Just Thinking Out Loud

Over the past few weeks there has been an unending stream of analytical post-mortems of the recent war between Hezbollah and Israel. In Israel, much of the ire has focused on the political incompetence and military hubris that shackled the war effort. Indeed, these are very important discussions.

But I want to focus on another nugget of counterfactual possibility that has tickled my imagination, and that is whether Israel made a fundamental mistake from the outset by trying to go after Hezbollah targets in the south of Lebanon. By this I mean to suggest that fighting Hezbollah in the south, where Hezbollah munitions were deliberately utilized from and stored in highly-populated civilian centers, made the effort impossible unless the Israelis were willing to a) unleash a very large scale ground offensive – which plainly they were not or b) employ tactics that Israelis find morally odious. In this sense, the war plan was doomed from the outset to produce – at best – mediocre results. In short, Israel was fighting Hezbollah on Hezbollah’s turf, on Hezbollah’s terms.

Now imagine for a minute that instead of going after civilian centers from the air, Israel restricted its targeting in the south of Lebanon to counteracting rocket launchers and, of course, decapitating the leadership of Hezbollah. And instead focused the bulk of its response on military targets in Syria, which could be hit without the fraught moral and PR repercussions that are attendant to waging urban warfare from the sky. As for justification? Syria is the essential link between Hezbollah and its chief benefactor, Iran. It’s culpability in Hezbollah actions are clear (not to mention Hamas).

Conventional wisdom during the war held that if Israel opened up another front it would be a major escalation and could ignite a regional war. There is much potential truth to this, and there is no doubt it would have been a provocative, risky war plan. But it may just in fact have called the Iranian and Syrian bluff. Remember, this war was in many respects a proxy war. And while Syria and Iran stood to gain in prestige and influence from a proxy war in which Israel could be pegged as the “disproportionate” aggressor – while in fact employing chastened means that ensured Hezbollah would survive, emboldened – it is another matter entirely whether the al-Assad regime in Damascus was prepared for direct confrontation. Instead, it seems clear that they were only ready to fight to the last Lebanese. The shift in targeting may have allowed Israel to fight a campaign on terms far more advantageous to its own success.

Just thinking out loud….

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