Time for Europe?

31 juli 2006

It didn’t get any better in the Middle East today.

Rather on the contrary.

New images of civilian casualities of the Israeli bombing campaign came at the same time as Jerusalem said that they had no interest in any early cease-fire.

Exactly what they hope to achieve by some more weeks of war is increasingly unclear.

The simply thruth is that there are no clear-cut objectives that can be achieved with the chosen military strategy.

For the US the situation is obviously starting to become difficult.

One is increasingly aware of the damage done to the political position of the US around the world. I would guess that – among others – diplomats and military commanders in Iraq are sending clear messages on the effect Washington’s support for Israel’s war has on their position.

When Secretary of State Rice was informed that she was not welcome to come to Beirut for talks was that a snub of the first order. It also showed that the leverage the US has in the regions risks declining in a dangerous way.

I see no real alternative to an early cease-fire.

Prime Minister Olmert is saying that a cease-fire now will mean that the original problem will very soon come back. That’s a rather devastating indictment against himself.

But a cease-fire later will in all probability have damaged the credibility of the entire Western world even more than is already the case – and the delay will have achieved very little else.

So it’s really time for diplomacy.

It might even be time for a more active European role.

To shape a such will certainly not be easy in view of the differences of opinion that are there.

But to abstain from even trying would be to deny the diplomacy of the conflict the balanced voice that’s so obviously missing – and will be missed with increasing desperation.

A Deal With Hezbollah?

29 juli 2006

I was obviously wrong in assuming that Tony Blair in Washington would endorse the general European line of calling for an immediate cease-fire in the war.

He did not – and once again the European Union is split on a major foreign policy issue.

Tony Blair – once again – sees lining up with the US as the only way of having any influence on developments, opening him up to the charge of actually having no influence whatsoever.

And the rest of the Europeans are more or less left in the dust. Italian Foreign Minister D’Alema is off to Damascus only to underline the divisions.

A meeting of the foreign ministers on Wednesday next week is supposed to sort things out. We’ll see.

But pressure for a cease-fire is building up not the least because it is obvious to more and more people that Israel will not achieve its military objectives. Today’s editorial in New´York Times clearly points at the direction in which also US opinion is heading.

Focus is now on trying to get together a 10.000 – 20.000 strong military force to go into Southern Lebanon. A meeting at the UN in New York on Monday will look at the possibilities, although I guess very few would be ready to commit anything as long as there is no political agreement on what such a force could do.

The only thing that’s clear is that the two nations now pushing for the force have no intention of being part of it. The US considers it too dangereous, and the UK simply does not have the forces available at the moment.

Nothing can be achieved without an agreement with and inside Lebanon. That’s the key to everything. So far the Lebanese government is holding together – Hezbollah is part of the coalition – and there are evidently constructive although difficult talks going on.

As we are now in the third week of war – with app 700 000 refugess and massive destruction – the only positive thing that could be said is that both Washington and Jerusalem now seems to understand that there is no military victory in sight and that there has to be a political agreement.

But there is a long road ahead. There is virtually no possibility of the Israeli army clearing a sufficiently broad security zone in southern Lebanon quickly or easily. Fighting is fierce.

So an international force can only come in with the agreement of Hezbollah.

Such a deal will obviously have different elements. Some sort of prisoner exchange is highly likely. But also the recognition of Hezbollah’s political role in Lebanon.

It will be an interesting arrangement.

Pressure On Washington

28 juli 2006

With Tony Blair rushing to Washington for talks, there are bound to be increasing pressures on the United States to push for a cease-fire in the Lebanon war.

It’s difficult to see Secretary of State Rice’s recent trip to the Middle East, Rome and Southeast Asia as much of a success.

And that’s a very diplomatic way of phrasing it…

She seems to have been devoting most of her activities to resisting calls for an immediate cease-fire. She wants to give Israel more time for its military activities in the profoundly mistaken belief that these can achieve any reasonable objectives.

There is little doubt that the United States is paying a high price for this political stance.

In an OpEd piece in today’s Washington Post, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher joins those that are highly critical of her line:

Every day America gives the green light to further Israeli violence, our already tattered reputation sinks even lower. The reluctance of our closest allies in the Middle East even to receive Secretary Rice this week in their capitals attests to this fact.

Based on his own experience, he also argues forcefully for both an immediate ceasefire and for engaging Syria in order to achieve it.

Warren Christopher might not have been the most spectacular of Secretaries of State, but at critical junction – he himself mentions his Balkan experience – he demonstrated that he could be a man of sound judgment.

