Friday, 13 February 2015

The Causes and Consequences of a Third Lebanon War in 2015.

The reported surge of Hezbollah through southern Syria, backed by fighters from Iran and President's Assad government, has further rolled back what is said to be left of the 'moderate' Sunni militias ranged against Damascus just south-west of the capital in the region close to the Golan Heights border with Israel.

With the FSA largely defeated as a 'third force' between Assad and his allies and ISIS, the victories of Hezbollah are bound to start causing problems between the US and Israel. The US would appear to have at least given advanced notice of where the USAF is going to target and bomb ISIS in their war against it.

This has led to speculation about Assad making a comeback from being a vile global pariah, whose immediate removal was demanded by the West, ( 'Assad must go') to being recycled as a bulwark against ISIS. With Assad's regime no longer having 'to go', Israel, which had been willing to have him stay, seems to be growing hostile.

Israel had every interest in Assad staying if he was able to secure the Golan Heights border region taken by it after the Six Day War of 1967. As Iran expanded its regional influence through a Shi'ite dominated Iraq and with Obama depending on that to keep ISIS at bay instead of US troops, outright Shi'ite ascendency in Syria is a fear.

The reason Israel's PM Netanyahu is at odds with President Obama over his entire Middle East strategy because Washington would appear to be actually putting US foreign policy interests before Israel's in dealing diplomatically with Iran. This is why Netanyahu has been consistently trying to sabotage the nuclear deal.

Netanyahu's trip to Washington, the second addressing Congress, is partly about his re-election campaign and being seen to have America on his side if not the Democrats and Obama. He wants Republicans to increase the sanctions on Iran. This would prevent the nuclear deal he claims to want to 'ensure the survival' of Israel.

By consistently painting Iran as a theocratic fascist tyranny bent of eliminating Israel from the face of the earth, Netanyahu would be better positioned to launch a war on Hezbollah after winning the Israeli election in March. That seems already to have an air of inevitability hanging over it after a Hezbollah attack killed 2 IDF soldiers.

Israel, in fact, initiated the tit-for-tat killings by attacking a Hezbollah convoy in Quneitra near the border, killing Jihad Mughniyeh, a party commander, as well as an Iranian general who was in the convoy. This followed on from months of Israeli air incursions into Syria to destroy Iranian missiles destined for an attack on Israel.

Israel is a regional Great Power actor ,as is Iran; both are at odds with each other geopolitically. Obama sees Iran more as part of a region-wide diplomatic attempt to defuse tensions while Israel, a nuclear armed state, has no interest in that happening. Hezbollah in Lebanon is depicted as a proxy of Iran which is seeking to destroy Israel.

In fact the Iranian threat is useful in justifying the staunch support for Saudi Arabia which, in turn, backs Sunni jihadist proxy forces as a check on Iranian regional influence. That's useful in order to advance geo-strategies believed to improve Israel's national energy security, including supporting Kurdish independence in Iraq.

The oil rich autonomous Kurdish region sold its first tanker of oil to Israel in June 2014. The oil from an independent pipeline routed from Kurdistan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan and was transported to Ashkelon port. This circumvented Iraq's federal pipeline system and contravened US policy.

Israeli backing for Kurdish independence would also provide a buffer state on the western frontier of Iran. One reason is Netanyahu accuses Obama, who he detests, of having potentially destabilised the region by having withdrawn US troops from Iraq too early in 2011 so as to refocus US military attention towards Asia.

The US opposes a Kurdish state as destabilising to Iraq and to Turkey, a NATO state in geopolitical rivalry to Israel in the game for control over and access to the huge gas wealth of the Eastern Mediterranean. From the region around Gaza and Egypt in the south, to Cyprus in the north and between Israel and Lebanon, tensions are rising.

Flashpoint One. The Game is Nearly Up for Hamas.

Israel's foreign policy has contradicted Washington's at several points. The ruthless bombardment of the Third Gaza War of 2014 was conceived in concern with a post-coup Egypt to seal in the canton and use war as a mean to compel Hamas to submit out of all proportion to the actual threat they posed to Israeli citizens.

True, the 'game changer' was the Iron Dome anti-missile system which made Hamas; existing strategy of targeting Israeli cities and towns in the south largely obsolete. But the other factor was that, apart from Egypt being determined to work with Israel, Iran had largely neglected supplying Hamas with arms.

The reason was Syria's civil-sectarian war after 2011-12 had led to a rift between Sunni Hamas and Shi'ite Hezbollah. Israel's approach was initially 'regime change'. But as the war got more savage and groups such as ISIS emerged, Israeli strategists seemed to have thought Assad staying was the least worst option.

Israel wants neither side to win and both to lose; the more Hezbollah is distracted eastwards and Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs pitted against each other the better it is for them. Israel seem less concerned with ISIS in Syria as with Hamas and with ISIS in Egypt as it started developing a presence in the Sinai jihadi insurgency against Cairo.

