Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Rumor of Punishment or of War?

There is "chatter" about a renewed Israel-Hezbollah war:

It has been more than a decade since the last open confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel; yet in the last few months, there has been a lot of chatter among Hezbollah and Israel observers over the rising tensions between the two adversaries. The drums of war have been beating even more loudly in the media.

The author seems to answer the question of whether there will be war with "no," but let's look at the factors that lead the author to that answer.

One, note that this is about a war between Israel and Hezbollah and not a war between Israel and Lebanon, the actual UN member state unable to control the Iranian-sponsored armed group and sub-national government that controls much of southeastern Lebanon and exerts great influence on the formal government.

Two, the author says neither wants a war because of the cost of the last one.

Three, Israel is building defenses along their border that indicate a desire to hold the border while the Israelis pound Hezbollah from the air.

Four, Hezbollah has likely reacted to the pounding by getting effective air defense systems that will make it harder for Israel to use helicopters and pose a risk to aircraft, too.

Five, Hezbollah has (enormously) increased the number of and quality of rockets fired at northern Israeli civilians in 2006. Israel was unable to suppress the fire despite aerial supremacy.

Six, Hezbollah has gained a lot of experience for their fighters in the Syrian civil war and in commanding forces in battle. This gives Hezbollah the opportunity to actually invade Israel.

Seven, the civil war in Syria means that perhaps Hezbollah could open a front in the Golan Heights, which Hezbollah believes will spread the Israelis out.

Eight, despite the opportunity of a longer front, Hezbollah is busy in Syria so doesn't want a war. And Arab states in the region are more hostile to Hezbollah because of its Iran ties rather than sympathetic to the group's anti-Israel fight. So Hezbollah is less likely to start a fight.

Nine, Israel knows that while it can inflict a lot of damage in Lebanon, it can't quickly smash Hezbollah and stop the bombardment of Israeli civilians from all those rockets. Hezbollah believes Israel won't risk war.

So the conclusion is that while Hezbollah sees themselves as having a stronger hand to play, they are too busy in Syria right now; and they think Israel can't overcome Hezbollah's rocket arsenal.

I don't see it that way. I think Israel has an opportunity to really inflict damage on Hezbollah while Hezbollah is busy in Syria.

From my perspective, Israel should have trounced Hezbollah in 2006 but screwed the pooch with their reliance on air power; and Hezbollah despite proclaiming survival as a great victory was hurt by the sheer volume of Israeli bombardment. It was a draw but only because Israel failed to win.

Let me go through the points of the article in light of my perspective.

On the first observation: The 2006 war was basically a contest between Hezbollah bombarding Israel and Israel bombarding Lebanon which the nonstate actor occupies for their war against Israel. Do you think Israel cared more or less about the damage to Israel than Hezbollah cared about the damage to Lebanon? Does Iran care about Lebanon? Iran will fight Israel to the last Arab if they have their way.

But the situation at least leaves room for Israel to act without waging a war against a member of the United Nations.

The key for Israel in a new war is focusing on Hezbollah rather than hoping even more damage to Lebanon will compel the weak Lebanese government to control Hezbollah. How did weakening Lebanon make that outcome more likely? Has it worked over the last 11 years? No. The concept was stupid.

Two: Wars always cost and yet they always seem to be waged. Hezbollah is geared up to fight Israel as their reason for existence (and as the price for Iranian financing and weapons). Hezbollah will wage war against Israel when it suits them (or when it suits Iran).

For Israel, they have to know that there will be a cost but that the cost will be less for Israel if Israel chooses the timing to benefit them rather than cede the initiative to Hezbollah to start the war when it is best for Hezbollah.

In my view, the best timing for Israel is when the Hezbollah fight in Syria is about to end (whether from defeat, victory, or just exhaustion) to maximize the losses Hezbollah suffers there but before Hezbollah can deploy back to Lebanon and recover from the effort.

Three: Israeli border defenses are useful in a number of ways and not just to passively hold the border against a Hezbollah ground offensive while Israeli air power slams Hezbollah and Lebanese targets.

Four: While the 2006 war may have led Hezbollah to believe that Israel will only use air power, Israel has an army with artillery. Israel rediscovered that fact and used the army effectively in Gaza against Hamas since 2006. Despite the talk that emphasizes a repeat of the 2006 Israeli strategy, I think the army will have the dominant role in the next war.