And he is not alone.

I would consider it highly likely that Tony Blair will argue along very similar lines when he sees President Bush in the White House. Whether he will be prepared to state his position openly is another matter.

We’ll see. In the meantime the war continues and the situation in the Middle East deterioates.

The guns of July will soon by the guns of August…

Meanwhile, Baghdad…

27 juli 2006

While Beirut burns, the situation in Baghdad deterioates.

The gloomy scenario seems to be playing out all over the region. It risks going downhill with dangerous speed.

A well-informed friend in Washington wrote this as part of his assessment of the situation:

I understand that the intelligence community is drafting a national intelligence estimate on the situation in Iraq, but the news is so grim that no one wants to take it to the President.

The working level analysts have concluded the civil war is on and that we have little opportunity to affect the course of events in coming months. Reports coming from U.S. intelligence and liaison offices in Baghdad indicate that the Iraqi leadership has concluded that, practically, the city of Baghdad must be divided—with Shia and Christian Iraqis living east of the Tigris River, and Sunni Iraqi’s living in west Baghdad. “Ethnic cleansing”—both involuntary and voluntary—is now rather extensive.

And one should not overlook the interconnection between the different areas.

When Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki was in Washington a few days ago he provoked a minor political firestorm – particularly among Democrats – because he failed to suport Israel and condem Hezbollah.

Hardly surprising. What the Israelis are doing in Lebanon is obviously undercutting support for what the US and their allies are doing in Iraq.

There is a risk of the one disaster feeding the other…

Time To Rescue Israel!

27 juli 2006

Slowly the absence of a coherent strategy is starting to seed divisions also inside the Israeli government on how to proceed.

When Prime Minister Olmert unleashed the air campaign as a response to the Hezbollah border attack and kidnappning, he obviously expected a rather quick and easy punishment operation.

The main aim of the very sharp counterattack was probably to restore the fear of the armed might of Israel that had started to weakened during the past few years. Now was the time to set an example, was the idea.

But two weeks into the war things are more complicated.

It’s increasingly obvious that an air campaign only can achieve very little apart from the counter-productive destruction of the infrastructure of Lebanon. The fighting capabilities of Hezbollah are certainly degraded, but not eliminated. It can probably easily be restored.

And the ground incursions into southern Lebanon are proving more difficult than anticipated.

At an emergency meeting yesterday evening and night as well as today, now with the entire Cabinet, it seems as if different alternatives were considered. The report in Haaretz is well worth reading.

A military proposal to make a massive call-up of reservist and launch a two-month campaign to clear the entire area up to the Litani river was obviouslu turned down. There were fears of large casualities – the 1982 war all over again – but also fear of stumbling into a major ground war with Syria.

So much for the talk over everything just being a question of some air strikes.

It seems as of Prime Minister Olmert is now instead aiming at the securing of an area in southern Lebanon that could be cleared of Hezbollah and then held until an international force could take over.

But that’s a debatable strategy.

If a proposal to clear the area up to the Litani has been rejected, we are obviously talking about a rather small area. While the genuine security perimeter of Israel now extends well north of the Litani – in view of the longer range of the rockets – this area would obviously end far to the south of the Litani.

It would not halt the most damaging of the rocket attacks of Hezbollah.

And to expect an international force to quickly just come in and take over the occupation operation of the Israeli army in this zone is in all probability a pipe-dream. Few would be happy with such a mandate and even fewer would be ready to provide the forces. And even under the best of circumstances it would take months to deploy anything of substance.

The irony of the situation might well be that the longer Washington provides political encouragement for the Israeli operation to continue, the greater is the risk of Israel being stuck in a quagmire that would risk a strategic defeat.

That’s certainly not in the interest of even those of us being – like myself – highly critical of the Olmert policies.

Israel needs to be rescued from the consequences of its policies. An agreed cease-fire as quickly as possible.

But as long as Washington doesn’t see it – it will not happen.

Voice of Lebanon

26 juli 2006

It’s worth listening to the voices from Lebanon on the war being waged against and in their country.

The online version of the Beirut English-language newspaper The Daily Star gives a glimps that’s certainly worth reading.

Its report from the Rome meeting of foreign ministers of a number of the key states gives a vivid description of how at the closed-doors meeting of the Rome conference Lebanese Prime Minister Faud Siniora asked ”what future other than one of fear, frustration, financial ruin and fanaticism can stem from the rubble?

