The united states has a vital role to play in the middle east but the problem is how?

Professor Pan Zhenqiang*



The Middle East is now engulfed in the war flames again. As if Iraq has not been devastating enough to the people of the region, this time the fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon threatens to be even worse in its dark consequence: the increasing Lebanese and Israeli civilian casualties and sufferings, the continuing destruction of civil infrastructures and the looming prospect of the spill-over to the whole region.

The conflict was triggered by an incident, which had in fact routinely occurred before in the decades-long Israeli- Arab confrontation. The Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight in a cross-border raid on July 12 apparently in an attempt to swap the Israeli soldiers for three Lebanses held in Israeli jails. The Hezbollah had evidently seemed to expect the usual limited response from Israel like sending commandos into Lebanon, seizing Hezbollah officials and briefly targeting specific strongholds in southern Lebanon. Then a European country like Germany would come up quietly to act as a mediator. The deal being done, everthying turned back to normal. But this time, determined to crush the Hezbollah and end the cross-border clashes for good by exploiting the incident, Israel clearly wants to change the rules of the game and launched an all-out offensive on the Hezbollah in Southern lebanon that immediately produced impact beyond the two warring parties.

This is, indeed, the latest version of an asymmetrical warfare. Backed by the United States, Israel has the overwhelming military superiority, and indeed showed immense freedom of action in its operations. Since the war started on July 12, Tel Aviv has continued fierce airstrikes at the Lebanese villages, and destroyed any infrastructures or buildings that were suspected to be the hiding places of the Hezbollah fighters. In the meantime, the Israeli ground force began the incursion into the Lebanon in the hope of creating a buffer zone to prevent the Hezbollah from rocket launching to its territory. But like any fighting in a foreign country, the Israelis have many disadvantages. The terrain in Southern Lebanon is friendlier towards the guerillas, who use the tactics of hit and run on its own territory. Secondly, although the Hezbollah seems to be taken by surprise by the Israeli sudden massive campaigns, it has strategically made meticulous preparation for this showdown since the pullout of the Israeli troops from Lebanon in 2000. As a result, the Hezbollah has been able to mobilize thousands of trained reservists or volunteers to join in the battles allegedly equipped with over ten thousand of rockets and laser-guided antitank artillery pieces ready for use. Moreover, the Hezbollah has evidently powerful backing from Syria and Iran, who have provided generous support in terms of resources and weapons. This explains why the guerrillas under the heavy Israeli military pressure were still able to rain hundreds of rockets onto Northern Israel; which even reached targets in the city of Haifa, the third largest in Israel. "We will never lay down arms", vowed Mahmoud Komati, deputy chief of the Hezbollah's political arm, stressing that the Hezbollah has even more powerful rockets to strike deeper into the Israeli territory.

Innocent civilian people have become the biggest victims. As of August 3, when the fighting went into the fourth week, more than 750,000 Lebanese have fled their homes in the fighting. Many thousands more are still believed holed up in the south, taking refuge in schools, hospitals or basements of apartment buildings amid the fighting - many of them too afraid to flee. According to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, at least more than 900 people have been killed, 3,000 injured in Lebanon. One third of the casualties were children under 12. On the Israeli side, 51 have also been killed in the rocket attack by the Hezbollah guerillas. On July 30, an Israeli airstrike on a three-story building in the south Lebanese village of Qana killed 56 people; almost all of them were women and children. This has so far been the worst single death toll of one air raid by the Israeli.

During the course of the Israeli air campaigns, even the UN personnel were victimized. On the early morning of July 26th, an Israeli air bombing on a building of the United Nations Interim Force (UNIFIL) in Southern Lebanon killed 4 UN observers including one from China. The whole international community was shocked by the indiscriminate slaughter. The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan accused that Israel appeared to have struck the UN post deliberately although Israel vehemently denies the accusation.

The fighting has also threatened to generate a grave environmental disaster in the Middle East. According to a Western media report, a black coat of oil now covers the Lebanese capital's once-beautiful sandy Mediterranean shore, spilled from a power plant that was knocked down by Israeli warplanes. About 80 miles of Lebanon's shores had been affected by a spill of more that 110,000 barrels of oil from the Jiyeh plant, about 12 miles south of Beirut, the city's mayor, Abdel Monem Ariss, said. The plant was in flames after it was hit in Isreali air raids, cutting electricity to many areas in the capital and south Lebanon. The green Line Association, a Lebanese environmental group, said in a press release that four of the six fuel tanks at Jiyeh's power plant have burned completely, while the fifth, which is the main cause of the spill, is still burning. It said the Lebanese Environment Ministry was worried that the sixth tank, which is underground, will explode. Arris said if the spill is not contained soon it will spread to the rest of the Mediterranean.(i)

The Israeli unscrupulous air raids with no regard to proportion and discrimination, have sparked extensive international outrage and calls for a swift end to the fighting. Demand for an immediate ceasefire has particularly gathered momentum after the Israeli bombing raid on Qana. However, the international effort has so far all been continuously resisted by Israel and its greatest supporter-the United States.

