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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 / August 6, 1997


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.

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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.

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."