Beirut/Jerusalem/Damascus/Washington/Brussels : The Israeli-Lebanese border is exceptionally calm and uniquely dangerous, both for the same reason: fear that a new round of hostilities would be far more violent and could spill over regionally.
Drums of War: Israel and the “Axis of Resistance”, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines developments since the indecisive 2006 confrontation. It focuses on the de facto deterrence regime that has helped keep the peace: all parties now know that a next conflict would not spare civilians and could escalate into broader regional warfare. However, the process this regime perpetuates – mutually reinforcing military preparations; enhanced military cooperation among Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbollah; escalating Israeli threats – pulls in the opposite direction and could trigger the very outcome it has averted so far.
“Today, no party can soberly contemplate the prospect of a war that would be uncontrolled, unprecedented and unscripted”, says Peter Harling, Crisis Group’s Project Director for Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. “But underlying dynamics of the logic of deterrence carry the seeds of a possible breakdown”.
Should hostilities break out, Israel will want to hit hard and fast to avoid duplicating the 2006 scenario. It will be less likely to distinguish between Hizbollah and the Lebanese government and more likely to take aim at Syria – because it is both a more vulnerable target and Hizbollah’s principal supplier of military and logistical support. Meanwhile, the Shiite movement is bolstering its military might and, as tensions have risen, the so-called “axis of resistance” that it and its allies form has intensified security ties. Involvement by one in the event of attack against another no longer can be dismissed as idle speculation.
Beneath the surface, in short, tensions are mounting. The key to unlocking this situation is to restart meaningful negotiations between Israel on the one hand and Syria and Lebanon on the other. Short of that, it is hard to see why any of the actors would alter its calculations or how the underlying roots of the conflict (Syrian and Lebanese fears regarding Israel; Israeli anxiety at Hizbollah’s ever-growing arsenal) might be addressed.
Prospects for such a development remain at best uncertain, so shorter-term steps are needed to minimise risks of renewed hostilities. UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which was adopted in the wake of the 2006 fighting, has played an important part in maintaining quiet but has lost momentum. Reviving it requires pushing for an agreement leading to Israel’s withdrawal from the northern (Lebanese) part of Ghajar village and bolstering the size and capacity of Lebanon’s armed forces in the South. More effective consultative mechanisms between the parties in conflict also would help defuse tensions, clarify red lines and minimise threats of an accidental confrontation.
“Lebanon’s problems for the most part are derivative of and tied to broader regional tensions”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “Until serious efforts are mounted to tackle these wider issues, the risk of conflict will persist. In the meantime, the world should cross its fingers that fear of a catastrophic confrontation will continue to be reason enough for the parties not to provoke one”.
2 August 2010