Thursday, January 13, 2011

Meanwhile, Back in Beirut

Putting it bluntly, this has not been a good week for American security policy.

On Tuesday, China snubbed visiting Defense Secretary Robert Gates with the first test flight of its new stealth fighter. Readers will recall that Dr. Gates was on a fence-mending mission to Beijing when the J-20 made its maiden flight. The test reaffirmed China's emergence as a technological super-power, and the fact that many in the ruling elite (political and military) don't want better relations with the United States.

Then, just a day later, there was an equally troubling development in the Middle East. Hizballah ministers pulled out of Lebanon's fragile "unity" government, just as that nation's Prime Minister, Saad Hariri sat down for a meeting with President Obama in Washington. The move was yet another embarrassment for the administration, which has strongly backed Mr. Hariri's government, hoping to avoid a complete Hizballah takeover of Lebanon.

The move was yet another reminder of how much influence the terror group (and its sponsors in Iran) have in Lebanese affairs. Hizballah's withdrawal from the ruling coalition was prompted by the on-going UN tribunal into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the father of the current leader. The elder Hariri was killed by a massive car bomb in 2005, an act of political terror widely blamed on Hizballah and its friends in the Syrian intelligence service.

With the tribunal expected to indict Hizballah leaders--and others--in connection with the crime, the terror group decided it was an opportune moment to bring down the government. At this point, it's unclear what may happen next. Installation of the younger Hariri as Prime Minister narrowly avoided a second Lebanese civil war, and the threat of widespread violence has increased with the government's collapse. Israel put its northern military command on heightened alert just hours after Hizballah pulled the plug on Hariri's cabinet.

It's been almost five years since the terror network and the Israelis fought a bloody, month-long war in Southern Lebanon. That conflict grew out of a border incident and its obvious the Netanyahu government doesn't want to be surprised again.

While Lebanon's latest political crises is primarily a result of the UN tribunal--and Hizballah's determination to derail that process--the current situation also creates opportunities for Iran. With Lebanon heading for another period of uncertainty (at best), Tehran's proxies will have a greater opportunity to exert power and expand their arsenal. That, in turn, gives Iran more options for score-settling with Tel Aviv.

Fact is, Tehran is still smarting over the Stuxnet computer worm that infected its nuclear weapons facilities last year. While the source of that worm has never been confirmed, many experts believe it was created--and inserted--by Israeli intelligence. At last report, the Iranians were still trying to get rid of the virus (with only marginal success) and their nuclear weapons program has reportedly been delayed by another two or three years.

So Tehran would like nothing better than striking back at Israel. And Hizballah provides its best option, short of a missile attack that might trigger a nuclear war. By imploding the western-backed government in Beirut, the terror group can advance preparations for a renewed conflict with Israel, improving its positions/facilities in southern Lebanon and even appropriating equipment and personnel from the national army. The United States has poured more than $100 million in equipment and other aid into the Lebanese Army in recent years; there is reason to believe that much of that hardware may fall into Hizballah's hands as the nation falls into political crisis.

The real question is whether Tehran wants to leverage the current situation in Lebanon to start another proxy conflict with the Israelis. That strategy carries obvious risks--if Israel is confident that Iran's nuclear program has been sufficiently delayed, the IDF might be assigned to attack Hizballah's sponsors, along with the terror base in Lebanon. Syria in particular is vulnerable to an Israeli strike, given Tel Aviv's military superiority.

On the other hand, Hizballah has amassed an estimated stockpile of 40,000 missiles and rockets since the end of the 2006 war. Most of those weapons are capable of reaching Israeli territory. During any renewed conflict, the first responsibility of the IAF will be attacking Hizballah launch sites, leaving fewer aircraft for strikes against Damascus and Tehran. And, as we saw five years ago, it is a formidable task to interdict hundreds of rocket and missile launch positions, even in a country as small as Lebanon.

As for the U.S., we're still trying to pick up the political pieces in Beirut, while working with Saudi Arabia to "constructively engage" the Syrians. It's a bad situation, and one that will likely grow worse in the coming weeks.
ADDENDUM: We almost forgot to mention the week's third discouraging security development, this one also in the Middle East. During a visit to Yemen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed her host's plans to start a terrorist rehabilitation program. The effort to reform jihadists will be apparently based on the Saudi model, which has produced a 40% recidivism rate. Given the number of terrorists running around in Yemen--and the utter failure of other rehabilitation programs--we're sure the Sanaa government can easily smash that record.

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