Bush hits panic button as Israel struggles in Lebanon

IN HIS unwavering support for Israel, President George W. Bush may have created another Frankenstein monster by allowing the war in Lebanon to go on for as long as it did. Rather than nipping the crisis in the bud, Bush chose to allow hostilities to continue, arguing that he wanted a "sustainable peace" and not just another ceasefire.

By Claude Salhani

Published: Sat 12 Aug 2006, 9:34 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:37 PM

Now, as the fighting appears as though it might spiral out of control and engulf the rest of the region, President Bush is reaching for the panic button. He is asking the United Nations to intervene and to call for a ceasefire. This is the same UN body Bush and his administration were so critical of in the past. Can you say flip-flop?

The President, much like his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, resisted numerous calls to urge Israel for a ceasefire in the early days of the conflict. This was intentional and to allow Israel the time it needed to reach its objective —the destruction of Hezbollah. But as one Israeli general said, not all wars are won in six days. Indeed this war may take a while longer and its outcome remains as hazy as the fog that surrounds every war.

Now, one month into the conflict, Israel’s war on Hezbollah is entering what could be its final phase: either an agreement is reached at the UN Security Council calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities, or Israel goes on the offensive, pushing as far north as the Litani River. Some observers think Israel might even push towards the Zahrani.

In the meantime, the Lebanese government has proposed sending some 15,000 Lebanese army troops to the south, a move Israel responded to with mixed signals. Prime Minister Olmert found the suggestion worth considering, while his UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman did not think much of the idea. Israel worries that the Lebanese Army may not be up to the task of keeping Hezbollah out of south Lebanon and away from its northern frontier.

The risk of the conflict spreading lies in a phrase Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told senior officers during a visit to the Northern Command last week. Israel, said the PM, is not just fighting Hezbollah. Israel is fighting Iran and Syria.

In earlier exchanges of diatribes Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah threatened to send his Iranian supplied rockets and which transit through Syria, to strike Tel Aviv. Olmert shot back that if that were to happen Israel would retaliate by hitting the centre of Beirut. But returning to that little phrase of Olmert’s in which the prime minister said Israel was fighting Syria and Iran. What would happen if Israel hit back at Damascus or Teheran instead of Beirut?

Assuming Israeli warplanes bombed the presidential palace in Damascus killing President Bashar Al Assad. Or even if they missed. What then? What would be Syria’s reaction? Syria is not really in a position to strike back at Israel in the conventional sense. Without getting too technical, its air force is equipped with outdated Soviet era MiGs. Syria has approximately 650 combat aircraft. Almost all combat planes are Soviet manufactured. Syrian air force inventory includes 50 MiG-25 and MiG-25R (Foxbat) interceptors. They also have 200 MiG-23S/U (Flogger) and Su-17 FitterK ground-attack and multirole aircraft.

There were rumours that the Soviet Union, prior to its break-up, had agreed to provide Syria with two squadrons of the advanced supersonic MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter aircraft equipped with top-of-the-line avionics. But Moscow did not want to trust its latest technology to Damascus and risk it being shot down by Israel and in turn handed over to the United States.

Syria’s armour is not much better off. Syria has T62 and T72 tanks built with obsolete technology from the Soviet era. Nothing in Syria’s arsenal represents any real threat to Israel’s US supplied advanced fighter jets, or American made Abrams M1A1 battle tanks or Israel’s Merkava. Additionally, from its roost-like vantage point atop the strategic Golan Heights, the Israelis practically just need to release the handbrake on their Merkavas and the tanks are likely to roll on their own into the centre of Damascus.

However, if the Syrians are unable to put up a conventional fight against Israel, they can always draw Israel into a protracted and costly guerrilla war. The war between Israel and Hezbollah, as the war the United States is fighting in Iraq, have proven that in an asymmetrical war a conventional army, no matter how powerful or technically advanced, finds itself at a disadvantage in the face of a well organised and dedicated guerrilla force that can fight with the strength of a conventional force but then dissipate into the environment and inflict heavy casualties on the enemy.

The United States may be in a better position to sustain several thousand fatalities, as it has in Iraq. But in a smaller country as Israel, how many casualties can it suffer before it feels forced to begin thinking about its nuclear option? Bush, now is the time to insist that all acts of hostilities cease. Tomorrow may be too late.

Claude Salhani is International Editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington, DC. And Editor of The Middle East

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