After Action Report: Winners and Losers in the Hezbollah-Israel War

With the cessation of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel largely holding after 24 hours, it is time to look at the likely winners and losers of the Hezbollah-Israel war. Israel spent the weekend scrambling to reach the Litani River and consolidate their positions south of the river before the fighting ended, launching an attack which amounted to too little too late. The negotiated cease fire implemented by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, has lead to a major political victory for Hezbollah, Iran and Syria,and dealt Israel, Lebanon and the United States serious setbacks.

The Winners:

Hezbollah: Hezbollah achieved what it intended to do from the outset of hostilities: fight the IDF to a draw, force negotiations and a cease fire in the United Nations, dictate the terms of the cease fire, obtain international recognition and acceptance, further erode support for Israel in the international community and remain a viable political and military force within Lebanon.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is now a man of stature in the Middle Eastern and Muslim world, and the dominant political leader in Lebanese politics. He has openly declared victory on Lebanese television. Sunni Islamist leaders, even from moderate groups as far away as Indonesia, have expressed support for Hezbollah. Imad Mugniyah has commanded an effective fighting force and stood up to the Israeli Defense Force, and survived with his military forces largely intact.

Some will argue that Hezbollah suffered a severe military loss, with an estimated 250-500 soldiers killed in southern Lebanon out of an estimated force of 1,000-2,000 active military. However, the high estimates puts Hezbollah’s active fighters at around 5,000, with an unknown tens of thousands in reserve (the high estimate is 50,000 reservists with 20,000 as the median). And the argument is made that Hezbollah has now been denied southern Lebanon as a base of operation. While the Israeli military may have dealt Hezbollah a tactical defeat generally in southern Lebanon, killed a significant number of Hezbollah soldiers, degraded Hezbollah’s long range rocket supplies and was able to push to the Litani at the end of the campaign, Hezbollah’s military and political organization survived to fight another day. The resupply of medium and long range rockets from the Iranian and Syrian backers will begin immediately, and the Syrian supply lines into the Bekaa valley remain wide open. Hezbollah is stating it has no intention of turning over its weapons, but will “refrain from exhibiting them publicly.”

Up until the last 24 hours of the war, just prior to the cease fire taking hold, Hezbollah made the Israeli Defense Forces pay dearly when attempting to take towns just a few kilometers across the border. While much of the IDF’s hesitation was due to political disorganization, Hezbollah gave the appearance of staving off an IDF assault, and actually can legitimately claim some tactical victories of their own. Hezbollah caused the elite Golani Brigade to retreat from Bint Jubayl, and was able to continually fire rockets from areas in southern Lebanon despite a blanket of air coverage, counter-battery artillery and the close proximity of the IDF. Hezbollah also repeatedly launched barrages of rockets against Israeli towns and cities, disabled an Israeli warship with a cruise missile and launched UAVs into northern Israel.

In this day and age of instant news and sophisticated terrorist propaganda outlets such as Hezbollah’s Al Manar, the appearance of Hezbollah successfully repelling the IDF and forcing the Israeli government to the negotiating table outweighs the reality that the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert lacked the political will to meaningfully dismantle Hezbollah’s military and political leadership.

Hezbollah will now direct the full efforts of its aid organizations to rebuild the damaged infrastructure and provide for those Lebanese in need. The combination of the military victory along with the ability to care for the Lebanese in ways the State cannot will only increase their stature and support.

Iran: The 24 year old Iranian project of funding, training and arming Hezbollah in Lebanon has netted a large return. While the Israeli withdrawal form southern Lebanon in 2000 was certainly a victory for Hezbollah and their Iranian backers, the current Hezbollah victory is far more significant. Hezbollah gave the appearance of directly defeating the Israelis and forcing them to the negotiating table within one month of the onset of fighting.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the elite Qods Force have created a powerful military and political force capable of spreading the radical Khomenist agenda. The Hezbollah model is a tried and proven method of the subversive Iranian foreign policy, and will be applied elsewhere. The IRGC and Qods will study the Hezbollah-Israel war and apply the lessons learned to improve this model, as well as to incorporate the military and political lessons into their own doctrine. The IDF fights as most Western armies do, and the Israeli political vulnerabilities are also shared throughout the West.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s gambit has paid dividends, and he has successfully distracted efforts to cease the refinement of uranium and the further development of its nuclear program. “Today, we are fully mastering the nuclear fuel cycle for our peaceful atomic activities. It is a native technology… No one can take it away from us,” said Ahmadinejad, who has been emboldened by Hezbollah’s victory against Israel. The Western world has signaled it is fearful of confronting Ahmadinejad or his terrorist proxy Hezbollah head on. Ahmadinejad ‘s stature is the Islamic world will only grow over time as he demonstrates the ability to stand up to the West.

Syria: The Syrian government and President Bashar Asad paid no price, either diplomatically, economically or militarily for allowing the use of their country as a conduit for supplies to Hezbollah. At the outset of the war, the Israelis signaled there was no interest in holding the Syrians to account for their action. The rise in stature of Hezbollah inside Lebanon is a victory for the Syrians, as it allows the Syrians to conduct their illicit enterprises with the help of Hezbollah. Asad, whose stock plunged after he was forced to withdraw the Syrian Army from Lebanon over a year ago, has been buoyed by his risky gamble to support Hezbollah against the hated Israelis and Americans. “The Middle East they (the Americans) aspire to … has become an illusion,” Asad said after the cease fire took effect. Asad will be more willing to take similar risks in the future.

