Anthony Cordesman, chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies and a former Pentagon intelligence official, answers your questions on Israel’s strikes against Lebanon and the implications for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
There is an opinion that the Hizbollah action in Lebanon is just a cover for Iran in its plans to move or delay the pressure against their nuclear development activities. Do you think that the real problem is Iran or maybe Syria, rather than Israel and the Palestinians?
Amir Maimon, Israel
Anthony Cordesman: No, everyone is to blame. Iran is probably seeking such cover, but also has a real ideological commitment that it has acted on for years. Syria plays a similar game. But this in no ways means that Israel, the Palestinians and Lebanese have not made serious mistakes and escalated in ways that can extend the war of attrition that began in September 2000 indefinitely into the future. It is also Israel and the Palestinians, not others, that have driven this escalation to nowhere.
What do you think about the timing of this crisis? Was the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers first by Hamas, then by Hizbollah, just another new way of fighting Israel or was it a strategic move, meant to provoke and cause a new Arab-Israel war?
Daniele Della Seta, Rome
Anthony Cordesman: Both Hamas and Hizbollah had done this before, and ridden out Israel’s response. I doubt that Hizbollah expected this level of escalation, particularly since the last time, it “won” the prisoner exchange by about 430 to three, and only one Israeli was alive. I suspect the leadership of both movements also knew that no Arab state was going to send its forces into a major battle.
Why does the world stand by while Israel systematically dismembers a neighbouring country, ostensibly in the name of rescuing two of its soldiers? Surely the amount of force used is disproportionate to the offence, and thus contrary to international law? And why have the US and Canada taken sides in this dispute, instead of trying to broker a peace settlement?
Dr. Gerald Graham, Canada
Anthony Cordesman: I can’t excuse either side. The Lebanese government let Hizbollah build up the capabilities it has used to start and sustain this conflict over years, put domestic politics first, and now can’t stop Hizbollah from firing some 800 rockets into Israel. This doesn’t make Israel right, but it definitely makes Lebanon partially responsible.
With not one but two moderate voices in the leaderships of Mahmoud Abbas and Foad Siniora, albeit with weak democratic standings in need of all available foreign support, why has the US abandoned each in turn to the fate of two of the world’s worst terrorist organisations?
D Jack, Madrid
Anthony Cordesman: The US could and should be more decisive in supporting them, and the answer is partly domestic politics and partly a short-sighted view that Israel is helped by not actively intervening to support such leaders. Both, however, have failed in their own right, and Siniora in particular struck a bargain with Hizbollah that allowed it to build up its capabilities and help create this mess.
What do you make of the Bush’s belief that Iran is playing an active role in Israel’s conflicts with Hamas and Hizbollah? Are you aware of any evidence to support this position? If so, would an attack on Iran be justified?
Worth Swearingen, South Carolina, US
Anthony Cordesman: Iran and Syria have been directly involved in support of Hizbollah for years, and there is a great deal of human intelligence, electronic intelligence, and imagery to make this clear. Any feasible US attack on either country, however, would probably be more provocative then decisive and allow the leadership of both countries to exploit nationalism and religion to gain domestic and Arab street support against the US.
What will Syria and Iran gain from this conflict?
Maria Houkli, Athens, Greece
Anthony Cordesman: Ultimately, probably a great deal of trouble. In the near term, however, they have shown the Arab and Muslim world that they are the only remaining states still actively supporting fighters in the “Arab” and “Palestinian” cause. This does defuse Sunni tensions with Shias, Alawites, and Persians to some degree and puts pressure on Arab regimes as well as Israel. The “end game,” however, is not likely to benefit either state and could eventually drag them into serious conflict.
Will the expulsion of Hamas from power without equal action or pressure towards radical Israelis suffice to establish a common ground for settlement talks in the Middle East?
Leandros Papaphilippou, Nicosia, Cyprus
Anthony Cordesman: No, it is will simply deal with the most immediate problem. Without a final settlement both sides can be pressured to live with, and cohesive international action to put such pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to act, the current war of attrition will go on indefinitely. I do not see such action as forthcoming, but half measures and international gestures and calls for ceasefires - as I said in the op-ed - are lipstick on a pig.