A good question. Is there a good answer?

An Israeli Strategic Failure?

26 juli 2006

One of the most impressive analysts of strategic issues in general and the Middle East in particular is Anthony Cordesman at the CSIS in Washington.

And he has just published a brief assessment of the Israeli war against Lebanon which I take the liberty of quoting rather extensively from.

In essence, it’s a rather devastating critique of the entire thing – and it’s coming from one of the most well-respected observers in Washington.

His overall conclusion on Israel’s military performance, based on the information available, is that ”it does not seem particularly impressive either in terms of strategy or execution. Israel seems to have escalated without a high probability it could do critical damage to Hezbollah or coerce the Lebanese government, and the tactical execution of its air and land actions seems to be weak.

Hasn’t then the dramatic escalation of the air and artilllery campaign weakened Hezbollah? Well, Cordesman says that ”there is little sign that either the Israeli Air Force (IAF) or the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has done critical damage to Hezbollah. Israel’s claims about Hezbollah casualties are vague, and reports of 100 killed would mean little in any case.”

Blowing up Hezbollah buildings breeds anger and support for the Hezbollah, but there are no high value facilities filled with critical equipment. Destroying most Hezbollah armament means using high cost precision weapons to destroy a few very low cost systems that are easily replaced. The political and propaganda value to the Hezbollah of showing it can ride out IAF strikes, survive, and grow offsets any losses reported to date.”

But if the aim was to coerce the Lebanese government in taking action against Hezbollah, what has then been the performany? Here, Cordesman is no less critical:

The broad-based IAF attacks on Lebanese targets like infrastructure, and the creation of some 600,000 refugees, has bred some anger against Hezbollah. It also has bred anger against Israel.”

What it has not done is lead the Lebanese government to rush towards decisive action against Hezbollah or towards useful reactions from the Lebanese Army. If anything, the IAF has hit enough Lebanese military targets to cause a larger reaction against Israel. The fact that the Lebanese government would not accept Secretary Rice’s offer to aid the Lebanese Army in moving south reflects the lack of Israeli success to date.

It remains somewhat of a mystery that Israel could believe that such a strategy would work:

Lebanon’s confessional politics remain a powder keg, and taking on a movement with so much influence among the Shi’ites, Lebanon’s largest faction, is difficult to impossible for a government that does not have massive domestic support in doing so.”

Many Lebanese do tacitly or overtly support the Hezbollah in its fight against Israel, and not simply Shi’ites. The IAF has almost certainly increased this support by exacting what are at least reported to be large numbers of strikes that hit civilians and civilian facilities. Collateral damage normally only results in temporary fear, but it breeds lasting anger.”

Again, we seem to be confronted with one of those intelligence failures. For all its unlimited access to Lebanon’s clear skies, the Israelis seems to have an imperfect knowledge of what’s really happening on the ground.

It’s a story we have seen before.

AS far as the artillery campaign goes, it ”seems to have had little impact other than to create refugees and hurt Israel’s image abroad. Precision fire is relatively pointless, just as area fire is, unless there is something targeted. Blowing up Hezbollah buildings accomplished no more in the area in artillery range than the rest of Lebanon, and finding and hitting small, dispersed Hezbollah targets remained extremely difficult.

If this is the case, the Israeli campaign might be on the verge of running into very major difficulties as to its future:

So far, the image is that Hezbollah is standing up to Israel — scarcely the image Israel wants and needs — and the fighting will be meaningless unless Israel moves north in strength, or some combination of an international force and Lebanese forces actually occupy the area.

Although it is likely that the Israeli’s have had limited tactical successes, it’s increasingly obvious that they can’t win or achieve their objectives. It’s now only by some sort of international involvement that they can be extracted from what otherwise might develop into a major failure:

According to Cordesman, ”this leaves the option of pressuring the international community into making up for Israel’s military limitations by forcing it to react to Lebanese suffering on Israeli terms.

And that is of course effectively the Secretary Rice advanced in Beirut.

Whether this will work long-term is a completely different issue:

The international force will probably have to do the heavy lifting, be willing to fight, and become the focus of new Hezbollah attacks and ambushes. Non-Muslims will be seen as occupiers and crusaders, and Muslims as traitors. Ambushes, bombings, and foreign volunteers will follow. Can anyone spell IED?

IED, for those not familiar with the term, means Improvised Explosive Devices.

And it’s IED that’s really bringing the US Army down in the campaign in Iraq.

I guess this is what they call ”the new Middle East”.