The Losers:

Israel: From the outset of the war, I argued that time was against the Israelis, that they must be prepared to strike quickly, deep into Lebanon, lest international opinion and a sophisticated media campaign force the Israelis to quit the battle before striking a mortal blow to Hezbollah. By tracking the statements of senior political leaders (Olmert, Peretz, Peres) and IDF Chief of Staff Olmert, it was clear the government did not have a unified strategy or the political will to defeat Hezbollah. At first, the government assumed air power and a limited buffer zone of 1-2 kilometers would be sufficient to destroy Hezbollah’s political and military capacity. This then morphed into a 6-8 kilometer buffer zone, with a beefed up air campaign, then into an incursion all the way up to the Litani river. At no time was Hezbollah’s infrastructure in southern Beirut or the Bekaa Valley considered as targets of a ground campaign. All along, it assumed air power would substitute for boots on the ground. The Israeli government was dead wrong: Hezbollah is well armed, trained and stocked in Lebanon, and it could not be defeated by air power alone.

Hezbollah has done what no Arab military has done since the creation of the Israeli state: fought the Israeli Defense Force to a virtual standstill. While the IDF has the capacity to defeat Hezbollah militarily, the Israeli government was unwilling to muster the political will to pay the price to forcefully engage Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and failed to meaningfully engage Hezbollah deeper inside Lebanon. Hezbollah strongholds in southern Beirut and in the Bekaa Valley were attacked by air with limited success. With the exception of the daring commando raid in Baalbek, these Hezbollah base were immune to the attention of IDF ground forces.

Hezbollah started the war by attacking an Israeli outpost and capturing two Israeli soldiers. The Israelis stated the war would not end without the release of the Israeli soldiers and the destruction of Hezbollah’s capacity to launch missiles into Israel. Neither of these objectives have been achieved via the cease fire.

While the Israeli government touts United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 as providing for the security of the Israeli nation, the resolution lacks teeth. Security in southern Lebanon will be the responsibility of 15,000 troops from the Lebanese Army, and a beefed up UNIFIL mission of up to 15,000 international troops. Currently no nation or group of nations has stepped up to provide the troops for this mission. The Lebanese Army is terrified of Hezbollah’s military strength, and there is little chance of standing up to Hezbollah after successful opposition to the IDF. The UNIFIL troops in southern Lebanon were ineffective prior to this war. Hezbollah built their network of bunkers under the watch of the UNIFIL troops with no repercussions.

The internal debate within Israel itself demonstrates how the Israelis perceive who won and who lost this war. The Israeli government is in damage-control mode. Prime Minister Olmert’s speech to the Knesset was less than inspiring, focusing on the mistakes made and the need to investigate what went wrong militarily. Elements of the IDF are said to be enraged by the lack of political will to fight Hezbollah. And there is talk of the Olmert government falling on a no-confidence vote or the formation of a national unity government. These aren’t the words and actions of a victor.

The Israelis have essentially kicked the Hezbollah problem down the road, with the hope the international community will resolve it via resolutions and international peace keepers. Hezbollah will rearm and apply the lessons learned from this conflict. The aura of the IDF’s invincibility on the battlefield has suffered a serious blow, and terrorist groups will be emboldened to strike at Israel yet again.

The Cedar Revolution: The supporters of democracy within the Cedar Revolution have been dealt a setback in their attempts to create a consensual, peaceful government in Lebanon. The elevation of Hezbollah as the predominant military and political force inside the country bodes ill for those looking to put the days of civil war and armed militias behind them. And as long as Hezbollah exists and is supported by the Syrian and Iranian backers who long for the destruction of the Israeli state, the risk of war within Lebanon remains a very real possibility. The nation remains a proxy battleground for Iran and Syria for as long as Hezbollah remains armed and continues to threaten the Israeli state.

The United States: By the mere mention of Hezbollah in UNSC 1701, and a willingness to negotiate an end to the fighting while Hezbollah remains a viable organization in Lebanon, the United States government has elevated the status of Hezbollah from a terrorist group to a non-state entity worthy of negotiations. Hezbollah, which killed 241 U.S. Marine in the Beirut barracks bombings in 1983 and a host of other terrorist acts against the U.S., is a designated terrorist entity according to the United States. The desire for peace in Lebanon has overridden a golden rule of United States foreign policy: do not negotiate with terrorists.

Nation-States: A dire precedent has been set with the cease fire agreement between Hezbollah and Israel. Non-state actors and terrorist groups can usurp the power of a state, essentially declare war against a sovereign nation, and not pay the consequences for their actions. The behavior of the United Nations, which purportedly is interested in respecting the sovereignty of states, shows there was more interest in preserving Hezbollah and restoring peace at all costs than the legitimate security concerns of a nation-state. If a sovereign nation cannot be allowed to defend its territory against non-state actors, and in fact be vilified for doing so, terrorist groups will only be emboldened to take such actions in the future.

Interested Observers

al Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Aqsa: The lessons from the Hezbollah-Israel war will also be studied by al Qaeda and the assorted Palestinian terrorist groups. These groups have trained with Hezbollah in the past and will likely have access to Hezbollah’s ‘after-action report.’ Hezbollah skillfully used a combination of military strength and political acumen to force the Israelis to the negotiating table. Hezbollah’s military tactics will be of particular interest, including the organization of military units and the use of anti-tank missiles to defeat Israeli armor. And the ease at which the Israeli government buckled under internal and international pressure will be studied intensely.

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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