The Geneva Accords include the Palestinians giving up the right of return. Has anyone ever advanced a moral or philosophical rather than a realpolitik argument for this?
Patrick O Flaherty, Ballinrobe, Ireland
Anthony Cordesman: This is a legal argument, not a fact, and the Accords are far too ambiguous to set a clear standard. More than 70 per cent of today’s “Palestinians” in the diaspora have been born outside Palestine, and the places they left are gone. Whatever happens, return is likely to be very limited and not treated as a right.
We are led to believe by media outlets that Israel seeks to continue attacks on Lebanon until Hizbollah retreats from the Southern border and disarms. Do you believe that Israel truly perceives this an achievable possibility?
Omar Kanafani, Paris
Anthony Cordesman: That is a very good question. Israel may well be pursuing the option most likely to win domestic political support, and what it sees as the best of a series of bad options, rather than having confidence in serious or lasting success.
The Israelis want Hizbollah to comply with UN resolutions, but when has Israel ever complied with UN resolutions? Isn’t that a double standard?
Korneliya Bachiyska, Bulgaria
Anthony Cordesman: Much as I hate to say it, the world is filled with double standards and will remain so. Moreover, the UN is scarcely neutral, particularly in the General Assembly. Conflict resolution has to be based on real world options and not such criteria.
Do you believe that the war against Lebanon will spread to Iran, and, if so, when and how?
Larry Smith, US
Anthony Cordesman: It already has in the sense the US has labelled Iran as a terrorist state, and put sanctions on it, to a large degree because of its past support for Hizbollah and Hamas. It seems unlikely, however, that this proxy war will lead to direct conflict. Iranian actions in the Gulf, and acquisition of nuclear weapons might do this, but directly conflict with either Iran or Syria over Lebanon seems unlikely.
In reference to point 1 (UN to assist in disarmament), Hamas is Sunni and Hizbollah is Shia. Whilst both have a common ‘opponent’ in Israel for the moment, how much in common do they have beyond this in terms of objectives and political support? We are seeing an increasing sectarian divide in Iraq and Abdullah (Jordan) has voiced concern about a Shia ‘crescent’ developing from Lebanon to Iran. Do you believe the Sunni/Shia division will become more evident or less following this conflict? Will the common enemies (Israel and the US) assist in uniting the Islamic Middle East powers or will the schism continue to spread?
Tracey Stephens, Melbourne
Anthony Cordesman: You highlight a serious risk and one that Iran, Syria, and Iraqi leaders like Sadr are already seeking to exploit. It is far from clear that this will heal the schism between Sunni and Shia. Neo-Salafi Islamist extremists are simply too committed to treating Shias as apostates and polytheists and tensions between Iran and the Arab world are too great. They can, however, cooperate against a common enemy and given that priority. Moreover, using other factions as a proxy involves little risk when they cannot come back to attack you.
The end result is that even if Israel succeeds in its current campaign, it may breed more anger and violence against itself in the aftermath and on a far broader regional level. The US, as Israel’s ally, is already the target of new Arab and Muslim anger.
Israel has fallen into a trap by being provoked into attacking a largely innocent third party. The Lebanese who do not support Hizbollah are not just caught in the crossfire, they are actually being targeted by Israel. What can be done to break this triangle of aggression for the sake of innocent Lebanese?
Jonathan Lewis, London
Anthony Cordesman: The honest answer is nothing, and in part because no one is innocent. Israel’s escalation is in large part designed to force the Lebanese government and other Lebanese to act to disarm and control the Hizbollah. They have failed to do so in the period since Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon, and failed to react to UNSCR 1559. Unless they do so, Israel will never treat them as “innocent.” Worse, any current ceasefire will almost certainly be followed by a new cycle of violence against Lebanon in the future, blocking any rebuilding of the Lebanese economy and confidence in Lebanon’s security.
