Missiles for Hezbollah; a dilemma for U.S., Saudis, Israel?

Competition rising in the Middle East.

An interesting juncture is shaping up for three national policies: a juncture that will see its interactions played out on the territory of Lebanon.

Two weeks ago, UPI reported on a study by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, which assessed that Israel is preparing for a campaign in Lebanon to eliminate Hezbollah’s growing arsenal there.  The IDF’s plan is for a “short, sharp war,” according to the report:

The Israelis’ primary objective will be to eradicate Hezbollah’s reputedly massive arsenal of missiles and rockets “for years to come…”

The Wall Street Journal today provided insight into the evolving nature of the Hezbollah missile threat.  Iran is sneaking the missile systems into Lebanon in pieces, across Syria, and the threat is growing not only because of numbers but because of improved guidance packages.  Hezbollah’s threat of Scud missiles, or even shorter-range rockets, has never been negligible.  But with guided missiles and modern anti-air weapon systems, the terrorist group could target military assets more effectively, as well as population centers.

This quality of weaponry would be a game-changer, certainly.  All things being equal – operating, that is, on the assumptions of the last few years – we would expect Israel to act.  I’m not sure we would expect the Begin-Sadat Center and U.S. intelligence officials to both draw a picture for us first, with arrows pointing to what the IDF is likely to do.  But our expectations have certainly been conditioned to what we’ve seen outlined recently in the Western media.

Put into the mix the recent report that the Saudis will be buying $3 billion of arms for Lebanon, with the purpose of changing the arms balance in the country in the Lebanese army’s favor.  Hezbollah is the target of this policy as well, but it would be a slower-acting and less direct policy, in terms of eliminating Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal.  Its focus is more diffuse and political: it seeks to back the factional push in Lebanon to establish a genuine unity government – on the “civil state” principle as opposed to radical Islamist ideology – and to enforce real national borders and sovereignty.  (See the summary at the last link above for the political aspects of the Saudi initiative.)

France's Francois Hollande and the Saudis plan Lebanon's future as 2013 draws to a close. (Photo credit: SPA)
France’s Francois Hollande and the Saudis plan Lebanon’s future as 2013 draws to a close. (Photo credit: SPA)


The question will be whether this Saudi maneuver is seen by Western governments, including America’s, as an alternative preferable to an Israeli strike campaign.  I don’t think the Saudi move is merely a maneuver to block Israel; I assess the Saudis to be in this for the long term, with positive strategic purposes of their own.  That doesn’t mean that what they want to do would be preferable to or more effective than an Israeli strike.  It doesn’t mean it would answer Israel’s security needs at all.  But the potential is there for the Saudi move to be seen as a competing strategy.

Does anyone doubt that the Obama administration would find something like the Saudi gambit to be full of interesting potential, and to be a way of obviating an Israeli action?  Team Obama has effectively taken just that attitude toward the non-deal Iran “deal,” interpreting it conveniently as a guarantee that Israel doesn’t have to mount a strike on Iran while the non-deal is being endlessly discussed in Geneva.

Maybe the Obama administration is indifferent to whether Israel conducts a strike campaign in Lebanon.  But I doubt that.  Team Obama has been going out of its way to expose Israel’s preemptive strike activity in Syria.  Now U.S. officials are disclosing – in advance – very specific information on Israeli concerns about Hezbollah’s weapons acquisitions.  That would be odd if they wanted Israeli strikes to have the best possible chance of succeeding.

The focus of the U.S. officials seems, moreover, to be very much on Israeli concerns.  A well-armed Hezbollah is a threat on multiple axes, certainly to Lebanon and as a factor in the Syrian civil war, and the U.S. has a declared national interest in each of these regional situations.  But the Hezbollah weapons build-up is parsed by the unnamed U.S. officials in terms of Israel’s interests.

This is strange, if we remind ourselves that U.S. policy in the region hasn’t always been as passive-aggressive, weirdly triangulating, and one-sided as it has been in the last five years.  There used to be a time when we actually cared about the political outcome in Lebanon, and when we might have seen a revolution in Syria as a chance to pursue strategic policy objectives – a friendly, more civil, non-terror-sponsoring Syria – rather than just finding the least-effort way to delegate a newfound Responsibility to Get Rid of Chemical Weapons.

The older model of U.S. policy survived from one administration to the next over the last 60-plus years, even if it was pursued with differing levels of energy and expertise.  Now it seems to have fallen into disuse and atrophy.  This lack of American political interest in the other nations of the Middle East, and the outcomes of their internal conflicts, is the vacuum the Saudis are trying to step into.

Is their Lebanon gambit timed properly to compete with, and perhaps frustrate, an Israeli option to strike and eliminate Hezbollah’s weapons stockpile?  I don’t say timed “deliberately,” because the Saudis aren’t likely to be coordinating such a thing with Washington now, nor do they have high expectations about responses of any kind from the Obama administration.

