Dark stain of conflict will spread, linger

Turmoil In The Middle East


There are times we need to be realistic, not optimistic, about the future. The conflict between Israel and Lebanon is more than a local tragedy, and it is one that is likely to play out over years.

The best outcome would be for the Lebanese government to deploy the Lebanese army, take control of the south and disarm Hezbollah. This would probably require international support and possibly outside military aid. It would also require seizing the arms Iran has supplied and cutting off Iranian and Syrian military aid and advisory efforts. Add in a U.N. inspection and verification force, and possibly Israeli concessions on prisoner returns and the return of Shabaa Farms, and there are the elements of what could be a stable bargain in a better and wiser world.

In the real world, however, things are much more likely to get worse than better, with escalation on both sides, more violence and more anger. If there is de-escalation, it more likely will be a hollow cease-fire that will resolve nothing and leave fear and anger to fester in both Israel and Lebanon. There will be cosmetic "controls" over Hezbollah at most, while the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah regroup and arm for the next round.

Iranian arms, and at least covert advisory groups from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, are probably in Lebanon to stay. There will be deep divisions in Lebanon, along the usual fracture lines, as to whether Israel or Hezbollah will be blamed. Lebanon's limited economic recovery will take years to regain momentum, and tourism will be replaced by making Lebanon a second front in the Israeli-Palestinian war of attrition that began in September 2000.

The Israeli-Lebanese "second front" will also be only part of the story. Israeli-Palestinian relations will continue to degenerate and become more violent, and Israel will be even more conscious of the Palestinian "threat" because of the risks to the north. Palestinians will see stronger Israeli efforts to isolate and control them, and their fear and anger will be fueled by events in Lebanon as well as new Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians will have an acceptable peace partner or vision of a final settlement the other side can accept.

The regional effects will be deeply negative. Israel will have U.S. support, but images of Israeli attacks on Lebanon will further alienate Arabs and Muslims throughout the world. Europe will be more balanced, but generally more pro-Arab and more hostile to Israel.

For many ordinary Arabs and Muslims, there will be a clear linkage among the Israel-Lebanon and Israel-Palestinian conflicts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the war on terrorism. They will see the U.S., and perhaps the West, as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim.

Moderate Arab governments, media and intellectuals will speak out with far more balance, and call for restraint and peace. In fact, they have begun to do so. Many Israeli and other Jewish voices have done the same, and they too will continue to do so. This, however, is a time when the voices of anger will drown out the voices of peace. Even worse, they will be fueled by a competition for power and influence among Iran (aided by Syria), neo-Salafi Islamist extremist movements such as al-Qaida, and the worst hard-line voices in Israel.

Iran is seeking influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and - through Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad - in Gaza and the West Bank. Some Iranian leaders believe that Israel has no right to exist. Many see such competition as creating a strategic buffer against the U.S., Sunni Arab regimes and violently anti-Shiite neo-Salafi Islamist extremists. Turmoil in the Middle East distracts from Iran's conventional military weakness and from efforts to prevent it from getting nuclear weapons, and gives it maximum leverage in fighting asymmetric wars and using other movements and nations as proxies at limited risk and little cost.

Movements such as al-Qaida see an opportunity to exploit Arab and Muslim popular anger. They can portray themselves as heroes and warriors, and use Israel as a proxy for attacking the U.S. and calling for regionwide struggles and upheavals.

The usual suspects in Israel and the U.S. will accuse Arabs and Muslims generally of being responsible, attack their religion and culture, demand the Israeli government take the harshest possible action, and call upon the U.S. to uncritically support Israel in doing so. There will be calls for more of the kinds of sanctions and actions that tend to punish the innocent and moderate more than the guilty. New economic and physical measures to isolate Israel and the Palestinians will follow, along with more unilateral efforts to create de facto boundaries that absorb new Palestinian areas in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The end result is not going to be some massive, explosive Arab-Israeli conflict - at least for years to come. Egypt and Jordan are at peace, and Syria's military forces have declined steadily in war-fighting capability for a decade. Israel and Iran are too far apart for serious conflict. It instead is going to be a festering war of attrition, where half-measures to resolve the conflict have no lasting meaning. It will lead to a further darkening of the security situation in the entire Middle East, new divisions in the West, and a dangerous spillover of this conflict into the U.S.- and British-led effort to bring stability to Iraq.

This does not mean the U.S. and other nations should not try to bring some form of enduring peace and order, but hope and good intentions are no substitute for reality.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His e-mail is acordesman@aol.com.

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