Conventional armies can defeat guerrilla forces with broad popular support, for it is perfectly feasible to dismantle a people, destroy its morale, and if need be expel them. It has happened in history on occasions beyond count.
The British did it to the Scots Highlanders after the 1745 rising, and to the Acadians of Canada after the Seven Years’ War; Ataturk did it to the Greeks of Asia Minor in 1922; and the Czechs did it to the Sudeten Germans after 1945. It seems to be happening again, as half or more of Lebanon’s 1.2 million Shi’ites flee their homes. To de-fang Hezbollah implies the effective dissolution of the Shi’ite community, a third of whom live within Katyusha range of Israel.
A real war – that is, a war that is fought to a decisive conclusion – finally may have begun in the Middle East. To the extent Israel’s campaign succeeds, it will have knock-on effects throughout the region, starting with another accident-prone multi-ethnic patchwork, namely Syria, with grave implications for Iraq. It is easy to say that the present war has unleashed chaos, but the question is: Upon whom? The collapse of Lebanon’s Shi’ite community opens the prospect of chaos in the region, but to Israel’s advantage.
Iran will face the humiliation of seeing dissolved a Shi’ite community it armed and nurtured, at the same time that Western powers demand the abandonment of its nuclear-weapons program. This will be too great for Tehran to bear; ultimately the West will have to take on Iran directly, for Iran has other means at its disposal to make life miserable for the West, including the so-called oil weapon.
“Fight a dictatorship, and you must kill the regime; fight a democracy, and you must kill the people,” I warned on January 31 (No true Scotsman starts a war), meaning that one turns a proud and militant folk into a deracinated rabble. Sometimes it is not necessary to kill a single individual to crush an entire people. When a warlike people rather would fight, eg the Chechens, the result is butchery.
Blame George W. Bush for this grim necessity in Lebanon, where the refugee count already has reached 15-30% of the total population. In the name of Lebanese democracy, Washington brought Hezbollah into mainstream politics, and the newly legitimized Hezbollah in turn became the focus of life for Lebanon’s 1.2 million Shi’ites. To uproot Hezbollah, one has to uproot the Shi’ite community.
One has to evaluate with caution reports trickling in from the battlefield, but it appears that Hezbollah undertook vast works of military engineering under the guidance of Iranian advisers. Who dug the honeycombs of bunkers underneath Shi’ite villages south of the Litani River and in the Bekaa Valley? Hezbollah’s fortifications must have provided the lion’s share of the livelihood of numerous Shi’ite villages.
Given that Hezbollah emplaced its rocketry in Shi’ite civilian neighborhoods, Israel must reduce civilian areas to stop rocket attacks. The fact that casualties number in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands shows that Israel has been meticulous about creating refugees rather than corpses. Nonetheless, Israel has forced the burden of uncertainty on its enemies, including by implication Syria and eventually Iran.
At least 200,000, and perhaps twice that number of refugees, have descended on Syria, joining half a million displaced Iraqis and perhaps 300,000 Palestinian refugees. Refugee streams clog the few undamaged routes between Syria and Lebanon. Evidently Syria fears destabilization; Information Minister Mohsen Bilal linked his July 23 threat of military action against Israel to the “evacuation” of Lebanon. He told the Spanish daily ABC:
It is unjustifiable that the superpower [ie, the US] does not work for a quick ceasefire. What is it waiting for – for Israel to destroy all of Lebanon so that it has to be evacuated completely? But Israel is not the only player in this region. I repeat: If Israel stages a ground invasion of Lebanon and comes close to us, Syria will not remain with its arms crossed. It will enter the conflict.
 Bilal’s outburst is all the more extraordinary given that Israel’s most hawkish defense analysts, eg Michael Oren in the July 17 New Republic Online, badly want to draw Syria into the war. It is hard for Israel to root Hezbollah out of its nest, but easy to destroy Syrian armor and air capability. The fact that Israel has not done so already is due to Washington’s horror of further instability in Mesopotamia. The destabilization of Syria would produce more chaos in Iraq, as numerous commentators aver.  Washington still hopes that it can drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, which must be the second-silliest idea (after “Lebanese democracy”) to possess the United States in years.
What, then, provoked Mohsen Bilal to offer to jump headlong into an Israeli trap? Contrary to Washington’s hopes, the Bashar al-Assad regime may not be viable after the destruction of Hezbollah. The flood of refugees is painful to absorb. In addition, Syria’s economy depends on Lebanon. Syrian workers in Lebanon remit US$4 billion a year, double Syria’s reported exports.  The Assad regime and its supporters draw substantial income from Lebanon’s black market, which Syria continues to dominate despite the removal of Syrian troops last year.
US as well as Israeli analysts assume that the Syrian regime will do anything to survive, but in the wake of Hezbollah’s collapse and the breakdown of Lebanon’s Shi’ite community, it may not be obvious to Bashar Assad how he may accomplish this. Without the skim from Lebanon’s black market and the remittances from Syrian workers in Lebanon, the regime’s purse will shrivel and its hold on the reins will slacken. Double-crossing its allies in Tehran at just that moment might not be the wisest move, particularly with remnants of Hezbollah fleeing into Syria.
Peaceful outcomes are possible when people have peaceable things to do. Lebanon’s Shi’ites, the country’s resentful underclass, have little stake in the tourism industry and other objects of Saudi investment in their country. Their livelihood is a function of war, of Iranian subsidies in particular. The fortification of southern Lebanon was not intended as a public-works project but, like Adolf Hitler’s autobahn, it kept people employed. If Hezbollah is destroyed and the flow of Iranian largess stops, much of the Shi’ite population will lose its economic viability, and the Shi’ite community never will reconstitute itself in anything resembling its form prior to July 12. Syria, in turn, may lose a great deal of economic viability if Lebanon is cut off.
When chaos is inevitable, it’s best to learn to like it, as I advised on March 14 (How I learned to stop worrying and love chaos). Ultimately the chaos in the Middle East plays to US advantage. In the meantime, it would not hurt to print gasoline ration cards.
1.Moshe Bilal, ministro de informacion sirio: ‘Si Israel invade el Libano, Siria entrara en el conflicto’; my translation.
2. Syria seen as linchpin in Lebanon, San Francisco Chronicle, July 23.
3. Economics of the Syria-Lebanon relationship, SyriaComment.com, April 24, 2005.