Energy security is seen as vital for Israel and interconnected with national security. As a consequence, the tapping and piping of Gaza Marine gas for use in the Israeli market and to supply client states such as Egypt, Jordan and, it is expected, the PA, is a cornerstone of a wider regional security architecture.

This is effectively what UN envoy to the Quartet Tony Blair is getting at when he speaks on the 'long term plan' for Gaza. His spokesman Ariel Ezrahi has made plain the interest there is in a geostrategic version of a 'peace process', one enforced by the Israeli military where necessary, and which would help avert an energy crisis in the region.

Contrary to being a 'diplomat' or 'peace envoy', Blair is most entrusted with advocating the Israeli security aims for 'the wider region' through economic development, much of it hinging on the fate of the Gaza Marine reserves, 60% of which belong to the British BG corporation. Only Hamas remains as a potential security threat.

The strategy is to present Hamas with an a fait accompli: the gas is going to be used and if the armed struggle does not stop, then the rest of the region is going to go on without Gaza-until such time as the decision to face up to the fact it has lost is accepted. This is implicit in everything Blair says on Gaza, though the word 'gas' is never used.

Israel's strategy for Gaza, if not its exact execution, is shared by Washington though the way that Blair went about openly enthusiastically backing the Egyptian coup in 2013 was regarded as an embarrassment. It showed disapproval at the civilian deaths in 2014 as a diplomatic necessity to placate other allies-like Turkey

Turkey's hostility towards Israel is only minimised in proportion to Erdogan's hatred for Assad which is why Israel has a free hand in 2015 after subduing Hamas to now deal with Hezbollah through air strikes or a ground assault in southern Lebanon as it starts to destroy the FSA militias in southern Syria.

Turkey's ally Qatar has temporarily dropped Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood, partly through realising the game in Egypt is over and that, as  ISIS threatens all Sunni Gulf States, there is a need for at least a façade of unity with the others, including Saudi Arabia, which are sheltering behind the US  dominated military effort.

Flashpoint Two: Time to Deal with Hezbollah-Nasrallah's Last Throw of the Dice.

A Third Lebanon War in 2015 would suit Netanyahu so as to destroy Hezbollah's military infrastructure. It would counter Obama's strategy of engaging with Iran on terms he disagrees with. Obama's decision to step up the military effort against ISIS shows he has to achieve decisive results on the ground within a limited time span.

Israel has no interest in the Shi'ite militias gaining ground in Syria if it would mean the pressure is taken off Hezbollah, no matter what impact that would have in the defeat of ISIS. It could mean Hezbollah swing east again. It might feel emboldened enough to take on Israel so as to restore its credibility among Palestinians.

It was shown in a Pew opinion poll of Palestinians that while in 2011, 61% viewed the Lebanese militant group “favorably,” this has declined substantially to 43% in 2013. It's anti-Israeli stance is a currency with less and less purchasing power over the minds of Palestinians as Assad slaughters Sunnis in Syria.

With Hamas and Gaza taking a crushing blow in 2014, it's left to Hezbollah to raise the standard of armed resistance to Israel. Fortune would also favour Israel to smash a decisive blow against Hezbollah before Assad regains complete control over the south of Syria and ISIS gets degraded further in the north.

Within Lebanon, Hezbollah is facing a crisis of popular legitimacy. Its decision to get involved in the sectarian struggle in Syria has threatened to cause blowback into Lebanon itself. This has alienated not only its larger Christian, Druze and Sunni population who are terrified of ISIS getting a foothold there, but Shi'ites too

If Israel picks a fight at the time of its choosing it could well add to Hezbollah's unpopularity. While not doing much for Israel's image in Lebanon ( not that its leaders care ) Hezbollah would be weakened by a fight on two fronts. Nasrallah might calculate, though, that his militia has one use left to Lebanon

The disputed maritime waters between Israel and Lebanon are rich in hydrocarbons and have not been resolved through a peace treaty. Washington, which wants to shore up Lebanon as a functioning Arab democracy, would oppose an unilateral action by Israel to grab the gas of Block 9 in contested waters but Israel has a history of that to the south.

The Noa gas reserves down towards Gaza lies partially in its maritime waters and yet Israel permitted Noble energy to drill and tap it. In August 2014 Hamas was still trying to fire rockets at gas platforms in this offshore region which is why the Israel has invested not only in a maritime iron dome but also in building up its navy.

In 2011 Israel redrew the maritime boundary when it faced threats to its energy security in Egypt as jihadists started to try to blow up gas pipeline infrastructure. Netanyahu is hostile towards Obama for trying to play a balancing role between Israel and Cyprus on the one side and Turkey and Lebanon on the other.

As Washington has come to accept Israel's unilateral dominance over the Gaza Marine reserves and in providing gas to the EU through a pipeline intended to link up with Cyprus and then Greece, Hezbollah MPs in Lebanon in late 2014 were making claims that Israel had been 'stealing' Lebanese oil for 7 years.

Hezbollah's Nabih Berri, the parliamentary speaker, claimed “The Israeli enemy had started drilling for oil more than seven years ago...It is the duty of the government to make it a top priority to preserve Lebanon’s oil resources.” If the Lebanese state could not do that, then it's clear Hezbollah's state within a state military might well try.

