in Saudi Arabia, and 15 per cent, in Egypt). To complicate matters further, Lebanese Muslims are divided into three sects: Shias (40 per cent), Sunnis (15 per cent) and Druze (5 per cent). And that is not all. Many of Lebanon's 18 communities have often looked to outside powers to defend their rights and, in some cases, even save them from annihilation by rivals. Years of civil war, followed by Syrian occupation and by an Israeli military presence in the south, had left Lebanon without proper state structures. Syria decided who would be president and prime minister of Lebanon and, with Iran's accord, also shaped the Lebanese parliament. The absence of state structures enabled Iran to build Hizbullah into a state within a state. By the time this summer's mini-war started, Hizbullah controlled almost a fifth of Lebanon's territory and over 10 per cent of its population. The party collected its own taxes, through the religious toll known as khoms (one fifth of all incomes), and ran banking and insurance systems, schools, hospitals and social welfare schemes (see Judith Palmer Harik, p24). It also owned and managed farms, factories, supermarkets, transport networks, travel agencies and even matrimonial services—activities that employed the bulk of the population under its control. To underline its independence, Hizbullah flew its own flag, had its own national anthem and even maintained "embassies" in several capitals.

The tactic Hizbullah uses to control its population is known as istitar (to cover), a secular version of taqiyyah, the Shia religious device of hiding one's true faith in adverse circumstances. The istitar tactic works like Russian matryushka dolls. In this case, the smallest doll is Hizbullah's military force, an elite unit of 2,000 complemented by a further 4-5,000 fighters. (Most fighters are not full time, and many live civilian lives until called up.) The function of the population is to serve as a human shield for that smallest, and deadliest, doll. This is why the latest mini-war ended up with over 1,000 civilian deaths on the Lebanese side, while the number of Hizbullah fighters killed is estimated at about 100.

The month-long war confirmed intelligence reports that Hizbullah held a large number of missiles. It used them against Israel at an average rate of 70 a day, which, if western estimates are right, means it could have continued its campaign for at least 200 days more without receiving fresh supplies from Iran.

On 12th August, the UN security council passed a unanimous resolution calling for a ceasefire and envisaging the creation of a multinational force to control southern Lebanon up to the Litani river. This, if implemented, could prevent Hizbullah from using its shorter-range missiles, mostly Soviet-designed Katyushas, against Israel. But there is no guarantee that it would not use longer-range missiles if and when it, or its mentors, deemed it necessary. (The UN's latest resolution envisaged no mechanism for achieving the objectives of the famous resolution 1559, which demands Hizbullah be disarmed.)

If Hizbullah is allowed to redeploy as an armed force north of the Litani, it will have won a major tactical victory. Moreover, it will turn into a gun pointed at the head of Siniora's fragile government. If Siniora is forced to dispatch more than half of the Lebanese army to protect the border with Israel, he will have even fewer troops to protect the country against a heavily armed and even more confident Hizbullah. In any case, most army recruits are Shias with sectarian sympathies for their fellow-Shia "resistance fighters."

But Hizbullah cannot be understood merely as an Iranian proxy. Many Lebanese Shias take pride in its success in putting their community at the centre of national politics for the first time. While aware of the organisation's darker side, especially its links with Tehran and its terrorist history, some non-Shias, including quite a few Christians, have rallied to it for nationalist and anti-Israel/US reasons.

The complexity of Hizbullah's position is illustrated by the fact that it is the only Lebanese political group to be in the government and in opposition at the same time. The present government's "project of peace" is backed by a coalition of parties that include Hizbullah. At the same time, Hizbullah is the leading partner in the so-called "project of defiance" alliance of opposition parties, which includes a bloc led by the Christian Maronite leader, former general Michel Aoun, and is tacitly backed by Emile Lahoud, the Syrian-imposed president of the republic.

The prospect of a Lebanese government dominated by Hizbullah is not fanciful. In addition to its well-armed militia, which is certainly stronger than the national army, Hizbullah has plenty of money and could, given the chance, neutralise its domestic political opponents with a mixture of assassinations and bribery. Its next move is certain to be an attempt at seizing control of the reconstruction projects with support from Iran and Syria. Iran has already announced a massive aid package, which, as always, comes with many strings attached.

The ceasefire ordained by the UN may or may not last as long as the last one, introduced in 1996. But even if it does, it will solve none of the problems that led to the fighting. Iran, Syria and Hizbullah will continue to work for their long-term vision of a middle east without Israel (or at least with a cowed and contained Israel) and free of US influence. They would also be ready to provoke other mini-wars as part of their strategy of wearing out the US and Israel through long, low-intensity conflict. One thing is certain: just as this summer's war was deadlier and costlier than the one that ended with the 1996 ceasefire, the next one will be deadlier and costlier still.

The mini-duel in Lebanon is the first of many battles likely to be fought in the broader war for reshaping the middle east, in the wake of regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq. As things stand, Lebanon has an even chance of falling into either of the rival Iranian and American camps. The American camp could still win, provided the US rallies its western, Arab and Lebanese allies in support of the Siniora "project for peace." This would mean shifting the focus in Lebanon from the Arab-Israeli conflict to the task of building a modern and democratic Lebanese state that, while friendly with the west, would understand Lebanon's historical vocation as a buffer between rival powers. But if Lebanon falls to Shia jihadism, other Arab countries, starting with Iraq and Bahrain, could quickly follow. That could spell the end of Bush's dream of a democratic "greater middle east."

The Israel-Hizbullah duel, a proxy war between two visions of the middle east, has ended in a draw—at least for now. The latter has lost part of its arsenal, and may in time be driven out of most of its bases along the Israeli border. However, it has not suffered the crushing defeat promised by Olmert. Nor has it been forced to release the two Israeli soldiers whose capture triggered the war, although this is demanded by the UN resolution—a day after the resolution was passed, Hizbullah informed the Lebanese government that while it accepted the ceasefire, it would not automatically comply with all the demands set in the resolution (for the past 20 years, Hizbullah has never returned captured Israeli soldiers alive). The UN's apparent resignation to the fact that it cannot seek a full disarmament of Hizbullah is also a victory for Nasrallah. By not being crushed, he can claim victory—a claim echoed in Damascus and Tehran. Nevertheless, Hizbullah's weakness remains its unwillingness, or inability, to turn itself into a mainstream political party, something most Lebanese hope for.

Hizbullah is no different from most other guerrilla armies. It cannot be defeated militarily in a mini-war of a few weeks. However, in the long term it can be defeated politically. By helping to shift the battle to the political front, the US and its actual and potential allies, including possibly a majority of Lebanese, could help those within Hizbullah who wish to tone down Iran's influence and redesign their movement as part of the national political landscape. When Hizbullah was founded, most Lebanese Shias were poor peasants. Almost a quarter of a century later, the picture is different. Money brought in by Lebanese Shia emigrants in west Africa—where they dominate the diamond trade—and the US, has helped create a new Shia bourgeoisie in Beirut and the main cities of the south. Many Shia villages have been rebuilt, with stone houses, modern facilities and improved farming techniques. Iranian investment, channelled through Hizbullah, has also helped expand the new Shia middle class, which has a stake in a more peaceful and stable Lebanon. The outcome of its efforts to reform Hizbullah could affect the whole of Lebanon and, beyond it, the rest of the middle east.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian author. He is editor of "Politique Internationale," France's leading foreign policy journal.