Can you please explain how the UN will help Lebanon actually disarm Hizbollah, stop it from receiving further arms from Iran and Syria and prevent it sending military aid to Hamas? Which country’s soldiers will perform these duties?
Anthony Cordesman: You raise a good point and nothing about my personal view of this situation is optimistic. I believe both Israel and its opponents are willing to keep escalating to nowhere, hoping somehow that further conflict will bring some form of victory, and that outside leaders will temporise, call for hollow diplomatic action, and push for a ceasefire that at most will allow both sides to regroup and resume the conflict in the future.
What I have said is that if decisive action is not taken in Lebanon, and Israel and the Palestinians are not pushed hard towards a concrete plan for a final settlement, the end result will be cosmetic and have no lasting effect. Calls for dialogue, UN resolutions, and ceasefire, are hollow and cannot produce lasting results.
I do agree with your analysis and wonder if you think that humanitarian reasons could, with time, lead to an understanding that the conflict leads to no solution, and if there is any kind of moral authority able to settle the conflict.
Eric Willeaume, Belgium
Anthony Cordesman: This has been building up since the 1920s, and the world is filled with enduring local conflicts where both sides never really seem to learn. Moreover, everyone claims they alone have moral authority. Real world solutions are still based on power, like it or not.
Given that the UN peace keeping forces have had little success in the past in achieving their missions (e.g., Rwanda and Bosnia), what makes you think that they will be able to achieve the stated goals with regard to Hizbollah?
Matthew Hunt, London
Anthony Cordesman: Everything depends on the mission of the peace force and its willingness and ability to use force. It also depends on the willingness of the Lebanese government and army to provide support. I’m not asking for a buffer or ceasefire force. I’m saying that efforts that leave Hizbollah armed and freedom of action are what puts lipstick on a pig, and only decisive action can matter.
What is to stop rogue elements in Hizbollah obtaining crude WMD and escalating the war dramatically? What probability is there of such an occurrence? What do you think will be the response of the US, China, Russia and the EU in such a situation?
Patrick Martin, Los Angeles
Anthony Cordesman: The odds of serious weapons of mass destruction are negligible, but crude panic weapons are always possible. It would take far more serious efforts than now seem likely to lead to serious international intervention.
The Middle East is in shambles and the status quo (barring removal of settlements) continues to define the conflict. The UN mission may or may not help: it may be a Trojan horse for some people. Given the factors - which point out to the resilience of the conflict and obduracy of the parties involved - and the historical dimensions of the conflict - how would a renewed focus on the ‘road map’ help to resolve the conflict?
Wajahat Qazi, Aalborg, Denmark
Anthony Cordesman: A focus on the current vague road map would not. To make progress, the Quartet must define a proposed final settlement along the lines advanced at Camp David and Taba, and press both sides to act. Aggressive diplomatic action is needed towards a clear peace plan, not more exhortations that do not lead towards some clear result.
Mr Cordesman argues in the Financial Times that the Israeli-Palestinian war of attrition will continue to escalate to nowhere for years to come. Outside diplomacy will accomplish nothing real because there is no bargain acceptable to both sides, he writes.
Both sides can escalate the war process. But as Mr Cordesman sees it, the problem is that neither Israel or the Palestinians can really win. Their values and goals are steadily growing further apart and any final settlement is less and less likely.
Mr Cordesman says that if there is to be any real hope, two things have to happen:
• The UN has to help Lebanon actually disarm Hizbollah, stop it from receiving further arms from Iran and Syria, and stop it from bringing military aid to Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
• The Quartet group of Middle East mediators needs to put major pressure on Israel to halt unilateral expansion into the West Bank and aid moderate Palestinian voices like Mahmoud Abbas, and on the Palestinians to understand aid and support are tied to either Hamas changing or Hamas going.
Has the Israeli assault on Lebanon played into the hands of Hamas, Hizbollah, Iran, and Syria? Do you agree with Mr Cordesman’s view that a UN peacekeeping force will have a short-term cosmetic impact at best?
Anthony Cordesman - Two preconditions for hope in the Middle East
In depth - Arab-Israel conflict