There seem good reasons for Israel to be so defiant of the international pressure. The US invasion of Iraq has fundamentally changed the strategic landscape in the Middle East in the favor of the US and Israeli side. The Arab countries including the Palestinian forces have been further reduced in strength. The outside powers like Russian and EU have been deprived of their traditional clout in the region. The UN has also largely been marginalized. In Washington, Tel Aviv has now an ally in the White House who seems more pro-Israel than any of the previous administrations. All of these contributed to a new imbalance in the Middle East which helps set a stage for Israel to have a military free hand in the fighting virtually with impunity, and a more ambitious design to achieve its strategic goal of ensuring security based on the military dominance. Thus, for all the tough resistance by Hezbollah guerillas, the Israel arrogance has not abated, and will not in the future unless Washington changes its policy. "There is no cease-fire, there will be no cease-fire". Israeli Prime Minister Olmert declared. "We are determined to succeed in this struggle. We will not give up on our goal to live a life free of terror."(ii) To that end, Israel's Security Cabinet approved widening the ground offensive in Lebanon, planed to call up more reserve soldiers to support its expanded ground operation. Three divisions-meaning at least a further 15,000 reservists are now called up. The Israelis have also imposed a tight land, air and naval blockade on Lebanon, and to hit all the main highways leading to the Syrian border, the last vital routes to that country, in order to pressure the Lebanese government to accept Israel's conditions for the end of the war.

At the same time, Israel continued its airstrike at Gaza strip in the name of pounding another self-defined terrorist group-Hamas. An Israeli air strike even flattened the Palestinian Foreign Ministry building in Gaza City. The Israeli military has since killed more than 85 Palestinians in Gaza, about half of them civilians. The situation has made Israel fight at two fronts simultaneously.

Will the bloodshed come to an end in the coming weeks? Only the United States can perhaps provide the answer. In fact it is the US backing that has sustained the Israeli unscrupulous military actions; it is, therefore, only the US that can eventually rein in Israel. The problem is that the Bush administration, seems to believe that the Israeli massive campaigns may work more in its own interests, and thus see the overlapping of the gains with Israel out of the routing of Hezbollah through military strikes.

Washington does not even care to hide its strategic calculations in its full support of Israel. The overall view in Washington seems that the war in Lebanon serves to provide the US a golden chance to further push its grand design to prepare a new Middle East based on the Western value.

In the first place, like Israel, the Bush administration also sees the fighting as a component part of the war against terror. The two most influential Arab militant groups (Hezbollah and Hamas) in the region are both vehemently anti-American and anti-Semitist. To reduce and eliminate them is, therefore, an essential step to remove one of the last regional non-state actors against the US-type democratization in the region, and strengthen the hands of those pro-Western, moderate Arab countries. Secondly, the Bush administration also sees the close ties of the Hezbollah with Syria and Iran, both of whom are the leading Islamic countries against the US and Israel in the region. The war in Lebanon is naturally thought another way of weakening the influence of the two Islamic militant countries. Pressuring them to change their course of policies. Finally,the war in Lebanon may also, in its view, provide a chance for the US to remove the non-efficient role of the United Nations, and to replace it with a combat-capable, Western-led international peacekeeping force to police the Middle East.

The above motivations evedently drove Washington to provide not only specific support like supplying precision guided munitions for Israel in the air raids in Lebanon, but also, more importantly, a moral cover to shield Israel from the international pressure and condemnation on Tel Aviv's military actions. "Israel is exercising its right to defend itself", US President Push stressed. As for the immediate ceasefire the overwhelming majority of the international community demands, the US Secretary of State Condi Rice retorted rather scornfully "I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returing Lebanon and Israel to the status quo ante. I think it would be a mistake. What we're seeing here, in a sense, is the growing- the birth pangs of a new Middle East and, whatever we do, we have to be certain that we're pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one". Thus, In the US perspective, andy peace deal must ensure that Hezbollah is crippled, and Iran and Syria must stop backing the Shiite militant group with money and weapons. To the dismay and frustration of many countries, the US also blocked any moves in the UN Security Council to halt Israel's excessive retaliatory actions, and bring the fighting to the end. The Council was not even able to express its anger and condemnation to the killing of the large number of the Lebanese innocent civilians as well as the UN peace-keeping staffs in the Israeli airstrikes.

