In the last few days, the Middle East has all but deteriorated into another Arab-Israeli war. Already engaged in Gaza in response to the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, Israel has now been forced to open another front in the north. Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two more Israeli soldiers and its shelling along Israel’s northern border has provoked a severe Israeli response, as it should. The problem is that the response is misdirected. Lebanon is not the right address for reprisal. Syria is.
Israel’s defensive attack on Lebanon simply lacks strategic purpose. After years of occupation by Syria, and despite the recent democratic elections, Lebanon is still a very weak, and not fully independent, country. Its government is still under the sway of Damascus and Teheran. Syrian and Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah, operate from Lebanon and drag its government into otherwise unwanted conflicts. In 2005, following the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, Syrian forces purportedly withdrew from Lebanon. A popular uprising, coupled with international pressure, freed Lebanon from direct Syrian military presence. This was not the end of Syrian operations in Lebanon, however. Syrian-backed Hezbollah and the Syrian secret service have continued their activities there unabated. The responsibility for the Hezbollah assaults on Israel thus lies squarely in the hands of the Syrians, and not their vulnerable Lebanese hosts. Israel’s decision to attack Lebanon is thus a strategic mistake.
Israel’s military action is not only a local error, insofar as Lebanon lacks the capability of reigning in Hezbollah, but it is also an error that has large implications for the entire region. The spontaneous democratic Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, which drew a million people to the streets calling for their freedom from Syrian occupation, points to the success of America’s Forward Strategy of Freedom, the president’s vision for a free and democratic Middle East. With the fall of the dictatorial governments in Kabul and Baghdad, democratic ideas have clearly begun to capture the imagination of people in the region, and the Lebanese have been the first to take action on their own. Destabilizing the Lebanese government therefore threatens to undermine democratic aspirations for the region and to empower the enemies of Israel and the West. No one wants this Lebanese government destroyed more than Iran and Syria, who would like to revive their direct control and oppression. By taking action that could easily kill the hostage Lebanese government, Israel may hand Syria, Iraq, and Hezbollah a collective strategic victory that the three alone could never have achieved.
Furthermore, Israel’s attack on Lebanon seems to be reverting back to its old “Grapes of Wrath” strategy. That operation — which took place in Lebanon in 1996 in response to Hezbollah shelling on the northern border — was ineffective, morally questionable, and strategically flawed. First, Grapes of Wrath did nothing to address the real Hezbollah threat. Just the opposite. It resulted in a ceasefire that sanctioned and codified Hezbollah’s presence in the area, therein conferring a degree of legitimacy on that terror group. Second, the operation, during which 118 Lebanese civilians were killed, was morally questionable because it played into Hezbollah’s tactic of using civilians as human shields. Israel had no intentions of killing those people in Qana, but that was the inevitable result of fighting a war on Hezbollah’s terms. Third, it was flawed strategically because instead of delegitimizing Hezbollah in Lebanese politics and deepening fissures between Hezbollah and various Lebanese communities, it drove those communities in despair to seek protection where they could get it, namely Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. Israel therein secured for Iran and Syria a major strategic gain. Israel now could once again be facilitating the repositioning of Syria and Iran as the protectors of, rather than aggressors against, Lebanese sovereignty. If Israel has not learned its lessons from Grapes of Wrath, it could repeat all of these errors and fail to secure both its borders and its moral standing.
But as much as Israel has to be faulted for an abysmal strategic imagination, the United States must also bear some responsibility since it failed to fully oust the Syrian terror network from Lebanon when we had the opportunity to do so in 2005. The U.S. played a central role in stripping Lebanon of its Syrian occupation, but it left the job half done. When Hezbollah demonstrated on behalf of the Syrian occupation calling for its continuation, the group exposed itself as an agent of Syria and Iran and not an indigenous patriotic Lebanese force. That was enough to trigger a million man march in the streets of Beirut, but not enough to trigger a change in U.S. policy. Having left Hezbollah intact, the U.S. essentially left Iran and Syria in control. The chaos and violence that we see now was predictable and inevitable because it serves the interests of Damascus and Tehran.
Forced now to confront an empowered and energized Hezbollah, Israel must remember who its enemies are. The bottom line is that Israel’s gripe is not with Lebanon; it with Syria and Iran, and their escalating confrontation with the West. Given the explosive nature of the situation, Israel ought not let its adversaries define the battleground. Rather, it ought to carry the battle to them.
— Meyrav Wurmser is the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.