A Change in Strategy: IDF to Expand Ground Campaign in Lebanon

Southern Lebanon. Green indicates Israeli occupied town; red IDF warned towns of operations; yellow Israeli airstrikes; orange clashes. Click map to view.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to “expanded ground operations in Lebanon,” after an early morning vote by the Israeli security cabinet. Senior officers in the Israeli Defense Force have pushed for deploying Israeli troops as far north of the Litani River, but the Israeli government has been vague on this point. If the IDF pushes to the Litani River, this would be a shift in strategy from a week ago.

Since the beginning of the conflict, the Israeli government believed the IDF could establish a narrow buffer zone of 1-2 kilometers on the Lebanese side of the border and range southern Lebanon with air power to hunt Hezbollah rocket and missile teams. The change in strategy may allow Israel to regain the initiative in Lebanon which it lost after the implementation of the failed buffer zone policy and the tragic civilain deaths during the air strikes in Qana.

Three additional reserve divisions have been called to active duty. Currently, units from three Israeli divisions, the Paratroopers (along the southwestern border), Golani (center) and Nahal (eastern border) are engaged with Hezbollah forces. The Paratroopers are fighting in the village of Ayta al-Ashad; the Golani near Aytarun; and the Nahal at Addaisheh, Al Tayyabah and Rav a-Taltin. Arutz Shevea reports “Harsh fighting is taking place” outside of Ayta al-Ashad, where “Hizbullah members have been firing barrages of anti-tank missiles.”

The push to the bend in the Litani River by the Nahal division would cut off resupply from roads south of the river. This would set the stage for the IDF to move a blocking force north of the river and seal off the regions south of the river, allowing the IDF to pursue and engage Hezbollah conventional forces on the ground. (See analysis from July 25.)

The expanded ground offensive does not appear to include the Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah and their Syrian and Iranian backers have amassed power. The Israeli Air Force, likely with the aid of special operations forces, are currently striking at targets in the Bekaa Valley, including border crossings to Syria, in an attempt to interdict Hezbollah’s resupply lines. The cities of Hermel and Baalbeck, considered Hezbollah command centers, have also been the focus of IAF strikes. The Israeli Navy is striking at Hezbollah position in and around the port city to Tyre (or Sour).

Senior Israeli politicians and military officers expect the offensive to be over in a matter of days (yet another indication Bekaa is not a focus of ground operations). The Jerusalem Post quotes IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky as saying “we need several more days [to complete the operation] and I believe we will get them.” Based on Hezbollah’s preparedness and military prowess over the past three weeks, a few more days to deal Hezbollah a decisive military defeat in Lebanon looks overly optimistic.

The Israeli leadership’s desire to quickly end the fighting reflects the diplomatic and political pressure placed on the Israeli government by the international community. Calls for an immediate cease fire continue to pour in from the United Nations, the European Union and from numerous international agencies. “The [Israeli] foreign minister [Tzipi Livni] said that following the events in Qana, Israel’s scope for political maneuvering had been reduced, as was the amount of European support Israel is receiving for its operation in Lebanese soil,” reports Haaretz.

Livni has also said “It would be a mistake to bind ourselves to declarations regarding the exit point of IDF troops from southern Lebanon,” implying there is no time limit for IDF operations in Lebanon. But time is against Israel as the international media continues to highlight events such as Qana and downplay Hezbollah’s willingness to launch military operations from civilian centers.

Hezbollah must be dealt a military and political defeat to prevent Hezbollah from dominating the Lebanese political and military realms. This will have to happen on the ground. The Guardian, in an interview with Sayed Ali, a local commander of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, demonstrates not only Hezbollah’s deep ties to Iran and Syria, but what awaits the architects of the Cedar Revolution. “The real battle is after the end of this war. We will have to settle score with the Lebanese politicians. We also have the best security and intelligence apparatus in this country, and we can reach any of those people who are speaking against us now. Let’s finish with the Israelis and then we will settle scores later.”

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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