MIDDLE EAST POLICY COUNCIL
Bad Times: Worse Times in Store?
Anthony T. Sullivan
Tanks, truces, talks and terror litter the unforgiving ground of the Middle East. Much of the detritus scattered by the war in Gaza is likely to be left in place, only to be reshuffled by the next storm. The long range forecast for the Levant remains grim, with the next tempest already predictable and expected later this year.
Hamas remains deeply entrenched in the Gaza Strip, and still enjoys substantial popular support, even though some of that support may stem more from fear of retribution by Hamas enforcers against dissenters. However, Arab sources confirm that Israel did succeed in delivering a huge blow to Hamas' military arm during the recent conflict. Although Hamas succeeded in continuing to fire missiles into Israel throughout the 22-day war, including 19 on the final day, it failed to inflict any major damage on Israeli ground forces operating in the Strip. Worse for Hamas, Israel demonstrated that it had learned from its defeat in Lebanon in 2006 how to fight both Hizbullah and Hamas. Hamas imitated Hizbullah's tactics of three years ago and the results were disastrous. Arab informants report that Hamas fighters attempted to operate through a maze of underground tunnels, emerging occasionally to fire off salvos of missiles, but Israel largely ignored the rocket launches and concentrated on slaughtering Hamas fighters underground using bunker-busting bombs. Certainly, it is now clear that Hamas stands largely alone in the Arab world. Once again, the Arab street did not rise, and Hamas received no meaningful support from any Arab government. At least in the short term, Israel may well have succeeded in changing the correlation of forces between the Jordan and the sea. The longer term, however, is an entirely different matter.
On the eve of the conflict, Hamas brutally foiled an attempted coup by the Palestinian Authority. As Hamas went underground, a group of some 50 Fatah operatives attempted to proclaim a new, pro PA government in the Gaza Strip. They totally misjudged how much active support Fatah had, or at least could deliver, in Gaza, although most observers do think that Fatah retains the allegiance of about one third of the Strip's population. In the event, Hamas immediately seized the PA operatives and summarily executed them all. Immediately after the coup's failure, Mahmud Abbas, Chairman of the PA, called for Hamas and all other Palestinian factions to meet and find a way to reorganize intra-Palestinian relationships on a cooperative basis. Hamas immediately rejected this initiative, viewing it as a second coup attempt in other garb.
Hamas paid a large military price at the very beginning of the war. The initial Israeli air raids targeted a graduating cadre of Hamas' Executive Force, made up of new members of its elite police department, all assembled in one place for a much postponed graduation ceremony. In an instant, some 300 Palestinians were killed and over a thousand wounded. Hamas is said to have received oblique "assurances" from Egypt that Israel would remain quiet were Hamas to proceed with the graduation ceremony. Why Hamas chose to believe the Egyptian assurances remains a mystery. Israel, not surprisingly, viewed the assembly as a strategic opportunity, and struck hard. This miscalculation by Hamas was perhaps even more spectacular than the one by Fatah, since Hamas was fully aware that Cairo detests it as an outgrowth of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and a potential threat to domestic stability in Egypt.
At the start of the war, Hizbullah sources report, Hamas had some 150 Hizbullah military advisors and 300 Hizbullah-trained Palestinian refugees from Lebanon in Gaza City working with it. Furthermore, there were at least a few Iranian missile experts in Gaza, helping Hamas to assemble the rockets and to improve their accuracy and range. Teheran apparently succeeded in extricating these technicians during the last days of the fighting, fearing that they might be captured by the Israelis.
During the war, Hamas put on display its Hizbullah-supplied 122 mm. BM-21 rockets and larger, Iranian-made 240 mm. Fajr-3 missiles. The latter have a range of some 30 miles and early in the conflict succeeded in striking Beersheba and other relatively distant targets. Hamas is reported to have had some 40 al-Fajr missiles at the outbreak of the war. These projectiles arrived in Gaza from Syria, after being off-loaded from Syrian ships in Egypt and smuggled into the Gaza Strip. Corrupt or sympathetic Egyptian security officers, paid off by Iran, have long been facilitating Hamas' resupply. Bedouins in the Egyptian Sinai, especially the Gawarmas, have been playing a significant role in this trade. Hamas pays the Bedouins in cash, light arms, and drugs, which the Bedouins sell in the Egyptian black market. Discussions about hermetically sealing Hamas tunnels on the Rafah frontier ring somewhat hollow, given this history.
