Austin Bay

Israel's and Hezbollah's War of the Rockets has entered a new phase: the War of the Wallets, the race to gain political capital by rebuilding southern Lebanon.

Diplomats and military analysts continue to debate The War of the Rockets. The conventional wisdom -- or more accurately, the wisdom of first impressions -- said Israel lost the military war and Hezbollah won by surviving.

But the emerging "big picture" suggests the War of the Rockets physically punished and politically damaged Hezbollah, despite its media touts of victory.

On the other hand, Israel cannot claim a victory -- at least, not yet.

What did Hezbollah lose? The Israel-Hezbollah war began with Lebanon as a "hijacked nation state." Hezbollah (supported by Iran and Syria) controlled southern Lebanon and Lebanon's southern border, which put the area in a geo-political limbo. Southern Lebanon was not fully sovereign Lebanese territory.

At the moment, Israel exerts more control over Lebanon's southern border than Hezbollah, U.N. peacekeepers or the Lebanese government. That may not be an Israeli win, but it is no victory laurel for Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrullah.

Hezbollah still dominates swaths of southern Lebanon and in those areas retains the ability to intimidate Lebanese locals and fire rockets at various current and potential adversaries -- Israel for sure, but also U.N. peacekeepers and the Lebanese Army. However, positioning Lebanese government forces and U.N. peacekeepers in south Lebanon could slowly diminish Hezbollah's military and political capacities.

Yes, peacekeepers could end up protecting Hezbollah. However, if the United Nations' military Rules of Engagement (ROE) are robust, Hezbollah's ability to act will be very circumscribed. The United Nations' 1995 failure to protect Srbrenica, Bosnia, is a huge stain that aggressive policing in south Lebanon would help remove.

If Turkish troops are part of the U.N. contingent, Hezbollah will face even stiffer political and military constraints. Turkey wants to make the case that its confrontation with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq is analogous to the one Israel faces with Hezbollah. A Turkish U.N. contingent would be a tough Muslim opponent for Hezbollah.

Hezbollah isn't poised to win The War of the Wallets, either. Using Iranian cash, Hezbollah has bought influence in Lebanon by funding social services. Hezbollah announced it will provide funds to rebuild homes destroyed in the war.

But the U.S. government has countered with its own "green" strategy, as in greenbacks to rebuild the whole of Lebanon.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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