Israel intensified air strikes on Lebanon this morning, targeting the country’s infrastructure, as the escalating military crisis threatens to engulf the region.
Global Insight Perspective
Lebanon’s Rafiq Hariri International Airport, bridges over the Litani River, and the Beirut-Damascus highway were all targeted in overnight air assaults.
The Lebanese Shi’a group Hizbollah reacted by firing Katyusha rockets into the Israeli coastal city of Haifa. The city was thought to be beyond the range of Hizbollah rockets, a situation that raises the spectre of escalating reprisals.
The human, infrastructural and political costs of the Israeli assault are crystallising; the attack comes at the peak of Lebanon’s tourism season. As the country comes to grips with another conflict not of its own making, a restive Middle East prepares for further and more far-reaching instability.
Lebanon’s main arteries - the international airport, its key highway out of Lebanon ,and a number of bridges - were struck in dawn raids, intensifying the mass exodus of tourists, mostly from Gulf Arab countries, out of Lebanon. Lebanese Public Works and Transportation Minister Mohammed Safadi told Beirut’s Daily Star that damage to the bridges was estimated to stand at US$25 million. The Hariri International Airport, which cost upwards of US$300 million and was seen as a showcase of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s vision for Lebanon, lies in flames.
The flight carrying the son of the late ex-premier, parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri, was yesterday diverted to Cyprus, reflecting the crisis confronting Lebanon’s divided government as it grapples to respond to Israel’s continuing offensive against it. Israel insists that Lebanon’s government bears responsibility for Hizbollah’s actions. Hizbollah’s political wing is represented in the Lebanese cabinet, although the military leadership responsible for the kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers operates independently. Hizbollah has asserted itself by launching Katyusha rocket attacks against the coastal city of Haifa, some 30 km from the Lebanese border, in defiance of the Lebanese government’s calls for restraint. Interestingly, however, Hizbollah has denied that it was behind the rocket attack against the city. Haifa was thought to be out of the range of Hizbollah rockets, prompting Israel’s Defence Minister Amir Peretz to say that the attack against the city "violated all the rules". Israel has said that Hizbollah’s overall leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, is within its sights.
The Israeli military offensive threatens to accentuate divisions within the fractious administration of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Seniora. President Emile Lahoud, seen by some as an extension of Syria’s continued political influence in Lebanon, has successfully defied calls for his resignation. Hizbollah, meanwhile, has benefited from the government’s divisions and failure to implement long-overdue administrative, constitutional and economic reforms aimed at the powers of Lebanon’s weak central authority. Although Lebanese government ministers have so far refrained from directly criticising Hizbollah, the mood may change in the coming days as Israel continues to pound Lebanon’s key infrastructure.
A key element of the problem is that the Lebanese government lacks the political unity and strength to implement a forcible dismantling of Hizbollah. The United States, meanwhile, is leveraging itself further out of any position of influence with regards to Lebanon, Syria or Iran - three of the four central components of this conflict. Lebanon’s political leaders - prominent among whom is Saad Hariri, who had been hailed by the White House as the best hope for democracy in the Middle East - are under assault by an Israeli army that fails to distinguish between Lebanon’s democratically elected government and the Hizbollah faction.
Up in Flames
Israel's military offensive against Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas movement is a throwback to the days of severe regional instability - when the global news agenda was dominated by reports of Israeli missile strikes on villages in Lebanon, and Palestinian ambushes and kidnappings of Israeli targets. Despite the brutal recent history of mass killings and devastation as a result of military adventures, the current crisis is once more headed on the same unsuccessful path.
Given Israel's insistence, with U.S. backing, that the Syrian government must be held responsible for Hamas's and Hizbollah's actions, the fear inevitably remains that the Israeli military may unleash an attack against its long established north-eastern foe. Should such a move be countenanced, the intricacies and alliances associated with the political melee in the Middle East will come into play. Foremost among these are the reassurances that the Iranian leadership is offering Syria in the event of an Israeli assault. Relations between Syria and Iran have strengthened since the two countries have come under the U.S. microscope, over accusations that the two have been meddling in Iraq, as well as Iran's contentious nuclear programme. The two administrations may find no better opportunity to rattle a few sabres against the United States and threaten further regional instability than the one provided by the Israel-Lebanon crisis. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad clearly spelled out his country's position with respect to Syria yesterday, when he warned Israel against any attack on its neighbour. "If Israel commits another act of idiocy and is aggressive to Syria, this will be the same as an aggression against the entire Islamic world and it will receive a stinging response", Ahmedinejad said.
The worsening crisis carries far-reaching consequences for a region unsure of its security. Israel's only two Arab allies, Egypt and Jordan, have proven remarkably pliant in their responses to the Jewish state's military offensives in Gaza and Lebanon. This is to be expected, given the torn loyalties which the two countries' leaderships are now having to face; on the one hand, restive populations are demanding action against Israel, and on the other, the U.S. shadow is extending over the governments and demanding restraint. What was equally remarkable was the reaction of the Saudi authorities to the latest conflagration. According to the kingdom's official news agency, the leadership accused Hizbollah of "adventurism" and blamed the latter for "...putting in danger all the Arab countries". A unified Arab response to the crisis remains lacking, once more signalling an inability by the governments to exert pressure and secure results at times of dangerous crises.
Given the Middle East's geo-strategic importance, the longer the present tensions persists, the greater and harder their impact will be felt on the global economy, particularly if oil prices experience a fresh spike. Political stability is, undoubtedly, a prerequisite for economic stability. The recent history of the Middle East conflict quite clearly demonstrates that a military response is no solution to political fall-outs. Unfortunately for today's belligerents, short-term expediency is a preferred option over taking lessons from history.
Outlook and Implications
The first time Beirut’s international airport was bombed was as far back as 1968. Much like then, the shock that has greeted Israel's latest military assault on a country still to fully recover from a debilitating civil war will take some undoing. At the other geographical end of the conflict, Israel is continuing its relentless military assault on Gaza, with repeated aerial attacks on Palestinian targets and threats of assassination against Hamas leaders. Although Israel certainly has the military capability to fight a war on two fronts, the diplomatic fall-out over the joint operation is expected to be considerable. Should the conflict develop into all-out war, the risks such a situation would pose to the entire Middle East region require little elaboration. Recent hopes of an end to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been replaced with a vengeance by the option of war.
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