Again, I think the Saudis are in this for the long haul: this isn’t a minor, short-term maneuver, and they don’t anticipate conditions reverting to the status quo ante Obama.  Recognizing that we’re all embarking on a new reality, they’re trying to shape perceptions, expectations, and outcomes.  Their target audience may be the foreign ministries in Paris, London, Berlin, and Moscow – not to mention Cairo and Ankara – as much as in Washington.

Under the old reality, the best the Saudis might hope for was that Israel would de-fang Hezbollah and thus enforce a condition that was favorable to Saudi interests, even if they didn’t have much influence over it.  But in the new reality, the Saudis can hope to achieve something even better: favorable conditions in Lebanon that the Saudis themselves are the main patron of, and that don’t depend on Israel, and don’t even depend on the U.S.

Will enough interested parties see that as a bandwagon they can agree to get on?  Might the Obama administration see it as a conveniently packaged alternative to standing aside, once again, for an Israeli strike?  Will the timing of any emerging threats or maneuvers be such that this march of events could, at least in theory, frustrate or even stymie Israel’s freedom of action?  On the other hand, can Israel live with seeing the Saudis become power brokers over the national integrity and security of Lebanon?

All questions we can’t know the answers to right now.  But we can be sure of this: the Saudis, and others, see the possibilities, and are asking these questions among themselves.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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2 thoughts on “Missiles for Hezbollah; a dilemma for U.S., Saudis, Israel?”

  1. Add the fact that the Lebanese economy is teetering, and the recipe is complete for renewed civil war. Once the flights to Europe and ferries to Cyprus start to fully book, then we’ll know it’s imminent.

    The last Saudi moves on the Lebanese chessboard are meant to facilitate, or eventually, provoke an Israeli intervention. In other words, the Israelis are probably in on this, for their own reasons.

    Much of the success of this Saudi gambit depends on the stance of the Maronite. It seems the current leadership of the Lebanese Forces is in favor of the Saudi moves, but the Maronite base is divided. After all, they aren’t all dumb, or greedy. Once Shia power (in the form of Hizbollah) is eliminated… the next target of hardline Sunnism will be the Christians.

    Sunni extremists aren’t know for their ability to distinguish between slaughtering Maronite, Orthodox or any other Christian denomination. Of course, if and when they are through with the Shia and the Christians, then they’ll turn their attention to their “allies” the Israelis.

    I’m not sure whether the Saudis will get away with this without suffering a major defeat, possibly in their own backyard.

    On thing’s for certain. It’s a mess

  2. Missiles for Hezbollah; is NOT a dilemma for the U.S. because the Obama administration welcomes anything that threatens Israel and could care less about Saudi interests.

    Israel’s concerns are straightforward and obvious.

    The Saudi’s Lebanese ploy is more problematic. Strategically, it has only tangential benefits for the Saudis, who are hardly concerned with Israel’s security. Weakening Hezbollah may be, in general tactically desirous for the Saudi’s but Saudi Arabia’s security is not directly threatened by the Hezbollah factions in Lebanon.

    The game changer for Saudi Arabia is the attainment of nuclear weapons capability by the Iranians. Every geopolitical consideration that the Saudi’s now make centers around that consideration. That eventuality, now almost certain, has several consequential repercussions for the Saudis.

    1) It will greatly increase Iran’s prestige within the Islamic world. Both for the accomplishment itself and that it was achieved in spite of 1st world opposition. It threatens the Saudi’s claim to “first among equals” status in the Muslim world.

    2) It will force a nuclear arms race upon Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations, which will metastasize into nuclear proliferation across the region.

    3) It will greatly embolden the Iranians, who will now have a protective nuclear umbrella. Iran will be able to intimidate all within its reach.

    4) Seizure of the Strait of Hormuz will be possible, through which 1/3 of the world’s oil passes, which would cause the world-oil price to skyrocket, putting a stranglehold upon western economies and might even precipitate the collapse of the west’s economies. Iran will be able to hold European capitals hostage to its demands for non-interference from the West and US military forces would face the possibility of nuclear attack if they tried to intervene militarily. That threat must be taken seriously when it is made by homicidal, religious ‘millennial’ fanatics.

    5) The Saudi oil fields are in the eastern provinces just across the Persian gulf from Iran. Those eastern provinces have a large Shia population and Iran fomenting armed unrest would force the Saudi’s, as it has in the past, to respond militarily to repress the unrest. That could be used by a nuclear Iran as pretext to invade Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces to ‘protect’ their Shia cousins and conveniently allow the Saudi fields to fall within the control of Iran. That would provide Iran with greatly increased leverage to raise the world oil price. Enhancing Iran’s finances, its status and further tightening Iran’s financial pressure upon the west. Iran can keep the Chinese on their side by a special ‘arrangement’ with China for a low fixed price on oil.

    Both Russia and China would strategically benefit from a higher world oil price that hurt the West. Russia as an oil exporter would benefit and China, with Iran supplying them with low cost oil would benefit geo-politically as well.

    Unlike J.E., I’m no expert but if I can figure this out, all the major players have certainly done so as well.

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