Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Comment: A Pyrrhic Victory

Both sides have claimed victory following the ceasefire in Lebanon. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert says that “we have re-installed our deterrence and now we can make peace from a position of strength”, while Nasrallah has declared that “we emerged victorious from this encounter, while our enemy left the scene defeated”.
While it would be facetious to assign victory to either side, given that it is more than likely that the current ceasefire will be temporary, both sides have certainly suffered losses greater than they would have anticipated before going into war.
Katyusha rockets caused a great deal of damage to civilian infrastructure in northern Israel, particularly in Haifa, which makes this the first time Israeli civilians have been on the front line in an open war since the War of Independence. Thirty nine civilians were killed and there were mass population evacuations to central and southern Israel. The IDF sustained 119 casualties, a significantly higher death toll than any other in recent memory. This was made all the more poignant by media coverage which focused on each casualty in great detail.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, has lost the vast majority of its rockets and launchers, which have either been used or destroyed by the IDF. The IDF also claims to have killed 530 Hezbollah terrorists and there is an ongoing Israeli military presence in south Lebanon, which will only be ended when the UN peacekeeping force is in place. It is reported that 1,287 Lebanese civilians were killed during the conflict; although it is likely that Hezbollah terrorists are included in this figure.
Given the vast losses of both sides, it is easy for either of the two to claim to be victorious, by pointing to the casualties and damage suffered by their opponents, rather than looking at themselves. However, since the goal of Hezbollah is to wipe out the State of Israel and the goal of Israel must consequently be to wipe out Hezbollah, neither side can claim a true, lasting victory until one of them suffers a decisive defeat.
So what is to be made of the current state of affairs? Who has won so far?
While Hezbollah may claim to have won, this is at best a Pyrrhic victory. This term refers to a battle during the Pyrrhic war of 279BC, in which King Pyrrhus of Epirus defeated the Roman army at Heraclea and Asculum, but endured a high level of casualties that proved to be fatal.
The Roman historian Plutarch illustrates the meaning of this term in a report by Dionysus:

"The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him … on the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained."

The crucial point is this: while both Pyrrhus and the Romans suffered losses, the Romans were able to replace them, while Pyrrhus was not. This led to the Romans being eventually victorious. In the current conflict, Israel has many reserve soldiers and a reliable supply of arms and fuel from America. However, Hezbollah are thought to have a limited number of around 2,000 troops and any attempt to rearm will be made extremely difficult given the Israeli presence in southern Lebanon.
A recent speech by Nasrallah serves to prove this point, as he said that “had we known that the captive operation would result in such a war, we would not have carried it out at all”. This is extremely close to the admission by Pyrrhus, namely that, “one other such would utterly undo him”, and implies that Nasrallah would be reluctant to provoke Israel again. While it is strange for someone who claims victory to simultaneously express regret for initiating a war, it is also important to note that both sides returned to the battlefield in the Pyrrhic war, and it is a distinct possibility that something similar will happen in south Lebanon in the future.
Furthermore, Lebanese opinion appears to be turning against Hezbollah. In an interview with the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, Sayyed Ali Al-Amin, the Shi’ite Mufti of Tyre, said, “the Shi'ite community in Lebanon authorized no one to declare war in its name” and even went so far as to say that, “the war was forced upon the country and people, who did not want it”. This criticism from a Shi’ite is of great significance, because it had hitherto been assumed that Hizbollah could count on the support of all its co-religionists in Lebanon, if not the other religious groupings in a deeply divided sectarian state. This anti-war sentiment has become so widespread that Nasrallah has been forced to cancel a series of victory marches in Beirut’s Shi’ite suburbs after the plan was attacked by leading community figures for being "unmerited and indecent". Mourning ceremonies for the dead are being held instead.
In contrast, Israeli opinion polls have shown that a majority of the population wanted to continue fighting until the country’s war aims were achieved, instead of accepting the UN ceasefire. Since then, 100,000 people have demonstrated in Tel Aviv calling for the return of the captured soldiers. There have also been widespread calls for changes within the leadership hierarchy, who are thought to have underperformed in the execution of the war and its conclusion. To Israelis, the war did not produce an undisputed victory, and did not bring back the captured soldiers. After all, this was the Israeli Government’s major goal before the aerial bombardment of Lebanon.
If there is a renewal of the conflict, Israel will be better placed to gain victory. Israel’s losses are more immediately replaceable than Hezbollah’s, and Israeli public opinion cannot acquiesce to a return to the status quo ante, which created the conditions for the war to erupt in the first place. An investigation has been carried out to evaluate the mistakes made by Israel in the handling of the war, whereas there has been no similar investigation on the Hezbollah side, which has left Israel in a stronger position if fighting were to erupt again. Another possibility is that the centrist Kadima party may be replaced by a more hawkish government in the next Israeli election, which would be better equipped to unite the population behind it and then dismantle Hezbollah. Indeed, one commentator has even called for Nasrallah to be Israeli Prime Minister, as he has done a better job of uniting the Israeli people than any of its current leaders!
On the other hand, Olmert’s claim that Israel’s “deterrence” factor has now returned is not entirely correct. Nasrallah publicly regretted having taken the hostages in the first place, but another Hezbollah leader, Abdullah Sif al-Din, told the Iranian Fars news agency that, “we must, all the time, prepare ourselves for self-defence and to plan for the next stage”. Nasrallah himself is also anticipating a “next round against Israel”.
Where the goal of each side is the destruction of the other, outright victory will prove elusive until one of the protagonists is destroyed or irrefutably defeated. Until this happens, each side will continue to prepare for war, no matter how much talk there is of peace.

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