Tuesday, August 3, 2010

More Escalation: On the brink of war?

Conditions are worsening along the northern border of Israel, as violence has continued for a third consecutive day:

"Border flare-up: Israeli, Lebanese forces exchange heavy fire"

Massive explosions reported on Israel's northern border as IDF troops exchange fire with Lebanese forces. Mortar shell reportedly lands in northern Galilee region, Lebanese sources say two local soldiers killed

Fire in the north: A day after rockets were fired at Eilat, loud explosions were reported on the northern border as Israeli and Lebanese forces engaged in massive exchanges of fire.

Security sources and witnesses in Lebanon said two Lebanese soldiers were killed in the clash.

The fire erupted after IDF soldiers performing routine operations in a border-area enclave within Israeli territory came under fire. Northern residents have reportedly been ordered to enter secured rooms and bomb shelters. Many locals informed Ynet of loud explosions heard in the region.

Lebanese sources also reported exchanges of fire between Israeli and Lebanese forces. According to one report, the Lebanese Army fired at an Israel tank.

The IDF fired four rockets that fell near a Lebanese army position in the village of Adaysseh and the Lebanese army fired back," a security official in the area told AFP. According to eyewitnesses, the shells hit a Lebaense house.

He said one Lebanese soldier and one civilian were wounded.

Also see:

"IDF, Lebanese forces exchange fire on northern border"

"Lebanon: Israel Fired Seven Artillery Shells at Lebanon"

"Report: IDF, Lebanon forces exchange fire on northern border"

It definitely appears that things are beginning to really escalate in the region. Now for a couple of interesting commentaries on this emerging situation:

"Is the Middle East on the brink of a Big New War?"

A new report based on extensive conversations with regional decisionmakers released Monday by the International Crisis Group, the respected mediation organization of former diplomats, warns of the possibility of war

Israel views the acquisition by Hizballah of a missile arsenal capable of raining destruction on Israeli cities as an intolerable threat. "As Hizballah's firepower grows," the Crisis Group notes, "so too does Israel's desire to tackle the problem before it is too late ... What is holding the current architecture in place is also what could rapidly bring it down."

Should a new war break out, Israel is determined to strike a more devastating blow more quickly than it did during the last conflict, in which it failed in its objective of destroying Hizballah. It has publicly warned that it would destroy Lebanese civilian infrastructure, and that Syria, as Hizballah's armorer, would not be off-limits.

And, of course, amid regional tensions over Iran's nuclear program, the self-styled "axis of resistance" — Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizballah — have deepened their alliance, raising the possibility of any one of those groups joining the fray should any of the others come under attack from Israel or the U.S.

But the Hamas cease-fire that has largely held for the past 18 months is a unilateral one, with no clear channels of communication or agreed-upon rules of engagement, meaning that the danger of escalation is ever present. The same is true on the Israel-Lebanon border, where both sides have been preparing for the next war ever since the last one ended, neither desiring that option but both accepting it as inevitable.

In the absence of any peace process by which Syria can recover the Golan Heights occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, Syria continues to support Hizballah as its prime form of leverage against the Jewish state. The diplomatic dynamic over the past decade has also deepened Damascus' alliance with Tehran, which in turn makes Israel even more leery of engaging with the Syrians. And conventional wisdom has long held that should Iran's nuclear facilities come under attack, Hizballah's rockets would figure prominently in Tehran's retaliation plans.

So, the potential triggers on different fronts for a new round of hostilities have multiplied, as has the danger of them going off in sequence as a result of the ties between some of the key players. And right now, the Crisis Group warns, "There is no mechanism in place to either address or ease" those mounting tensions.

And here we see more concerns about escalation of conflict in the region:

"Analysis: Lebanon: Conflict widens to Syria"

On Saturday night, Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled said that another conflict on the northern border was a "matter of time." Peled noted that in the event of such a conflict breaking out, Israel would hold "Syria and Lebanon alike responsible."

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, meeting with Michael Williams, the UN special coordinator for Lebanon earlier this week, expressed his concern that Hizbullah fighters have been training on surface-to-surface missile systems in Syria.

But wait, it gets worse - here we also see the recent build-up towards war:

Hizbullah has in the last weeks deployed advanced Syrian-made surface-to-surface M-600 missiles on the territory of Lebanon. The missiles, which according to Jane's Defence Weekly are copies of the Iranian Fateh-110 system, have a range of 250 kilometers and carry a 500-kg warhead.

They bring the entirety of central Israel within Hizbullah's range. The missiles are precision-guided, meaning that in the event of renewed conflict, Hizbullah would be able to use them to target military facilities or heavily populated areas

According to Jane's, the deployment of the M-600s adds to concerns already expressed by Israel at Syrian supplying of the (relatively unsophisticated) SA-2 air defense system and the SS-N-26 surface-to-sea missile to Hizbullah.

Syria's undaunted and increased support for Hizbullah appears to reflect a clear strategic turn taken by Damascus. Lebanese analyst Tony Badran this week drew attention to a recent and relevant report in the Qatari daily al-Watan which quoted Syrian sources who claimed that "a strategic decision has been taken not to allow Israel to defeat the resistance movements."

But beyond the specific issue of weapons systems, the logic of confrontation in Lebanon suggests that Syria may find it hard to avoid direct engagement in a future Israel-Hizbullah clash.

Since 2006, Lebanon's eastern border with Syria has formed the key conduit for weapons supplies to Hizbullah. And Hizbullah is reported to have relocated its main military infrastructure north of the Litani River, in the Bekaa Valley, in areas close to the Syrian border.

Should such an incursion take place, the Syrians would be intimately involved in supplying Hizbullah just across the border, and the possibility of Syrian casualties at Israeli hands would become very real.

The developing logic of the situation in Lebanon is nevertheless widening the circle of future conflict.

The bottom line is that any future strike at Hizbullah that does not take into account its status as a client of Iran and Syria, is unlikely to be able to land the kind of decisive blow to the organization which alone would justify such a strike.

Things are going downhill rapidly in the Middle East. As usual, it is hard to know where this current skirmish will end up - but as of now, it can only go in one of two directions: Either tensions will suddenly drop off and cease, or they will worsen. Over the past several days, the situation has deteriorated with no signs of letting up. We'll have to see where this latest round of violence goes, but one thing seems given: If escalation does occur, it won't be limited to the northern border for all of the reasons stated above. Syria would become involved and there is no telling where that would lead.

We know it's just a matter of time. Whether this ignites the power-keg or not, is anyone's guess, but we should know soon - one way or the other. It is also interesting that these events came almost immediately following that rash of earthhquakes that was just observed "More Birth Pains On The Way?". It appears that we're headed for another "birth pain contraction" - right on schedule.

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