The New York Times features an insightful op-ed today by Michael Young, a veteran reporter in Lebanon, about the current Israeli-Hezbollah war (I don’t agree with its conclusion, but that’s for another post). Young points to a central problem: Syria is the real power behind Hezbollah, but Israel is attacking Lebanon, which has no control over it.
That’s not totally right: Israel may very well be blockading Lebanon and knocking out the Beirut airport in preparation for a ground campaign, which is the only way to destroy Hezbollah’s military capability on its northern frontier. But this is taking a severe toll in civilian casualties. Consider me skeptical of the idea that harming Beirut will get enough Lebanese to gather up the strength to evict Hezbollah from south Lebanon.
There is, however, another possible way for Israel to approach the problem, which we might call the “Quneitra Option.”
Quneitra is a Syrian town on the Golan Heights just over the border from Israel; Israel occupied it from 1967 to 1973, and withdrew as part of the post-Yom Kippur War disengagement. It is now abandoned, and part of the DMZ between Syria and Israel. It stands as an important symbol for Syria as a first step toward regaining the Golan, and Damascus regularly accuses Israel of destroying the town as it left (Israel says that it was destroyed in fighting).
Perhaps a better way for Israel to approach the problem is to re-occupy Quneitra. Naysayers will say that this is madness, as it opens up a Syrian front. But I am doubtful. The Syrian military is incredibly weak: it lacks spare parts for its Cold War-vintage Soviet equipment, and remember that we are talking about a country that was literally hours away from complete defeat in 1973, when Soviet nuclear threats got it a cease-fire. The Syrians are no match for Israel and they know it: that is why they use Hezbollah’s asymmetric warfare as a strategy.
And that is also why Israel should use traditional warfare against Syria as a response. Were Israel to reoccupy Quneitra, it would send the Syrians a very powerful signal: we are prepared to start taking your territory. And unlike densely populated south Lebanon, this would require neither risk to nor occupation of civilians. Perhaps Israel should just keep moving two miles at a time into the lightly populated area east of the Golan any time that either Hamas or Hezbollah engages in any acts of war or terror. That would send a stronger signal than bombing Beirut and save civilians to boot.
It would be a dangerous game, but far less so than another invasion of Lebanon itself.