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Ready for War

The Strategic Forecasting folks have just dispatched this, with the headline “Red Alert”:

We are now in the period preceding major conventional operations. Israel is in the process of sealing the Lebanese coast. They have disrupted Lebanese telecommunications, although they have not completely collapsed the structure. Israeli aircraft are attacking Hezbollah’s infrastructure and road system. In the meantime, Hezbollah, aware it is going to be hit hard, is in a use-it or-lose-it scenario, firing what projectiles it can into Israel.
Full message in the extended.

The Israeli strategy appears to be designed to do two things. First, the Israelis are trying to prevent any supplies from entering Lebanon, including reinforcements. That is why they are attacking all coastal maritime facilities. Second, they are degrading the roads in Lebanon. That will keep reinforcements from reaching Hezbollah fighters engaged in the south. As important, it will prevent the withdrawal and redeployment of heavy equipment deployed by Hezbollah in the south, particularly their rockets, missiles and launchers. The Israelis are preparing the battlefield to prevent a Hezbollah retreat or maneuver.

Hezbollah’s strategy has been imposed on it. It seems committed to standing and fighting. The rate of fire they are maintaining into Israel is clearly based on an expectation that Israel will be attacking. The rocketry guarantees the Israelis will attack. Hezbollah has been reported to have anti-tank and anti-air weapons. The Israelis will use airmobile tactics to surround and isolate Hezbollah concentrations, but in the end, they will have to go in, engage and defeat Hezbollah tactically. Hezbollah obviously knows this, but there is no sign of disintegration on its part. At the very least, Hezbollah is projecting an appetite for combat. Sources in Beirut, who have been reliable to this point, say Hezbollah has weapons that have not yet been seen, such as anti-aircraft missiles, and that these will be used shortly. Whatever the truth of this, Hezbollah does not seem to think its situation is hopeless.

The uncertain question is Syria. No matter how effectively Israel seals the Lebanese coast, so long as the Syrian frontier is open, Hezbollah might get supplies from there, and might be able to retreat there. So far, there has been only one reported airstrike on a Syrian target. Both Israel and Syria were quick to deny this.

What is interesting is that it was the Syrians who insisted very publicly that no such attack took place. The Syrians are clearly trying to avoid a situation in which they are locked into a confrontation with Israel. Israel might well think this is the time to have it out with Syria as well, but Syria is trying very hard not to give Israel casus belli. In addition, Syria is facilitating the movement of Westerners out of Lebanon, allowing them free transit. They are trying to signal that they are being cooperative and nonaggressive.

The problem is this: While Syria does not want to get hit and will not make overt moves, so long as the Syrians cannot guarantee supplies will not reach Hezbollah or that Hezbollah won’t be given sanctuary in Syria, Israel cannot complete its mission of shattering Hezbollah and withdrawing. They could be drawn into an Iraq-like situation that they absolutely don’t want. Israel is torn. On the one hand, it wants to crush Hezbollah, and that requires total isolation. On the other hand, it does not want the Syrian regime to fall. What comes after would be much worse from Israel’s point of view.

This is the inherent problem built into Israel’s strategy, and what gives Hezbollah some hope. If Israel does not attack Syria, Hezbollah could well survive Israel’s attack by moving across the border. No matter how many roads are destroyed, Israel won’t be able to prevent major Hezbollah formations moving across the border. If they do attack Syria and crush al Assad’s government, Hezbollah could come out of this stronger than ever.

Judging from the airstrikes in the past 24 hours, it would appear Israel is trying to solve the problem tactically, by degrading Lebanese transport facilities. That could increase the effectiveness of the strategy, but in the end cannot be sufficient. We continue to think Israel will choose not to attack Syria directly and therefore, while the invasion will buy time, it will not solve the problem. Hezbollah certainly expects to be badly hurt, but it does not seem to expect to be completely annihilated. We are guessing, but our guess is that they are reading Israel’s views on Syria and are betting that, in the long run, they will come out stronger. Of course, Israel knows this and therefore may have a different plan for Syria. At any rate, this is the great unknown in this campaign.

The other unknown is the withdrawal of Western nationals from Lebanon. We have received very reliable reports from sources in Lebanon who assure us Hezbollah does not intend to renew hostage taking, which is deemed an old and nonproductive strategy. These same sources have reported splits in Hezbollah over how aggressive it should be. We believe Hezbollah has no current plans for hostage taking. We are not convinced, however, that in the course of the battle it will not change its mind, or that with weakened central control elements, elements of Hezbollah will take hostages as a bargaining chip. Regardless of what Hezbollah is saying now, hostage taking must be taken seriously as a possibility.

The U.S. Embassy in Beirut is now saying plans are being developed in concert with the U.S. Defense Department for extracting U.S. nationals from Lebanon. A convoy scheduled to travel from the American University of Beirut to Amman, Jordan, via Syria, was cancelled at the last moment, with participants being told that the embassy has other plans.

There are said to be 25,000 U.S. citizens in Lebanon, but many of these are Lebanese-American dual nationals who actually live in Lebanon as Lebanese. These are less visible, less at risk and have greater resources for survival. The most at-risk Americans are those who hold only U.S. papers and are clearly American, such as employees of American companies, students studying at Lebanese universities and tourists. There is no clear count of these high-risk nationals, nor is there a count on high-risk nationals from other non-Islamic countries. There are thousands, however, and getting them out will be difficult.

The U.S. Embassy is considering flying them to Cyprus. That would mean an air bridge from Beirut International Airport, where a single runway has been opened, to Cyprus, a short flight away. The United States will not do this while Beirut is under attack, so it will ask the Israelis to create a safe zone and air corridor during the evacuation. But the threat on the ground is real, and we suspect the United States will send troops in to secure the perimeter and surrounding areas against shoulder-launched missiles. They will also keep the precise timing secret, although thousands of people in Lebanon — the evacuees — will know it is coming.

There was a Marine Expeditionary Force on maneuvers in the Red Sea a few days ago. We do not know where they are now, but they had 2,200 marines on board — the right number to secure extraction. We suspect aircraft will be chartered from airlines in the region and that some U.S. Air Force and allied aircraft might also be used. Doubtless, the United States is busy organizing it. Given that the United States cancelled several ad hoc withdrawals, it must be highly confident it has the process nailed; we would expect this operation to get going sometime Sunday. Assuming aircraft that can carry any average of 200 people (purely arbitrary), 50-100 flights could get everyone out. Assuming that everyone can be notified and can get to Beirut International Airport. That won’t happen. The remainder who are at risk will probably be advised to move into Christian areas east and northeast of Beirut and to keep their heads down for the duration. It is also possible that discussion of Cyprus notwithstanding, the path will be through Syria, but we doubt that.

In the meantime, that Israel has not sent major ground units into Lebanon yet (lots of small units are operating there) but is taking rocket attacks and hunkering down indicates it does not plan to act piecemeal. If we were to guess, the main thrust would likely begin late Sunday night or Monday morning. They will be ready by then. Of course we are not privy to Israeli operations, so it could be delayed 24-48 hours to give forces a chance to gear up. But given the Hezbollah bombardment, the Israelis are under pressure to move sooner rather than later.

We are in a relatively quiet spell (emphasis on quiet). Both sides have made their strategic decisions. Both know how the war will be fought. Hezbollah thinks it can give as good as it will get for a while, and will ultimately be able to regroup for a guerrilla war against the Israelis. Israel thinks it can immobilize and crush Hezbollah quickly and decisively and will be able to withdraw. Both sides know Syria is the wild card, and neither is quite sure how it will play its hand. One side is wrong in its expectations about the outcome. That’s the nature of war.

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