A New Regional Order

The present warring between Israel and Hizbollah may require us to put aside many of our assumptions about power roles in the Middle East. For the first time in thirty years, we cannot assume that Israeli military supremacy is a forgone conclusion. Today's "second generation" IDF leadership, who recently failed to keep its soldiers safe from Hizbollah and Hamas incursions and capture, still needs to prove that it can face down an entrenched and well armed Hizbollah in southern Lebanon.

Further, it is now clear that the "moderate" Arab states are not reflexively supporting Hizbollah in any conflict against the Jews. Anti-Israeli rhetoric from Saudi Arabia, Jordon and Egypt has been at best muted. The Sunni Arab states see danger in an emerging Shiite power block, and seem to be willing to counter it. A Shiite "cresent" running from Tehran to Lebanon is clearly dangerous for the states who depend on the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf for their life's blood.

Finally, there is the question of US power to control this conflict. Tied down in Iraq and unwilling to counter the host of European, Russian and Chinese voices that demand the war be taken off the front pages, the US may have less power to wield than in years past. That said, the Bush Administration seems to have broad based support at home for its view that the status quo must change. Domestic sympathy for Israel and a loss of patience with the whole Middle East situation offers the Bush Administration some well needed breathing room until events on the ground clarify.

So where does this leave us ten days into the war?

First, the conduct of the IDF ground assault will tell us a lot about where we are six months from now. From the limited call up of reserve forces to their seeming reluctance to engage a "hard slog", it looks as if Israel has decided that a full scale destruction of Hizbollah is not in the cards. If it were, we would see division sized units prepping to clear Syrian logistical bases in the Bekka Valley. Rather, we see brigade sized units forming on the border, implying that a buffer zone between the Lebanon/Israeli border and the Litani River is all they hope to accomplish.

Further, the Bush Administration's diplomatic efforts seem to be centered around aligning the Sunni states against Iran by focusing on Syria's role in the conflict. Secretary of State Rice seems to be setting the stage for a European/Sunni Arab international peace keeping force that will replace Hizbollah in southern Lebanon and pave the way for a consolidation of power within the Lebanese government and army. Any such force would be immediately confronted with dismantling the logistical lines between Hizbollah and Syria through the Bekka Valley. Determining how that is handled would seem to be at the core of diplomatic efforts going on now.

If, and it is a big if, Secretary Rice can create the conditions for a European/Arab intervention, the Arab states will have chosen to forsake one of their own (Syria) in the broader effort to constrain Iran. This will be a significant shift in the power alliances in the region. For the first time, Israeli military power will not be the determining factor in conditions set by a Middle East conflict. Rather, Arab diplomacy will be the driving force behind a bold statement that the nuclearization of the region is in no one's interest, that Iran is not an acceptable regional power broker, and that Syria must fully and completely extricate itself from the internal affairs of Lebanon.

At this point, it is too early to know if any or all of this best of all outcomes will come to pass. But it is clear that efforts presently being made by the Bush Administration are based on a view that regional power conditions are changing and that implementing a strategy based on a new paradigm is the only way forward.

UPDATE: This New York Times article sheds some light on how Syria may be handled in negotiations. In effect, it looks as if the effort will be to "turn" Syria back toward its historical ties with the Sunni countries. How this can be done while still confining her to her historical boarders remains to be seen.

It should also be mentioned that Syria has made open requests for a dialogue with the US. It may be that she is starting to realize that her ongoing support for Hizbollah and alliance with Iran is a frightening place to be these days.



10:31 PM

I agree. I have been wondering whether the IDF has the will this time to do what it has in the past. But as I write this, they have moved beyond the bombings. Tanks have moved into Lebanon and seized Maroun al-Ras. Stay tuned ...