Southern Lebanon: Coalition of the Unwilling
By Steve Schippert
The Israeli political leadership is adding to its series of missteps in the war with Hizballah by creating a power vacuum in southern Lebanon in the wake of a withdrawal order issued to the IDF well ahead of the arrival of international forces, let alone the deployment of any significant portion of the 15,000-man contingent of the Lebanese army. An IDF withdrawal is accelerating well ahead of the arrival of replacement forces – other than Hizballah – and, while unnamed Israeli government officials claim otherwise, the pace of the withdrawal is clearly visible.
Only Hizballah Is Faster Than Israeli Withdrawal
With the UN-mandated international force intended for southern Lebanon not even agreed to yet, let alone constituted, it is being reported that the IDF expects to be fully withdrawn in a hasty exit from Lebanon within just one to two weeks, according to a report in The Australian. The article quoted journalistic sources describing the atmosphere in southern Lebanon as confused, “with units of Israeli soldiers very close to Hezbollah fighters, and the chaos heightened by unexpectedly large number of civilians flooding back to the area."
And with this Israeli plan, which can be rightly dubbed ‘Operation Vacuum,’ the Hizballah re-manning and reinforcement of their southern Lebanon positions can and will begin in earnest. To that end, Hizballah terrorists likely already have begun to assume their previous positions under cover of the “unexpectedly large number of civilians" re-entering in waves.
UN Has Hopes, But No Troops
Unfortunately, Israel is well ahead of the United Nations, rarely noted for its alacrity, as the UN ‘hopes’ to be able to field 3,500 troops into the region by the end of the same two-week period. This is barely 10% of the IDF force currently and rapidly vacating the area.
Said UN Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Hedi Annabi, "We hope that there can be an initial deployment of up to 3,500 troops within 10 days to two weeks. That would be ideal to help consolidate the cessation of hostilities and start the process of withdrawing and deployment of the Lebanese forces as foreseen in the resolution."
But the United Nations can do little more than hope, as Annabi cited the obvious in saying that such a force can only be formed from other states "if the political will is there."
There can be little doubt that Hizballah and the Iranian regime – answerable to no public electoral mechanism - have cornered the market on political will. Not even the Israeli government, fighting a long war for its very survival in the face of an enemy dedicated to its destruction, could muster the political will to bring the full brunt of war to those who would incite it.
Lebanon Allows Hizballah to Keep Arms
Already seeking to defy the UN ceasefire agreement, the Lebanese government is working on arrangements to avoid disarming Hizballah by allowing the terrorists to keep their arms so long as they do not display them in public. For its part, the Lebanese army is incapable of standing up to Hizballah alone, a condition engineered long ago by Iran and long-occupying Syria.
But as Lebanon’s UN Ambassador Nahoud Mahmoud made clear Monday, the Lebanese government never intended to use force to disarm Hizballah regardless of the agreed-upon UN ceasefire plan, saying, "Hizballah will just leave the area as armed elements as I understand it, and the Lebanese army will take over the whole region along with the United Nations forces."
The Lebanese government seems to seek the illusion of control within their own territory, furthering the charade that is the UN ceasefire widely touted as the emergence of peace. With no UN forces on the horizon and, for that matter, their collective resolve as yet unknown, the UN ceasefire and the power vacuum created by the unprecedented rapid Israeli withdrawal leaves the weakened Lebanese government effectively cornered.
Olmert Government Denies Rapid Withdrawal
An unnamed official from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said on Tuesday that Israel will resume the war if Hizballah refuses to disarm. But in the face of the current ‘Operation Vacuum’ currently afoot, such words surely strike many with bewilderment.
Hizballah has said that it will not disarm, the Lebanese government has determined that Hizballah will be permitted to keep their arms, and there are no UN-guided international forces near the Lebanese coastline, UN-forces that surely are not going to act in defiance of their host army who will not disarm Hizballah.
What precisely did the Olmert government expect?
Running counter to reports to the rapid Israeli withdrawal, an Israeli official said that “the IDF would not complete its withdrawal from southern Lebanon until the international force was deployed - even if it took months - to prevent a vacuum in Lebanon that could endanger Israeli civilians." But those words do not square with the situation as it appears.
Marjayoun Reveals IDF–Olmert Disconnect
The most telling indication that the Israeli government has no designs to maintain a presence in southern Lebanon “even if [deployment of international forces] took months" is the vacation of Marjayoun corridor, a key area taken by the IDF at the onset of the 48-hour last-minute push northward into Hizballistan and toward the Litani River.
The Australian incorrectly dismisses Marjayoun and the Marjayoun corridor as insignificant. It notes the Israeli withdrawal from “strategically unimportant territory around the mainly Christian town of Marjayoun, seized during their final push late last week, and this morning were leaving Bourj al-Mulouk, which lies between Marjayoun and the Israeli border."
But a closer look at the map provided reveals why the IDF took the Marjayoun corridor at the very outset of the major ground push to the Litani River. It’s significance is logistical in nature, as with all bridges across the Litani River destroyed, the roads leading through the corridor are the only remaining accessible re-supply routes from Hizballah’s Bekaa Valley resource stores and the ‘Katyusha Brigades’ remaining in place throughout southern Lebanon. The un-bridged Litani River created a natural barrier, the coastline well to the west had been long blockaded and to the east of the corridor lay the Blue Line of Israeli amassed defenses.
No, the Marjayoun corridor was certainly not “strategically unimportant territory."
Taking this strategically important territory was a preparation for what the IDF expected to be at least a month-long fight within the southern Lebanon ‘box.’ Cutting Hizballah terrorists off from re-supply in place would begin to pay dividends in just days and save many IDF casualties in the coming weeks. The IDF likely expected to fully engage Hizballah and clear them and their rockets from the area, and did not expect it to be a quick fight. At minimum, they had at least expected to remain in place for a matter of weeks or more until the ‘international community’ lived up to their end of the agreed-to bargain of an international force to replace them.
Conclusion: Coming Soon To A Theater Near You
What the IDF expected and what the Olmert government has given it has proven, once again, to be more of a disparity than a commonality. The IDF planned to protect itself in fulfilling its mission by cutting off Hizballah supply routes to the southern box completely. The Olmert government has chosen to protect itself by aborting the mission altogether.
The taking of and sudden withdrawal from the Marjayoun corridor – and the rest of southern Lebanon in short order - makes this abundantly clear.
This fight will be resumed once again, likely sooner rather than later. Hizballah is not re-arming for peace, and their actions will determine the time and date of re-engagement. They have effectively increased their status and regained both their territory and the initiative.
If Iran and Hizballah wait long enough, they will have forced Israel not only to engage them among civilians once more, but also through and among the Lebanese army and international forces from around the globe.
As Hizballah swarms to eagerly fill the beckoning void, left in the wake of the rapid IDF withdrawal and ahead of the arrival of any reluctant Lebanese force or as-yet-non-existent international force, Israelis in Haifa and the rest of northern Israel will venture out with an alert eye to the sky.
Already in deep political trouble, the moment a Hizballah rocket revisits the northern Israeli civilian population, the life expectancy of the Olmert government will be effectively measured in hours.
If it survives that long.