A new war in the Middle East is looming on the horizon--one that could create a fundamental shift in the region, and whose repercussions would be felt around the world. Israel, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran are all feverishly preparing for war, even while declaring an interest in maintaining the status quo. One need not look any farther than World War I to remember that millions of lives can be lost due to happenstance. It would not be the first time a region teeming with armies ignited in war despite a stated desire for peace.
Rhetoric is at a high, even for the loquacious Middle East. Iran's vice president recently threatened to "cut off Israel's feet", its parliamentary speaker promised a "final and decisive war", and its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, added that the next conflict would be the "last war launched by the Zionists". Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned that Iran is provoking a war between Israel and Syria, while President Shimon Peres has declared the transfer of Syrian scud missiles to Hezbollah as unacceptable. Syria's Bashar Assad recently chimed in as well, dismissing an Israeli offer made through Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev to cut ties with Iran and "resistance movements" in return for an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and a final peace agreement. All of this is translating into real actions that could lead to war. The Israeli military is quietly preparing for another conflict, drilling its forces and increasing its surveillance and reconnaissance. Syrian and Hezbollah forces were put on alert along their southern borders with Israel as the Jewish state distributed gas masks to its citizens and prepared their bunkers for war. Weapons transfers continue as Hezbollah militants drill for a fight. At this point, any miscalculation can set off a war.
The most likely culprit for war this summer appears to be the continued transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah by Syria and Iran. Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets in its arsenal, and has increased the number of projectiles that can reach nearly any point in Israel. So many, in fact, that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated last month, "We are at a point now where Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world". Former Director of the CIA George Tenet described Hezbollah as follows: "An organization with capability and worldwide presence, it is al-Qaeda's equal, if not a far more capable organization... They are a notch above in many respects..." No country is more aware of this than Israel, which remains the main target of Hezbollah's aggression. This week it was reported that Israel cancelled a planned strike on a Syrian-Hezbollah missile transfer at the last moment, likely under pressure from the United States.
To complicate matters further, Hezbollah today is a member of the Lebanese government, which has publicly backed its continued military buildup. This despite the fact that numerous UN Security Council resolutions and Lebanon's own Taif Accord call for the radical Shiite group and all other militias in the country to be disarmed.
In the last round of fighting with Hezbollah back in the summer of 2006, Israel was unable to quell the thousands of rockets fired at its northern towns and cities. It was, however, able to eliminate the group's medium range rocket and missile capabilities in the first hour or so of that war--an arsenal that threatened Tel Aviv and Israel's heartland. This time around, however, Hezbollah has significantly increased and spread out its longer range projectiles, storing some just over the border in Syria, seemingly out of harm's way.
Yet Hezbollah was not the only one to discover lessons from that war. Israel once again learned the hard way the dangers of retaliation versus preemption. While it had intelligence that Hezbollah was planning another kidnapping attack on its troops, it chose to wait for an attack before it struck out against Lebanon. Consequently, Hezbollah was permitted to attack on its own terms, ensuring a more positive outcome than was necessary. Israel had been loath to be seen as the aggressor back in 2006, and consequently suffered the consequences. Yet the truth is, regardless of the act or the response, many in the international community and particularly the Arab world, have a knee jerk reaction to Israeli activities that accuse the Jewish state of aggression and disproportionate response regardless of why it launched a military strike. A similar lesson on preemption was first painfully discovered during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when under pressure from the United States, Israel chose not to strike first as it had in the 1967 Six Day War. The differences between those two wars were startling.
In light of Israel's past experiences, along with the continued supplying of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, the steady progress of Iran's nuclear and ballistic programs, and the increasing threats publicly made against Israel, the possibility of another war breaking out appears increasingly likely. The question is whether Israel will succumb to US administration pressure to hold off on a preemptive strike, or whether it will decide it is time to strike first and lessen the blow of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Such a scenario might be the lesser of all evils for Israel, but it would still be devastating for all sides.
Such a war could see Israel launching attacks against Hezbollah weapons depots in Lebanon and Syria in response to the continued transfer of weapons to the Shiite Islamist group. Hezbollah has declared its desire to bring the next round of fighting into Israel this time--a scenario hitherto unheard of for Israelis and one that the Jewish state will make every effort to prevent. If Hezbollah fighters or weapons are positioned in Syria, that country might also be forced to join the war, at least symbolically. Iran has declared that in the case of war between Syria and Israel, it would come to the defense of its Syrian ally. In such a scenario, Israel might even find a further opportunity to launch a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, although its effectiveness would be questionable.
Any way you slice it, this next war will not be a cakewalk for any side, which is why all parties continue to claim they do not want another fight. Yet the present situation is ultimately becoming untenable. If all of this reads like a fiction novel, let's remember the lessons of World War I. It is without question that all sides are feverishly preparing for war even if they do not necessarily want to fight one. Hezbollah has increasingly become an agent of Iran, with its Revolutionary Guards playing an important role in the decision-making body of the organization, known as its Shura Council. The terrorist group will never recognize Israel or make peace with it. And so the only questions left to ponder are who is going to ignite the next war in the Middle East, and when? Don't be surprised if Israel returns to the use of preemption to gain the upper hand and further its deterrence.
Dr. Joshua Gleis is an international security consultant and political risk analyst. He received his PhD and MALD from the Fletcher School, Tufts University. His forthcoming book is entitled "Withdrawing Under Fire: Lessons Learned from Islamist Insurgencies" (Potomac Books, Inc., Fall 2010).