Next Mid­dle East war set for Le­banon

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

‘When all the Arabs and the Is­raelis agree on one thing, peo­ple should pay at­ten­tion. We should stop this Ira­nian takeover,” said Is­rael’s Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu last month. So we’re pay­ing at­ten­tion now, and we even know where the next war will start: Le­banon.

That seems un­fair, as Le­banon’s last civil war lasted 15 years, killed around 200,000 peo­ple (out of a pop­u­la­tion of only 4 mil­lion), and only ended in 1990. Couldn’t they hold this one some­where else? Un­for­tu­nately, no. All the other venues are taken.

Iraq is still fully booked. The fight against Is­lamic State is al­most over, but the strug­gle be­tween the Arabs and the Kurds has only just got started again. It never re­ally stops for long.

Bashar al-As­sad’s forces, the Rus­sians, and Shia vol­un­teers from Iran and Le­banon are win­ning the war in Syria, but it will be at least an­other year be­fore they sup­press all rebel re­sis­tance.

Ye­men’s airspace is too con­gested, with Saudi, Emi­rati, Kuwaiti, Jor­da­nian and Egyp­tian planes bomb­ing the liv­ing day­lights out of the Houthi rebels who hold most of the coun­try (and any­body else who hap­pens to be nearby). No real room for an­other war there.

Both Saudi Ara­bia and Is­rael want to take Iran down a peg or two, and their ef­forts to get the United States to do it for them have not yet suc­ceeded. Don­ald Trump is not op­posed in prin­ci­ple, but his cur­rent ob­ses­sion is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

So the war will have to be in Le­banon, at least at the start. The big Shia mili­tia that con­trols south­ern Le­banon, Hezbol­lah, is closely al­lied to Shia Iran, and it’s a per­ma­nent nui­sance along Is­rael’s north­ern bor­der, so it’s a suit­able place to start rolling back Iran’s re­gional in­flu­ence.

Le­banon is a par­tic­u­larly good choice from Saudi Ara­bia’s point of view be­cause it’s the Is­raelis who would have to do the ac­tual fight­ing there. (Saudi Ara­bia does not share a bor­der with Le­banon.) But if Crown Prince Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man is re­ally se­ri­ous about curb­ing Iran’s power, his own troops are even­tu­ally go­ing to have to take on the job of cleans­ing Syria of Ira­nian in­flu­ence.

You only have to say that sen­tence aloud to re­alise that this project is go­ing to end in tears for the Saudis, the Is­raelis and (if they get sucked into it) the Amer­i­cans. There is no way that the in­ex­pe­ri­enced Saudi army is go­ing to drive bat­tle-hard­ened Hezbol­lah and Ira­nian mili­tia troops out of Syria.

Ac­tu­ally, there is no way that the Is­raeli army is go­ing to drive Hezbol­lah out of south­ern Le­banon ei­ther. In Is­rael’s last war with the or­gan­i­sa­tion in 2006, Hezbol­lah’s troops fought the Is­raeli army to a stand­still in south­ern Le­banon. The Is­raeli air force smashed up Le­banon’s in­fra­struc­ture, but Is­rael ended up ac­cept­ing a cease­fire with Hezbol­lah and with­draw­ing its troops in a hurry.

Sunni Arab lead­ers and Is­rael’s pre­mier have talked them­selves into the delu­sion that Iran has a grand plan to es­tab­lish dom­i­na­tion over the whole re­gion and must be stopped by force.

First Iran es­tab­lished close links with the Shia po­lit­i­cal par­ties and mili­tias that now dom­i­nate Iraq. Then it crossed Iraqi ter­ri­tory to save the Shia ruler of Syria from a re­volt by the Sunni ma­jor­ity in that coun­try. Next was dis­tant Ye­men, where the Shia tribes of the north, the Houthi, over­ran most of the coun­try with Ira­nian help. And now the Shia mili­tia Hezbol­lah has gained a pow­er­ful po­si­tion in the govern­ment of Le­banon.

If the Sun­nis don’t stop the Ira­ni­ans now, they’ll all be en­slaved. Or some­thing of that sort.

Non­sense. It was Ge­orge W Bush who over­threw the cen­turies-long rule of the Sunni mi­nor­ity in Iraq on the ly­ing pre­text that Sad­dam Hus­sein was de­vel­op­ing “weapons of mass de­struc­tion”. The Shias took power in Iraq in a free elec­tion, and as the only Shia-ma­jor­ity coun­try in the Arab world they nat­u­rally sought a close re­la­tion­ship with Shia Iran.

This made it easy for Ira­nian vol­un­teers and weapons to move across Iraq and help Mr As­sad re­sist an as­sault on his rule by Sunni ex­trem­ists. The Hezbol­lah mili­tia, which rep­re­sents the large Shia mi­nor­ity in Le­banon, also went to Mr As­sad’s help, but you can hardly por­tray this as Shia ex­pan­sion­ism.

A great many peo­ple will die for noth­ing if the full-scale Sunni-Shia war that Saudi Ara­bia (and Mr Ne­tanyahu) cur­rently en­vis­age ac­tu­ally gets go­ing. But Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter Saad alHariri’s res­ig­na­tion a week ago, in which he de­nounced Hezbol­lah’s pres­ence in the govern­ment — de­liv­ered not at home but in Saudi Ara­bia — may have been the start­ing gun for the war.

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