What Hezbollah expected to gain by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and igniting the latest round of Middle East violence may never be fully known. Nor may we understand what Israel expected to gain from its full-throttle response. But one thing is clear: Measuring who won and who lost will be a process of determining who lost most and who lost least.
Since the start of the current Middle East crisis, analysts have been trying to figure out who is responsible for this mess. Who had made the crucial decisions that triggered the fighting between the Israeli military and the Hezbollah guerrillas, which has resulted in death of many Israeli and Lebanese civilians and the destruction of villages and urban centers in both countries?
And why were these decisions made in the first place? Or to put it in more stark terms: Cui bono? Who benefits from what seems to be to anyone watching the horrifying images on television, an un-winnable war as well as a major humanitarian crisis?
Some observers have speculated that the Iranians and Syrians - who have been the main sources of financial and military assistance to the Hezbollah - encouraged the Lebanese-Shiite militia to kidnap two Israeli soldiers, a move that led to Israeli military retaliation and ignited the round of violence we are witnessing now.
Motive and opportunity
Underlying this theory are the two basic elements in any prosecutor’s charges against an accused: motive and opportunity. The argument goes as follows: Iran’s leaders were facing pressure from the United States and its allies - including a possible threat sanctions by the UN Security Council - to end the government’s alleged nuclear military program.
Thus, Iran decided to use its proxy, Hezbollah, to deliver a blow to America’s proxy, Israel, in hopes that an ensuing regional crisis would shift attention from the nuclear crisis.
Similarly, Syria’s Bashar Assad - forced by the Americans and the French to withdraw from Lebanon and was being isolated diplomatically by Washington - was trying to strengthen his government’s position in the Levant through Hezbollah’s actions.
In the final analysis, the Ayatollahs in Tehran and the Baathists in Damascus could have benefited from the crisis since it would have demonstrated to the Americans that trying to isolate them would be costly - and that the Iranians and Syrians would have no choice but to engage them if order to contain further instability in the region.
Mirror imaging this speculation is the suggestion that both Israel and its patron the United States had hoped to use this crisis to destroy the Hezbollah as a viable military force. As a result, they would not only deal a blow to Hezbollah’s patrons, Iran and Syria, but also strengthen the power of the democratically elected and pro-western government in Beirut.
Bush’s green light
Analysts who advance this line of reasoning suggest that U.S. President George W. Bush had given a “green light” to Israel to launch its fierce military campaign, noting that the Americans rushed a delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel to help it destroy Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.
And in any case, how can one explain the Israeli decision to respond to the kidnapping of its soldiers by using military force (instead of negotiating for their release, as it had done in the past) if not by concluding that the crucial move has a larger strategic objective favored by Washington and Jerusalem: Wiping out Hezbollah and weakening Iran and Syria?
We may never know …
The above speculations are all, well, speculations. And, as the cliché goes, we may never know what really happened. After all, historians are still trying to figure out who was really responsible for the start of World War I, which ended up transforming the political map of Europe, just as they continue to debate crucial decisions made during World War II, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It is quite possible that much of what has happened was the product of a bunch of leaders “muddling though,” as each responded to the other’s move without having a coherent long-term strategy.
Perhaps all that the Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, wanted was to exchange the kidnapped Israeli soldiers for Hezbollah members who are jailed in Israel. It is also possible that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expected that a limited air campaign would force the Hezbollah to release the Israeli soldiers.
Nasrallah may have calculated that Olmert - who, unlike his predecessor Ariel Sharon, had limited military experience - would hesitate to use military force against the guerillas. Or perhaps Olmert was concerned that that was Nasrallah’s line of thinking and wanted to demonstrate to the Hezbollah leader that he was wrong.
But one thing is becoming clear: There will not be any major winners coming out of the latest bloody conflict in the Middle East. Notwithstanding the “narratives” each side will try to spin as a way of demonstrating that it “won,” the real question will be, “Who lost more?”
No winners, only losers
From that perspective, there is little doubt that the tiny country of Lebanon will probably be regarded as the biggest loser. Lebanon had just gone through its celebrated Cedar Revolution, getting Syria to withdraw its military troops from the country. This was followed by open democratic parliamentary elections in May and June, 2005, and the gradual strengthening of its economy.
Now, almost literally overnight, the country has now been transformed into a basket case. Its two major economic sectors - tourism and commerce - have been completely destroyed. Lebanon’s best case scenario: A long process of economic rebuilding and political reconciliation involving the disarming of Hezbollah.
Worst case scenario: The country collapses into another long and bloody civil war that helps Hezbollah establish gain more power.
Even if Israel succeeds in destroying the Hezbollah’s military infrastructure in southern Lebanon, it will likely find itself in a more vulnerable position in the Middle East. Not only will it be confronting a more hostile Arabs world, but its failure to win the military confrontation with Hezbollah in a swift manner - remember, this is the nation that once defeated thee Arab armies in six days in 1967 - is bound to raise major questions about its ability to deter future challenges from the region’s other nations and non-state groups.
U.S. leaders are also likely to begin questioning their long-held axiom that Israel is a “strategic asset” of the United States in the Middle East. Some would argue that it has proved to be more of a “burden” for U.S. interests this time.
Short-term gains, long-term losses
Hezbollah may have gained some short-term benefits from the crisis as Arabs and Muslims hail its success in standing up to mighty Israel. But the Lebanese-Shiite militias will be blamed by many Lebanese for the destruction of their country, a sentiment that could increase pressure on the Hezbollah to disarm.
A refusal by Hezbollah to do that could lead to a new Lebanese civil war in which the organization could find itself isolated and unable to count on outside aid. If anything, Hezbollah could prove to be the weakest link in a “Shiite crescent” led by Iran and backed by a Shiite-led Iraq.
From the U.S. perspective, the crisis marked the final collapse of President Bush’s ambitious plan to remake and “democratize” the Middle East. Bush’s policies have created the conditions for strengthening the influence of radical Arab-Sunni forces (Hamas in Palestine) and Arab-Shiite forces (in Iraq).
Threat of civil wars
Now both Iraq and Lebanon are facing the prospect of civil wars - and there is no end in sight to the Israelis-Palestinian conflict in the Holy Land. U.S. support for Israel during this war has helped to tarnish further its image among Arabs and Muslims.
And contrary to earlier expectations, it is not clear that Iran and Syria have strengthened their bargaining power vis-à-vis Washington as a result of this crisis. The attacks by Hezbollah on civilian centers in Israel will probably only fuel western concerns about Iran’s nuclear military capability. (“If Hezbollah was able to inflict so much damage using primitive Katyusha rockets, imagine the damage a nuclear Iran could do.”)
Reassessing strategic ties
It is not inconceivable that Washington and its allies will try now to “detach” Syria from Iran and co-opt it into the pro-western camp. But it is very unlikely that the United States will be willing to press Israel to return the occupied Golan Heights as part of an Israeli-Syrian peace accord (and there is no sign that Israel would make such a move on its own).
The only possible good news resulting from the crisis has to do with the bad news. The rising influence of the radical forces in the Middle East could create incentives for the more moderate elements in the Arab world and Israel to step up the efforts towards accommodation and help revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But don’t hold your breath.