Five: The increase in Hezbollah rockets actually increases the Israeli imperative to attack with ground troops and occupy the rocket-firing locations. Israel has anti-rocket defenses but the ammunition is limited and simply cannot last until Hezbollah runs out of offensive rockets. Israel's Iron Dome defenses can only buy time to stop the rocket barrage. The army is the only way to stop the rockets before Iron Dome magazines go black.

Six: Hezbollah has been badly bled in the war in Syria. I'm not so sure that the experience has made them battle hardened. In 1990, the talk was that the Iran-Iraq War made Iraq's army battle hardened to resist America's offensive to liberate Kuwait. Instead the Iraqi army was bled white by that earlier war and melted away under Coalition aerial bombardment and the American-led ground attack.

Further, while in the long run having men and commanders with combat experience in the Syrian civil war will be valuable to Hezbollah, in the short run the experience is against light infantry rebels holding ground in a slow moving war with rather static front lines. That experience will make Hezbollah fighters and commanders more vulnerable to an Israeli blitz of armor and airborne infantry supported by artillery and air power that punches through Hezbollah's front to advance deep into their rear and hit them from multiple directions.

You may have heard stories (and you certainly read it here) that after the counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Army (and Marines) became "unbalanced." That doesn't mean our ground troops were "broken." It means that they became focused on winning the wars we were in and had to let skills for conventional combat atrophy. We are in the process of retraining combat experienced troops to fight conventional enemy troops. That takes time. It will take time for Hezbollah, too.

Seven: Israel is far stronger than Hezbollah. Hezbollah has it backwards because a longer front stretches Hezbollah's more limited capacity. And Israel was prepared to face the Syrian army on Golan. Hezbollah is a lesser problem on that border.

Eight: While Hezbollah may be persuaded not to attack Israel because it is busy in Syria and because Arab states are unlikely to back Hezbollah, those reasons actually make it more likely for Israel to initiate the war.

Remember too that Israel's usefulness in resisting Iran will also mute Arab government hostile reactions to an Israeli attack. Even in 2006, Arab reaction was muted enough to give Israel a month to wage war on Hezbollah. Israel will have another window of opportunity to really harm Hezbollah. And a ground invasion would allow Israel to inflict that damage within that window unlike the wasted opportunity of 2006.

And nine: Saying Israel can't pound Hezbollah enough with firepower simply argues for a land invasion--not the inability of Israel to attack Hezbollah.

Considering all that, I think (and have long thought) that if timed right, Israel can advance into Lebanon on several axes while the fortifications allow Israeli troops on the border to hold the line against enemy thrusts into Israel; and will be useful once the Israelis withdraw back to the border after what is in effect a giant raid and punitive expedition.

In 2006, the Israeli belated and small-scale ground war consisted of frontal assaults on prepared Hezbollah defensive positions. A large mobile invasion that gets behind Hezbollah and strikes from all directions will collapse those defenses. And the outnumbered Hezbollah forces will be unprepared to face a mechanized and airborne blitz supported by precision firepower completely unlike the battles Hezbollah has waged in Syria against ill-equipped light infantry rebels.

Further, many Hezbollah forces will be in Syria and if they rush back to the Israel front they will be vulnerable to Israeli air and missile attack as they move.

This kind of offensive will put Israel in control of the southern Lebanon rocket-launching and storage infrastructure to shut it down at its source. That's the best missile defense.

The Israelis should also refrain from trying to punish the Lebanese state for failing to control Hezbollah. Weakening Lebanon is backassward. Reduce the power of Hezbollah and maybe Lebanon can exercise more control over their territory. Focus on the actual enemy Hezbollah and leave Lebanese infrastructure alone!

And if the Israelis are really ambitious, they'll push beyond the frontline rocket positions in southern Lebanon and push into the Bekaa Valley into Hezbollah's rear areas to tear up and kill the assets and people there (and collect intelligence by gathering up every computer and phone they find).

Israel screwed the pooch in 2006 by failing to use their far superior ground power to fight Hezbollah.

If Israel does it right the next time, they'll wage a war and not a punishment (that harmed Lebanon as much as Hezbollah) by going all the way to Baalbek and really tearing up Hezbollah before pulling back to their border fortifications.

In a perfect world,  this war is coordinated with Arab states and the UN for a post-war plan to rebuild Lebanon's state to reimpose control over all their territory and eject Iranian influence there.