Hamas is well aware of Egypt's tacit collusion in its resupply of food as well as arms, even though the Egypt-Gaza frontier remains closed. In fact, during the war a split developed within Hamas as to whether or not the organization should use the issue of closure of the Egyptian border as a pressure point on Cairo to make Egypt more supportive of Hamas' terms for ending the conflict. In particular, Hamas leader Mahmud al-Zahar clashed with his colleagues, arguing that Egypt should not be politically bludgeoned over the frontier closure because Cairo has long turned a blind eye to the flow of food, medicine, fuel and arms through the hundreds of tunnels that have riddled the border area.
Perhaps more significantly, a split occurred between the Hamas leadership in Gaza and in Damascus. The "realists" in Gaza, including Ismail Haniyyah and Mahmud al-Zahar who both desperately wanted an end to hostilities, found themselves pitted against the adamancy and defiance of Khalid Mishal in Damascus. Both Gazans are now said to be disaffected with Mishal and indeed with Iran with which Mishal has now linked his political future. Mishal is said to be expecting the "demise" of the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Into this void Mishal is reportedly planning to insert himself. Indeed, some now say that Mishal may well emerge as the future Palestinian leader, who will in his own person subsume and transcend what once was Hamas. Mishal is said to be planning to work with a "new Iran that will open up to the United States."
Elsewhere, storm clouds are again gathering over Lebanon. Now, it does seem that 2009 may well see a reprise of the Israeli-Hizbullah war of 2006.
A highly reliable military source in the Middle East reports that in late 2008 Israel officially designated Hizbullah as a "strategic enemy," and decided to "remove Hizbullah as a military movement during the first year of the Obama administration." This decision is said to be unrelated to anything that Israel might or might not do in connection with the Iranian nuclear program. Moreover, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is said to have told French President Nicolas Sarkozy during his visit to Tel Aviv during the Gaza war that although Israel was fighting Hamas today it would be fighting Hizbullah in Lebanon tomorrow. Furthermore, France reportedly has informed the Lebanese government of what specific targets Israel will hit inside Lebanon during the new Israeli-Hizbullah war. Having labeled Lebanon an "Iranian post on the Mediterranean," Israel will reportedly destroy Lebanese infrastructure in its entirety (airports, harbors, warehouses, power and water plants, bridges, and highways), plus the Lebanese presidential palace, the headquarters of the prime minister, the residence of the speaker of the house, the parliament building, the banking area, and all Lebanese army bases. In other words, Israel will wage war during 2009 on all of Lebanon rather than just on Hizbullah. The sort of campaign that Israel conducted in the Gaza Strip will be expanded and imposed on all parts of its northern neighbor. As justification for any new campaign in Lebanon, Israel is likely to adduce the presence of Hizbullah military personnel in Gaza as evidence of the regional threat that Hizbullah now supposedly poses.
As for Hizbullah, Israel is apparently planning to destroy all of its missile systems and to pursue it as far as the northern Biqaa Valley. With Hizbullah shattered and Lebanon supposedly having "agreed to exit the Iranian alliance," the U.S. is said to be prepared to request the Arab Gulf States to pay the cost of the country's reconstruction. The expected tab: $20 billion.
Possible confirmation of this entire scenario is suggested by reports of CentCom Commander David Petraeus' visit to Beirut in early last December. During his brief stopover, General Petraeus is said to have "hinted" to Lebanese army commander Jean Qahwaji that Hizbullah's armament would "not be an issue" within a year after then President-elect Barack Obama moved into the White House. General Petraeus has also been quoted as stating that during the first year of President Obama's term the Middle East will "witness extremely significant developments." There would seem to be much food for thought here.
