Gulf States Perfect 'Art' of Waging Limited War

Gone may be battles like the Gulf War, with clear front lines, identifiable enemies

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

One of the most effective weapons used against Israeli soldiers occupying southern Lebanon can be purchased at the Debbas light shop on Beirut's posh Hamra Street.

There in the window, beside the elegant wall lamps, are fake fiberglass boulders used for landscaping: $15 each. A cavity inside is meant for a light bulb, but Hizbullah guerrillas pack them instead with radio-controlled explosives.

In Hizbullah's fight against Israeli occupation, this device is causing many casualties and sapping Israeli morale. Israel's military superiority may be unquestioned. But Hizbullah videotapes show one unsuspecting Israeli patrol after another taking hits from the guerrillas' hidden bombs.

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Israel occupied the nine-mile-wide "buffer zone" in 1978 to prevent attacks on northern Israel. Marking the anniversary of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon in June, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai declared: "We want to get out."

The example points to the likely future of warfare in the Middle East, when the saturation of ballistic missiles, chemical and biological weapons, and atomic bombs will make any all-out war too risky.

Instead, the next decades are likely to see more guerrilla conflict, in which proxy warriors and alliances are used to wage limited war for political reasons, and to keep the front lines far from home.

The lesson of Lebanon, in which Syria and Iran fight Israel by "assisting" Hizbullah resistance, may be the most useful model for that future conflict. "[Lebanon] has depleted Israel without an army, without even arms," says Mohammed el-Sayed Said, of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "Israel is not vulnerable to high-tech weapons, but they are very vulnerable to low-tech," he says.

Gone may be the traditional notions of set-piece battles like the Gulf War, with clear front lines and identifiable enemies.

Interstate warfare will give way to intrastate conflict in which terrorists and guerrilla "cells" are the weapons, says Martin van Creveld, an Israeli military historian in Jerusalem. "We have a choice: either the European Union or the chaos of Somalia," he says. "We have watched the rise and fall of the states, but nuclear weapons make states unable to fight nuclear wars."

If anyone should be startled by this "news that present-day armed conflict does not distinguish between governments, armies, and peoples," he notes, "it is the citizens of the developed world and, even more, the members of their defense establishments, who for decades on end have prepared for the wrong kind of war."

Proxy wars have been waged in the Mideast since the Assassins terrorized Arabs and Crusaders alike with suicide attacks in the Middle Ages. The Assassins originated as a Shia Muslim sect in northern Iran in the 11th century, killing by any means - sometimes when hired - for a blend of religious and political reasons.

Syria's President Hafez al-Assad has made most effective use of proxy groups, keeping an array of 10 radical antipeace Palestinian factions in Damascus to taunt Israel and PLO chief Yasser Arafat. He has allowed the Kurdistan Worker's Party to have rear bases for attacking Turkey, and supports Hizbullah against Israel.

Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria all manipulate Kurdish factions in northern Iraq for their own aims. Iraq harbors an army of 30,000 mujahideen opponents of Iran, and Iran hosts anti-Iraq military units.

Iranian factions are widely believed to be agitating Muslim Shiites to challenge secular Arab governments: setting up a "Hizbullah" faction in every moderate state. All these groups are latent threats against a potential enemy.

Israel has also taken part, to its regret. In the 1970s, the Islamic movement Hamas was secretly supported by Israel as a counter to Mr. Arafat. But Hamas grew into a viable antipeace faction, and has been responsible for suicide bombs in Israel that have damaged the peace process.

Limits of what could be achieved by large-scale war were made clear by the Gulf War. Tariq Aziz, Iraq's interlocutor with coalition forces during the war, says threats of apocalypse never came to pass.

"James Baker [then secretary of state] told me: 'We will bomb you back to the pre-industrial age, and another leadership will decide the future of Iraq,' " Mr. Aziz said in an interview in Baghdad. "But six years later, Iraq is still a major power ... and Saddam Hussein is still president."

For Israel, there should also be a lesson, Aziz says: "The mightiest power on the globe, with 28 other states, couldn't do it. So Israel alone can't do it.... Israel will therefore never be safe because it is 4 or 5 million in a sea of 220 million Arabs. It will never be safe unless it eliminates the entire Arab nation, and that is impossible," he says. Such a conflict is unlikely to ever occur, though, because changing alliances are creating new axes of power across the region. Possible links include:

* Turkey, an Islamic NATO ally with a strong secular tradition, has found its role as bridge between East and West to be both a blessing and a curse.

Turkey's Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan last year signed a 20-year gas deal with Iran - breaking American sanctions - but he was forced out of power in June by Turkey's watchful, secular military. Another gas deal for $2.5 billion was signed with Iraq in May.

But most important, Turkey's military since 1995 has signed two major military agreements with Israel. Iran would make a natural third partner, but not under Iran's current Islamic regime. Jordan, and maybe even Syria, if peace talks resume, may count themselves in.

Israel's defense chief Mr. Mordechai, however, adds the US to form "a triangle of strong forces in the Middle East against any threat of extremist elements."

* Iran is wooing its own friends, looking north and east toward Russia, Central Asia, and China for strategic help. Such a line-up could conceivably include Turkey - depending upon the sway of its voters - or Syria, which already has "ace-up-the-sleeve" contact with Iran. Lebanon's defense minister has said he would be "happy" to sign a pact with Iran. And Iran's president vowed in July to "defend the rights of the Lebanese and Palestinians" against Israel.

* Saudi Arabia now dominates the oil-wealthy Gulf States, but signs of instability have emerged. Saudi is one subject that tiny Gulf sheikhdoms rarely discuss, fearful that various unresolved border disputes might again become serious.

"They don't fear a Saudi takeover, but a break-up of Saudi Arabia into civil war," says a senior Western diplomat in Doha. Uncertainty has caused the US to look for other close allies, such as Qatar.

* The US is betting on creating a Pax Americana in the Gulf, despite long-term risks of exerting such dominance, deep military cutbacks, and official denials. But analysts say growing Arab discontent with the hefty US role could severely limit US deployment options in the future.

War-fighting has often been transformed in method and meaning since St. Augustine first put forth the chivalrous notion of "just war" in the 5th century. US forces today are the best prepared for the high-tech military threats of the next century. American military spending of $250 billion each year is equal to that spent on the next 10 biggest war machines in the world - most of those kept by US allies.

Significantly, however, the breakdown of the US "peacekeeping" mission in Somalia in 1993 showed that American forces are as vulnerable to low-tech methods as is Israel. Despite using state-of-the-art satellites for nearly every other facet of war, US troops laying a pontoon bridge across a winter-flooded Bosnian river last year took three full weeks. Old-fashioned fog delayed troop arrivals for days on end.

Challenging as these missions can be, there are likely to be more: Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the US Army has been deployed 25 times. In the previous 40 years, it had been deployed only 10 times. Some argue that the influx of arms may clog the Middle East with armaments and deter war. But others warn that the biblical Samson - who pulled down the columns of the shrine in Gaza, killing himself with all others - is a "homegrown hero."

"Over the past two centuries, the optimists and pessimists, each predicting the end of war for different reasons, have been proven wrong," notes Donald Kagan, a historian at Yale University. "Believing in, and hoping for, progress, they forgot that war has been a persistent part of the human experience since the birth of civilization."

The point of our brutal history, he says, is that "peace does not preserve itself."

So in the Middle East the stakes are high. And the historical record is not promising, for long ago this region mastered the art of war.

All the more reason for the future, Mr. Kagan says, to learn the "vital art of avoiding war."

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