MESOP FORECAST MIDDLE EAST : “WHEN WILL T HIS WAR BREAK OUT ? IRAN&HEZBOLLAH CONTRA ISRAEL / Israel weighs response to Hezbollah rocket threat – A sampler of resource persons: Ben Caspit – Mustafa Akyol – Semih Idziz (AL MONITOR 20 March 2017)

Would Israel attack Lebanese army?

Ben Caspit reports that a “significant part of [Israeli] Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s talks in Washington on March 7 was devoted to a war in Lebanon that could erupt at any given moment. According to top Israeli defense sources, this war, if it takes place, must be completely different from the last one. It must last a shorter amount of time and squeeze much greater destructive capabilities into smaller units of time.”

Caspit adds that since the 2006 war, Liberman sees that “the distinction between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah forces has been blurred considerably over the past few years, as has the distinction between Hezbollah — which also operates on the political level — and the sovereign state in which it resides. The IDF’s working assumption is that the Lebanese army will play an active role against Israel in the next war on Lebanon, operating under Hezbollah’s command. … Another difference anticipated in the next campaign is the balance of terror. While during Israel’s second war in Lebanon, the devastation to Israel was limited, today Hezbollah is capable of striking any given point in the country.”

“Israel is aware that at present, it has no real answer to the rocket threat,” Caspit writes. “What this means is that the only option left to Israel is an immediate, dramatic and aggressive attack against all of Lebanon’s vital infrastructure, or as Israeli officers and senior Israeli officials have been describing it for the past decade, ‘sending Lebanon back to the Stone Age.’”

Caspit continues, “Since the distinction between Hezbollah and Lebanon per se has been blurred considerably, the possibility of wreaking destruction on the country could serve as a deterrent, as far as Nasrallah is concerned. He can no longer hide behind the central government, since he himself is the central government. In order to launch such an attack, however, Israel will need prior approval from the United States. According to defense sources in Israel, it has already received such approval, or at the very least, can expect to receive it in the near future. If Israel does find itself launching an aggressive campaign to destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure in the next round, it will need the aerial umbrella of US support, which will allow it freedom of action, at least in the first few days of the fighting.”

Caspit asks, “When would this war break out? The Israeli assessment is that Nasrallah has no reason to get into a conflict with Israel in the foreseeable future. The IDF claims that as long as a significant part of his forces is over-extended and exhausted in Syria, Nasrallah will try to avoid a clash with Israel. At the same time, however, signals from Beirut over the past few months indicate that Nasrallah’s patience is starting to wear thin. According to foreign sources, the rules of the new game that Israel has imposed over the past few years, in which it feels free to attack arms convoys making their way to him from Syria, are unacceptable to Nasrallah. … Israel knows that if there is a missile on the table in the first act, it will be fired in the third act. At some time or other that is going to happen.”

This column and Al-Monitor writers have regularly covered the evolution and complexities of the deterrent relationship between Israel and Hezbollah. In October 2014, Daniel Sobleman wrote, “The establishment of Hezbollah, its identity and very existence have centered on the conflict with Israel. The organization will, of course, retain Israel on its agenda, but for the first time, Israel is second among its strategic priorities. With the US-led campaign against the Islamic State in its first phase and expected to last for a long while, evolving realities might provide Israel an opportunity to prevent a ‘third Lebanon war’ in ways that are not necessarily linked to deterrence or secret operations. For instance, messages via a third party could lead, not for the first time, to indirect understandings with Hezbollah.”

In January 2015 we wrote, “We could, and probably should, imagine a more expansive conversation, somewhere, between the United States and its allies and Iran to defuse the crisis on Israel’s borders. All parties should have an interest in averting a confrontation involving Israel, Lebanon and Syria.”

Nasrallah, Soleimani hold Syria file

Ali Hashem writes, “Six years into the crisis in Syria, Iran views the outcome of the conflict as shaping the new Middle East. It was Iran’s first overt foreign intervention in decades, one that some Iranian ideologues have called a war for existence. Iranian officials say it spared the Islamic Republic from having to fight a similar war within its own borders. Yet it has been costly, draining and merciless in terms of material losses, and even worse when it comes to Iran’s image in the Muslim world. It has limited Iran’s options and has caused alliances — notwithstanding the common ground Iran shares with its partners — to seem very shaky and fragile.“

Hashem explains that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and ideologues in the Iranian leadership consider Syria as an absolutely vital national interest. He writes about how Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s assessment of the war in Syria convinced Khamenei in 2013 to intervene to save the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Nasrallah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, were key elements in the intervention. Hashem says that in Syria, Iran “is keen to fight to the last man standing. Today, just as when Iran decided to enter Syria, the Islamic Republic continues to believe that compromising Damascus is akin to giving up Tehran — and that whatever the price of the war, it will never exceed the cost of losing it.”

Syria remains a problem for Russia-Turkey ties

Semih Idiz writes this week that while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regularly “blasts the United States and Europe liberally for supporting the PYD [Democratic Union Party] and the YPG [People’s Protection Units], Erdogan is largely silent over Russia’s open support for the same groups. Despite the ‘Astana process’ where the two countries, together with Iran, are sponsoring talks with a view to expediting the end of the Syrian crisis, Syria remains a problem area in Turkish-Russian ties.”

Idiz adds that Turkey’s deepening crisis with Europe has re-energized its desire to expand ties with Russia. Ankara clearly wants to show that it has powerful friends that can reduce its dependence on the United States and Europe. This also works to Moscow’s advantage, given its problems with the West and barely concealed desire to undermine NATO.”

Idiz explains, “This was also made apparent when Russia stopped the advance of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria, especially toward the town of Manbij (Ankara wanted to dislodge the YPG elements there). Using its influence with the PYD, Moscow convinced the YPG to transfer territory south of the town to regime forces. … The Russian move also highlighted how Turkey is only able to forge on in Syria according to Moscow’s — not to mention Washington’s — desires, and in doing so is forced to come to terms with the unsavory possibility of cooperating with Assad.”

“Having vilified Assad for years,” Idiz continues, “Erdogan supporters are coming around to accepting now that Assad may be the lesser of two evils when compared with the PYD and the YPG.”

Mustafa Akyol writes that the crisis between Turkey and Europe is being exploited by Erdogan and his backers. The pro-government media “tells Turks the West is not really worried about Erdogan’s authoritarianism, which is only necessary for a nation under major threats. The West is rather worried that Turkey is becoming a powerful, independent, virtuous nation. Erdogan is just making Turkey great again, in other words, and that is why Turkey’s quintessential enemy — the West — is all up in arms.”

Akyol explains, “This very narrative itself is actually proof that Erdogan indeed is authoritarian, because it equates patriotism and Erdoganism and considers all Erdogan critics as enemies of the nation. The enmity against the West, in other words, helps intimidate all Western puppets’ within Turkey, which are basically all opposition circles.”

Akyol concludes that “in this major anti-Western drive, which is likely to make Turkey a Muslim version of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Erdogan has a major ally within the West itself: the Orientalists, especially Islamophobes. These are the people who, with their enmity against Muslims and their double standards over them, prove the Erdoganists right. … If Europeans want to break this vicious cycle and the ‘clash of civilizations’ it heralds, what they need to do is simple: Show that Wilders and his ilk, and the anti-Islamic ideology they represent, is not the real face of Europe.’ Show that liberal values are not lies and double standards, but true norms valid for everyone.”