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Stratfor: Major Ground Offensive an Increased Possibility

 
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User ID: 76175
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07/27/2006 05:24 PM
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Stratfor: Major Ground Offensive an Increased Possibility
(from email)
---------------------------------
The fact that a major ground offensive is the last thing on anyone's mind does not necessarily decrease the possibility -- it increases it. The movement of troops, rather than the public statements, will only tell if we are right.

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Special Report: Behind the Israeli Cabinet's Decisions
After a long night of debate, the Israeli security Cabinet led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided the military campaign in south Lebanon would not be expanded, and that any modifications to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operation, such as deploying more troops, would require Cabinet approval.

Israel is essentially broadcasting to the world that its political and military circles are severely divided over the current operation, and that it might have no choice but to cave in to diplomatic pressure to put an end to the fighting and draw up a cease-fire. This might not be true to Israeli thinking, but it is certainly a message they are trying to send to Hezbollah's chain of command. Which then raises the question: Why?

Israel is likely exaggerating the extent to which the military and Cabinet are divided over how to continue in this military campaign, but a real disagreement exists between those promoting a sustained air campaign and those pushing for a ground offensive because IDF forces are getting restive. A compromise might have been reached in the July 27 Cabinet meeting to bolster the air campaign but prepare ground forces for an invasion if it becomes apparent that the Israeli air force will be unable to deliver on its own.

There could be some faith within Israel's defense circles that an air campaign will eventually pan out and succeed in undermining Hezbollah's capabilities, but such an operation takes time and costs an exorbitant amount of money, since ground troops are standing by. As support for a continued air campaign is weakening by the day, something else must be factoring into Israel's war strategy.

The thought of Israel even considering scaling down its military operation at this point -- though golden news for Hezbollah -- carries devastating consequences for Israel. If the fighting were to come to a halt over the next few days, Hezbollah would claim victory and present itself as the only Arab force capable of standing up to Israeli aggression. Merely resisting and surviving a fight against Israel represents a major win for the Islamist militant movement and its sponsors in Iran and Syria -- something Israel, the United States and even the surrounding Arab regimes are unable to cope with. Moreover, an imminent cease-fire would allow Hezbollah to retain the capability to carry out attacks against Israel whenever the need arises.

Israel, therefore, cannot agree to a cease-fire. At the same time, the current operational tempo has not yet yielded a satisfactory outcome for Israel. Katyusha rockets continue to rain down over the northern part of the country as Israel continues its attempts to take out Hezbollah's rocket launch sites. Though Israel's massive air campaign could gradually wear down Hezbollah's offensive capabilities, it will take several weeks before any definitive results will come to light. Hezbollah, meanwhile, is locked in its own military strategy. Hezbollah commanders have long been preparing for this battle and are ready to stand their ground for an extended period of time and draw the Israelis into bloody insurgent combat.

And time does not appear to be on Israel's side. Israel has already incurred a steady barrage of rocket attacks over the past two weeks, and the IDF experienced one of its deadliest days in ground fighting July 26, when nine soldiers were killed in a battle against Hezbollah fighters in the village of Bent Jbail. The numbers of Lebanese civilian deaths are also escalating by the day, fueling worldwide criticism of the extensive Israeli air campaign. The United States is carefully buying Israel time to carry out its military objectives by postponing a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but political pressure on the U.S. government will mount over the next few days, following the argument that Israel cannot be given a blank check for a permanent air campaign against Lebanon. An end to the war in the next few weeks, without a dramatic improvement in effectiveness from the Israeli perspective, would leave Hezbollah in a prime position.

With this in mind, it strikes us as exceedingly peculiar that Israel, a country with a heavy track record of fighting experience despite its youth, is so intent on promoting the idea that its defense and political figures are running in circles trying to revise their military strategy while Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah is brimming with confidence in his regular video appearances. It is simply not intelligent war strategy to expose your weaknesses in the midst of a major war campaign -- unless your objective is to spread disinformation to prepare for a larger surprise.

In making the decision to restrict the ground operation in southern Lebanon, the Israeli Cabinet carefully inserted a statement that said any future decisions regarding the IDF strategy would take into account "the need to prepare forces for possible developments." This nuance becomes especially critical in light of Israel's decision to call up three additional divisions of reservists July 27. The reservists are ostensibly being called up to "refresh" troops in Lebanon who have been on the battlefield for a short time, but will not be deployed until further notice. It is difficult to see how IDF troops on the front can be relieved if the additional forces have not even been deployed, unless Israel is quietly building up its ground forces for a major assault to clear Hezbollah positions south of the Litani River.

The Israeli Cabinet also agreed to send forces up to the Aouali River -- just north of Sidon in Lebanon -- as a necessary move to destroy Hezbollah's rocket-launching platforms, according to Israeli radio. This is an extensive reach into Lebanon that would place the IDF within striking distance of the Bekaa Valley -- Hezbollah's main base of operations. We also have received indications that reserves belonging to Israel's elite fighting force, the Golani Brigade, have already moved north up to the Bekaa Valley. Fighting on Hezbollah's turf in the Bekaa Valley will undoubtedly be the most difficult stage of Israel's military campaign. At the same time, moving ground forces into the Bekaa is also necessary for Israel to meet its objective of sterilizing Hezbollah's military capabilities.

Moving into the Bekaa Valley also complicates matters with Syria, which could very well view an Israeli push into the Bekaa as a trigger for a Syrian military response. Major smuggling routes for heroin and opium run through the Bekaa and provide a major source of income for Hezbollah forces and Alawite businessmen. Though Israel is not too worried about its ability to defeat Syrian forces, it is not interested in expanding its military campaign across Lebanon's western border into Syria for fear of the aftermath of such an attack. The crumbling of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime would create a new set of problems that Israel is not prepared to deal with, especially while a major upset is occurring in Lebanon. At the same time, al Assad wants to get out of this conflict unscathed and in a prime negotiating position so he can demonstrate his worth in brokering a cease-fire with Hezbollah while putting the issue of the Golan Heights back on the table. With these considerations in mind, the issue of keeping Syria in check will heavily factor into the timing of Israel's push into the Bekaa.

The Bekaa is crucial to Israel's ground campaign, but will have to be dealt with carefully and will likely require more time for major ground combat. In the meantime, Israel is carefully regaining the element of tactical surprise by reducing the war to routine and strongly suggesting that its forces are getting bogged down. Each day Israel and Hezbollah exchange fire, but no developments have dramatically changed the course of the war. While Israel may be developing an atmosphere of complacency around Hezbollah, it will launch its ground offensive when everyone least expects it.

The fact that a major ground offensive is the last thing on anyone's mind does not necessarily decrease the possibility -- it increases it. The movement of troops, rather than the public statements, will only tell if we are right.
Send questions or comments on this article to analysis@stratfor.com.
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