More than two weeks into the Lebanon war several thing are becoming slightly more obvious. The first is that the dynamics of the conflict are changing. Whereas for the first two weeks the Israelis imposed a blockade on all ports and systematically destroyed roads, bridges, Beirut's Shiite southern suburbs, and large areas of the mainly Shiite south and the northern Bekaa Valley, now we seem to have moved to a ground war focused in the border region. After the heavy casualties the Israelis took yesterday in Bint Jubail, I imagine Israel will escalate its air campaigns and essentially try to grind down and overcome the entrenched Hezbollah combatants through massive firepower. That will mean heavy civilian casualties.
Can it do so before a cease-fire? Because of the relative (and I mean very relative) normalization in the rest of the country, and the imminent opening of so-called humanitarian corridors to allow supplies and aid into Lebanon, it seems to me that Israel has bought several more weeks in which to hit Hezbollah, particularly in the south. There is also an embarrassed understanding, both inside Lebanon and out, that if things were to stop now, Hezbollah would emerge much stronger from the fight, and would be in a position to stage an effective coup against the Lebanese state, by virtue of its weapons and its ability (and visible desire today) to seek retribution against its critics.
Where will this lead? That depends on how well Hezbollah fights back. But the Israeli government has two contracts to fulfill: one toward its own people (and PM Ehud Olmert needs to prove that he can defend Israel, particularly if he goes through with a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank in the future); and a contract with the Bush administration, which has asked Israel to cut down Hezbollah. Both objectives mean this is a fight Israel cannot afford to lose; and one Hezbollah cannot either.
On the diplomatic front, Condoleezza Rice's visit to Beirut earlier this week showed two things: that the U.S. doesn't have a clear idea how to deploy an international force in the border area; and that Rice is open to ideas. In a lunch session with representatives of political forces opposed to Syria, and critical of Hezbollah, she initially said that her plan called for clearing out a 20 kilometer area in the south where an international force would deploy. When the assembled politicians said this was ridiculous, since Hezbollah would only fire at Israel from behind the peacekeepers, Rice backtracked, saying that hers was only a proposal. She reportedly told assistant secretary David Welch to note that the plan had to be changed, and that the U.S. would aim for a demilitarization of the south. Quite how the U.S. intends to do this remains utterly unclear.
My own view is that this is a long work in progress, so that it is senseless to draw too many conclusions today. This is going to last for several more weeks, and the diplomacy will only really begin making inroads if Hezbollah agrees to compromise. We're far from that yet, but facing 500,000-700,000 displaced people, mounting economic costs estimated at $2 billion, the displeasure of much of Lebanese society, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, needs his militia to come out of the Israeli land operation looking more or less intact, otherwise his margin to delay on a compromise will become narrower and narrower.
Most alarming, however, is that there are increasing calls in the U.S. for the Bush administration to engage Syria, so that it can help control Hezbollah, on the assumption that if you deal with Syria, you can isolate Iran. One wonders if those peddling the idea have any memory at all: it was under Syria that Hezbollah became a military power, and what the Syrians will demand, or maneuver to achieve, in exchange for "helping" would be onerous. They will want the international investigation of Rafiq Hariri's murder to be dropped, to save their regime that ordered the crime; and they will want oversight power over Lebanese affairs, which, with an armed Hezbollah as Praetorian Guard, would effectively mean they would again rule the country.
My own suspicion is that this is also Israel's Plan B if the international peacekeeping force project doesn't work out. The Israelis have always preferred dealing with predictable Syria in Lebanon than with a weak state that cannot control Hezbollah and is open to myriad outside irritants. Because the Israelis have no confidence in Lebanon's innate stability, they have no qualms about making that stability increasingly impossible.