The US policy has undoubtedly poured oil to the region already on fire. But it may perhaps be out of the US expectation that the subsequent development of the situation in the past three weeks has not been playing on the US wishful script. The fighting seemed to drag on without any sings of paralyzing the Hezbollah in sight. Instead, the increasing casualties of the Lebanese civilians have dramatically fuelled the wrath of the international community, the Arab world in particular. The public sympathy seems shifted more and more to the militant organization. The usually pro-US moderates in the Middle East are now in an embarrassing dilemma towards the war. They were initially angry at the Hezbollah "provocations" that led to the fighting. But faced with an Arab country being brutally bullied with heavy losses of the Arab civilians, they simply cannot afford to share the US and Israeli position. Consequently, as Jordan's king Abdullah II put it that the prolonged fighting had "weakened" moderates in the Middle East. Even the US allies feel a growing rift with Washington in terms of the US strategy towards the region. The Bush administration has evidently not reaped what it had hoped for. All it has gained is the mounting international pressure for the change of its policy.

The change of the US policy may probably be on the horizon althouth long overdue. According to the recent media report, the US is beginning to talk about an immediate ceasefire without the linkage of disarming the Hezbollah. It seems also working earnestly with other members of the UN Security Council for a resolution that may lead to the end of the fighting through a meaningful ceasefire, and also may prepare the way for the arrangement for the sustained peace in the region.

Hopefully, all these are the good news as only the US has the leverage to fundamentally influence the security in the Middle East for better or worse.Thus peace and stability in the region would remain a dream without a US positives role. It is therefore at least steps in a right direction for the US to have a better grasp of the real situation in the Middle East, to shift to work together with the international community to rein in Israel, and to make arrangements that would ensure peace based on mutual compromise and mutual benefit.

Possible hurdles, however, would abound ahead as far as the US policy goes. The first is Washington's strong aversion to both Hezbollah and Hamas which are labelled as terrorist groups in the anti-terror vocabulary of the Bush administration. But the fact is that they are not only radical militant groups; they are also both elected political forces in their own countries respectively, enjoying immense support from the grass-root population. It would, therefore be most likely a futile exercise to achieve the lasting peace in the Middle East on the assumption of totally dismantling or disarming these groups without addressing their deep grievance and legitimate demands. Secondly, Washington's continuous reluctance to include both Syria and Iran as equal partners into the international effort for the lasting settlement of the conflict may also contribute to prolonging than ending the fighting in the end. Last but not the least, the nature, mandate, and compositon of the future international peacekeeping force to be deployed along the Israeli-Lebanese border could be another bone of contention.

The US seems to strongly prefer a force, whose mission is not only monitoring the ceasefire along the borderline, but also implementing the UNSR 1559, namely, disarming the Hezbollah guerillas, even by force if necessary. To that end, the US hopes that this international force should be led by the NATO, immediately deployed before the ceasefire, and be strong enough to be able to engage any resistance from the Hezbollah side if necessary. The Bush administration als offered to help the Lebanese government to strengthen its armed force and be able to have the complete control of its own territory.

Obviously, the aim of all the US ideas is still eliminating Hezbollah, and enhancing its own presence in Lebanon. But the US suggestion, disigned only to meet its own concern and interests has found little sympathy from other countries. Few openly supported the US proposal during the UN Security Council consultations. Others like the Orgniazation of the Islamic Conference demanded dispatching the UN peacekeeping force, chiefly comprised of the Islamic countries as an alternative. The debate looks taking still more time to reach agreement, which is also acceptable to all the major players concerned. But during the long process, innocent people from both Lebanon and Israel would continue to live in agony, and many more even pay their lives.

* Vice - Chairman, Shanghai Institute for International Strategic Studies

I Scheherezade FaramarZi, “Oil from bombed Plant Covers Lebanon Shore”, AP News Release, July 28, 2006.

II Ravi Nessman and Hamza Hendawi, “srael Approves wider ground Offensive”, AP new release, August 1, 2006.