Hizbullah is well aware of these darkening skies. It is cognizant of Hamas' fate in Gaza, and is determined to do all in its power to deprive Israel of any pretext to launch a new war in Lebanon. Indeed, authoritative sources within the organization state that Hizbullah has decided not to attack Israel again. Rather, Hizbullah's increasing military arsenal is now focused exclusively on the Lebanese army, and its political focus is on matters largely Lebanese. As has been extensively discussed in previous issues of the Levant Monitor, the Lebanese army is and will remain Hizbullah's public enemy number one. Despite much discussion, any meaningful collaboration by Hizbullah with the Lebanese army to create a national front against Israel is most unlikely.
Hizbullah now fears that in any future war Israel will attempt to permanently alter the demography of south Lebanon. Israel is believed likely to try to clear the entire region of its population and make it a no go area in the future, possibly by sowing the entire area with a new harvest of cluster bombs. Any such scenario would be a disaster for Hizbullah, and indeed for all of Lebanon. But at the same time, and depending on exactly how any such war were to begin, it might undermine at least some of the support for Hizbullah among Lebanese Shiites. In any event, Hizbullah is now fully persuaded, according to a source within the organization, that any new war with Israel would produce not a "Divine victory," as in 2006, but rather a "Satanic tragedy."
Iran appears to agree with this assessment. During the Gaza war Teheran sent Ali Larijani, Shura Council Head, and Sa'id Jalili, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, to Damascus and Beirut to make sure that Hizbullah did not open a new front against Israel. Jalili met with Hizbullah head Hasan Nasrallah and Ahmad Jibril, commander of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Jalili wanted to make certain that Hizbullah and the PFLP-GC worked together to prevent any of the numerous Sunni Jihadists in Lebanon from provoking a wider conflict by firing missiles into northern Israel. Although a handful of missiles were fired from the Naqoura area toward Haifa, Israel barely responded and the danger of any immediate, wider conflict blew over. Iran made it abundantly clear to Hizbullah and the PFLP-GC that it would not authorize any party to get involved in the Gaza war from Lebanese territory. All this was not a difficult sell, since it was at least very much Hizbullah's own inclination.
Teheran's involvement in Lebanon contrasted sharply with its earlier advice to Hamas not to renew the truce with Israel. The purpose of this Janus-faced policy, Lebanese sources suggest, has been to persuade the United States that Iran is an indispensable regional actor, capable of provoking major problems if it chooses but at the same time able and willing to act as a stabilizing force far beyond its own frontiers. Teheran does seem to be open to a new beginning with the Obama administration, but only if its geostrategic interests are recognized and accommodated.
Any such accommodation will be difficult for the United States to accomplish. Most obviously, the Saudis are dead set against any warming of U.S.-Iranian relations. Worse, German intelligence recently uncovered a nascent Iranian intelligence operation featuring Lebanese Shiites recruited by Teheran to infiltrate and destabilize the heavily Shiite eastern province of Saudi Arabia. The plan was to organize these operatives into sleeper cells before unleashing them to assassinate or otherwise target Saudi officials. Teheran anticipated that the consequent campaign of Saudi repression against the Saudi Shiite community as a whole would destabilize the Kingdom. To help matters along, Iran is said to have planned an intensive anti-Saudi media campaign, fueled by massive demonstrations in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrein. This is not the sort of activity to foster any alteration of current American policy.
Lebanese sources report that cracking this one operation does not mean the collapse of Iranian plans to sabotage Saudi Arabia. All evidence suggests that Iranian intelligence has recruited many Shiites from Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq who for some time have been successfully slipping into Saudi Arabia. This surely is facilitated by the fact that the current atmosphere in the Arab world is strongly anti-Saudi. There is widespread public condemnation of the Kingdom, especially for its silence concerning the war in Gaza. Of course, this provides an ideal context for Iranian intelligence to work.
Clearly, an immediate and vigorous new approach by the Obama administration to longstanding Middle East problems is needed today more than ever.