Thursday, January 22, 2004

The Cedars of Lebanon

Reader DL points to a Jerusalem Post article that suggests a planned US special forces deployment in the Bekaa puts it on a collision course with Syria.

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is considering provoking a military confrontation with Syria by attacking Hizbullah bases near the Syrian border in Lebanon, according to the authoritative London-based Jane's Intelligence Digest. In an article to be published on Friday, the journal said multi-faceted US attacks, which would be conducted within the framework of the global war on terrorism, are likely to focus on Hizbullah bases in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon. It noted that the deployment of US special forces in the Bekaa Valley, where most of Syria's occupation forces in Lebanon are based, would be highly inflammatory and would "almost certainly involve a confrontation with Syrian troops."

The Washington Post, in a wide-ranging article entitled Military Split On How to Use Special Forces In Terror War , reported two weeks ago that Secretary Rumsfeld was reviewing proposals to "send the Special Mission Units into areas such as Somalia and Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where little government authority exists and terrorists congregate, seemingly safe from the long arm of the United States". This coincided with the Weekly Standard article Showstoppers, which excoriated the Clinton and Bush administrations for failing to deploy Special Forces against terrorist threats before September 11.

This takes place against a changing canvas in Iraq, where US forces are waxing in strength even while the insurgency is slowly being crushed. The Boston Globe reports that Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, told reporters that ''the former regime elements we've been combating have been brought to their knees''. He was referring to the Iraqi Ba'ath -- who are the ideological kindred of the Syrian Ba'ath. Meanwhile, a plannedmassive rotation of units will temporarily result in the presence of a quarter of a million men in Iraq, as relief units take the place of outgoing outfits over the next few months.

The Jerusalem Post article rightly suggests that any US special forces deployment would inevitably bring then  into direct conflict with the Syrian occupiers of Lebanon and the sponsors the Hezbollah. Their use would perforce be accompanied by the organization and training of indigenous Lebanese auxiliaries, a feature of all US special forces campaigns from Indochina to Afghanistan. The special forces would be supported by air units and fire support, plus light infantry to prevent a repetition of the "Blackhawk Down" scenario. Units could draw on equipment already prepositioned in Israel, located in the mysterious Sites 51, 53 and 54. All in all, it would create a strategic nightmare for Damascus. With Americans in the Bekaa 40 km west of downtown Damascus -- less than a marathon run, the Israeli army on the Golan Heights a mere 60 km south of the capital and American forces on the Iraqi border 300 km to the east and Turkey on the northern border, the Assad regime would be literally encircled.

The US probably feels that it has the Iraqi problem in hand and may want to maintain the operational tempo in its wider campaign against the Middle Eastern dictatorships. An American deployment to the Bekaa would open a new low-intensity warfare front which would resemble a cross between the campaign in Afghanistan and the recent anti-Saddam counterinsurgency in Iraq. In the light of recent experience, the Pentagon may feel confident in challenging the Syrians and Hezbollah to what has become a familiar operation of war with a known cost and proven methods. But to the Syrians, Americans in the Bekaa will be a mortal threat, which they must prevent or repel. If they cannot, the spring of 2005 will see a new regime in Lebanon hostile to Syria and their Hezbollah lackeys in flight. It would also sound the death-knell of Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which will be boxed in and probably beset by American-sponsored auxiliaries. A successful campaign to topple Syria would in turn mean American control of a continuous swath of territory between the Mediterranean and the Iranian border. It would cut off the Arabian Peninsula to the north and squeeze Saudi Arabia and Yemen onto American deployments on the Horn of Africa -- of which the Washington Post's report of a return to Somalia would be a part.

Will it happen? Wait and see. Can it happen. Yes it can.