Lebanon has a high level of government debt and an energy crisis with Turkey stepping in to keep the country from blackouts by providing power ships off the coast to provide electricity. It is not just Hezbollah backing the Lebanese maritime claims but that did not stop Israel's Moshe Ya'alon claiming this was an Iranian plot.

Israel's Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister made plain -"We signed an agreement with Cyprus that is in keeping with its agreement with Lebanon...When we announced our gas drilling, the Iranians and Hezbollah decided that it would be a good excuse for conflict with us." It's good pretext for Israel too

The fact, both the Lebanese government and the US agree the maritime border does not lie to the north as Israel insists, irrespective of Hezbollah's attempt to exploit the dispute for its own political reason. Netanyahu effectively asserted that Israel's 'understanding' was different and needed understanding.
"The maritime border that Lebanon submitted to the United Nations is significantly further south of the border, as Israel understands it. The Lebanese line runs contrary to Israel's border agreements with Cyprus, and Lebanon's own border agreements with Cyprus. We are working towards the demarcation of the border as per international maritime law."
Ultimately, the demarcation line had not been formally agreed upon between Israel and Lebanon because officially a state of war existed still between the two countries because of Hezbollah. Israel has determined it is prepared to use military force to protect its economic exclusion zone ( EEZ) if it is attacked.

As Lebanon would be deemed conveniently 'responsible' for any war effort by Hezbollah in a war with Israel, a conflict would provide the pretext to unilaterally seize the hydrocarbons in the disputed waters as part of Israel's 'security strategy' against having a state hosting a terrorist group benefit from the resources.

So events in Syria are bound to have an impact on Lebanon as Israel waits for the time to pounce. For Hezbollah would pose a threat from southern Lebanon should it emerge victorious in southern Syria would be to use its better stocked armoury of missiles against Israeli gas rigs in the Eastern Mediterranean.

As reported by the Israeli business journal Globes, the skirmish with Hezbollah forces in January 2015 was regarded by Israel as part of an emerging threat to its energy security. The encounter in fact came just days later after threats from Hezbollah as regards Israel's threat to Lebanon's natural resources,
'Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah boasted that in any future conflict with Israel he would unleash a new "tie-breaker" weapon in his organization's possession, and would conquer parts of the Galilee. In previous threats, made from the depths of the bunker in which he has hidden since the Second Lebanon War, Nasrallah has mentioned the natural gas platforms in the Mediterranean as legitimate targets for his organization. The IDF's working assumption is that Hezbollah received the weapons in question, such as Yakhont shore-to-sea missiles that can cause extensive damage to the platforms and to Israeli vessels, as well as to ports and other vital installations, years ago from Syria'
Hezbollah is not as contained as Hamas is in Gaza and has access to Russian Yakhont missiles which could be used on Israeli gas rigs well within range as well as C-802 anti-ship missiles made in Iran from Chinese designs. Provoking Hezbollah at the right time for Israel would thus achieve a war that would suit it.

A Third Lebanon War would allow Israel to both smash Hezbollah's tunnels and rocket stocks as in Gaza. But it would also enhance the security of gas and oil rigs in the Eastern Mediterranean and so increase investor confidence both in the parts of the EEZ clearly in Israeli coastal waters as well as Lebanon's.

A Third Lebanon War would also be 'well timed' by Netanyahu if it set back Obama's attempts to use diplomacy with Iran to lessen the proxy conflicts across the Middle East where that would work against exclusive Israeli strategic resource interests from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.

What a Third Lebanon War would do, if it were anything like the 2006 war, is set back Lebanon's economic recovery and further antagonise Turkey should Israel invariably go beyond air strikes in southern Syria and Lebanon. It would increase Turkey's determination to side with Beirut over disputed maritime waters with Israel.

In turn, a Third Lebanon War would scale up tensions over the unresolved status of Turkish Cyprus between Ankara and Nicosia. This has seen Turkey reject any attempt to drill for gas without taking into account Turkey as a regional partner and Turkey sending an exploration vessel to waters south of Cyprus flanked with warships.

Greece for its part has aligned firmly behind Nicosia in wanting an Israeli-Cypriot-Greek pipeline. Though Greece's ruling party is Syriza, a leftist formation, it is in alliance with a right wing nationalist party and the Greek Foreign Minister, Panos Kammenos, announced plans for joint naval exercises with Cyprus, Israel and Egypt.

Kammenos told reporters on an official visit to Nicosia that “We want peace but we are also ready to respond to any attempt against the national sovereignty or territorial integrity of the broader defense area of Greece and Cyprus, if necessary.” Clearly, that was aimed at Turkey, against which Greece would align with Israel.

The Eastern Mediterranean is boiling over with potential conflicts. If Israel overplays its hand and wades into a war with Hezbollah. it could have destabilising effects and unforeseen consequences across the region. So it is unsurprising Obama is said to be promoting alternatives in Israel to Netanyahu for the Israeli elections.

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