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Vying for Victory in the Middle East

Prepared by: Esther Pan
August 3, 2006

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As the battle between Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters rages on in Lebanon, each side is trying to position itself to emerge from the crisis claiming victory. Israel needs to be seen dealing Hezbollah a significant defeat, while the Lebanese militant group needs only to survive the crisis to declare victory, as this Backgrounder explains.

The current conflict poses particular danger to civilians, who make up most of the Lebanese casualty count of nearly 1,000 dead and more than 3,000 wounded (NYT). The Israeli campaign is bringing back harsh memories of the country's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which stretched into an occupation that lasted nearly twenty years. Israel's use of force, which many international observers claim is disproportionate to the incident that prompted the crisis—a Hezbollah raid and abduction of two soldiers—is examined in this Backgrounder.

The Israeli public is strongly behind the war, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says the military campaign will continue until an international peacekeeping force is deployed in Lebanon (BBC). But many outside observers are questioning Olmert's tactics and handling of the crisis. Military strategist Ralph Peters writes for the website IsraelInsider that Olmert has bungled the war effort and is causing Israel to lose the battle, both in the field and for international opinion. This Jerusalem Post analysis says the buffer zone Israel is seeking in southern Lebanon will not immediately offer security, since the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) will have to clear Hezbollah cells from the territory before any international force can move in. And any such force will also have to deal with pressure to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for Hezbollah to be disarmed. Muriel Asseburg, a Mideast expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, argues that the disarmament of Hezbollah—one of Israel's avowed goals—can only be achieved by political means (PDF). This Backgrounder collects the most significant UN resolutions on the Middle East.

Not surprisingly, Hezbollah strongly opposes any international force in Lebanon. While many reports say Hezbollah is experiencing a surge in popularity across the region (AP), Robert Rabil of Florida Atlantic University writes that international observers are overstating the boost in Hezbollah's standing. What many see as unified support of Hezbollah is just Lebanon's wartime solidarity, he says, while warning that the current crisis is increasing sectarian divisions within the country.

In a policy brief for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, counterterrorism experts Barak Ben-Zur and Christopher Hamilton warn the crisis could lead to an increased risk of international terrorism from Hezbollah and its patron, Iran. Many are still looking to both Iran and Syria, whose involvement in the crisis is explained in this Backgrounder. A new report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace assesses the challenges facing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Dissidents within Syria are pushing for political and economic reform, and other nations, including the United States, are pressuring Damascus to stop arming Hezbollah, break its ties with Iran, and halt its interference in Lebanese politics.

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