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Airstrikes in Lebanon, Syria & Iraq Mark Dangerous Escalation in Decades-Long Israeli Aggression

StoryAugust 28, 2019
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Tensions are mounting across the Middle East following a series of Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Lebanese President Michel Aoun likened the recent Israeli attacks to a “declaration of war.” Israeli drones bombed targets in Lebanon on both Monday and Tuesday. Meanwhile, some Iraqi lawmakers are calling on the United States to fully withdraw its troops following a series of Israeli air raids conducted by Israel. Israel has only claimed responsibility for an attack on Syria Saturday, which they said targeted an Iranian-operated base that was preparing to launch a drone assault on Israel. We speak with Rami Khouri, senior public policy fellow, adjunct professor of journalism and journalist-in-residence at the American University of Beirut, as well as a columnist at The New Arab. “What’s happened over the last few days is a convergence of a trend that has been going on for about 50, 60 years in the Middle East, with Israel asserting its philosophy that it must always be militarily stronger than any combination of foes around it,” says Khouri.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Here is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Tensions are mounting across the Middle East following a series of suspected Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. The Lebanese President Michel Aoun likened the recent Israeli attacks to a “declaration of war.” Israeli drones bombed targets in Lebanon on both Sunday and Monday. Meanwhile, some Iraqi lawmakers are calling on the United States to fully withdraw its troops following a series of Israeli air raids. The Fatah Coalition said it considered Israel’s actions to be, quote, “a declaration of war on Iraq and its people.” Israel has only claimed responsibility for an attack on Syria Saturday, which they say targeted an Iranian-operated base that was preparing to launch a drone assault on Israel.

For more, we go to Boston, Massachusetts, where we’re joined by Rami Khouri, senior public policy fellow at American University in Beirut, nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative. Rami Khouri is a columnist at The New Arab, his latest article headlined “The dangerous new landscape of Arab-Israeli warfare.”

Rami Khouri, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. What is that landscape? And what has happened over these last few days?

RAMI KHOURI: What’s happened over the last few days is a convergence of a trend that has been going on for about 50, 60 years in the Middle East, with Israel asserting its philosophy that it must always be militarily stronger than any combination of foes around it. The United States officially supports this policy. And the Israelis will use any military or subversive or surreptitious means or any means they feel they have to use — assassination, bombing, whatever — to preserve their security, and that their security is more important than the security of anybody else around them. That’s been going on for 50, 60 years, and they’ve been assassinating people and bombing things all over the Middle East.

What’s happened this week which is unusual is that there were attacks in three or four places almost simultaneously by the Israelis and attacks against the Israelis. So, they attacked in Lebanon, two different places, two different targets, in Beirut and the Beqaa Valley. They attacked in Iraq. They have threatened Iran, of course, the whole time. And they were attacked by people from — Palestinians from Gaza. So, a simultaneous war, not an all-out war, but a simultaneous series of attacks against four or five different targets by the Israelis, is something new and quite troubling, both for the Israelis and for the Arab parties that are being attacked.

And this is something, I think, that is going to continue, because traditional conventional warfare, as has happened between 1947 and 2006, is no longer really possible, because Hezbollah has essentially achieved a level of deterrence with the Israelis, with Hezbollah’s significant technical capabilities and missiles and communications and other things, so that an Israeli-Hezbollah war, which happened several times with great destruction, mostly in Lebanon, is not going to happen again, probably. Both sides want to avoid it. So, the landscape of warfare has shifted to drones and missiles and viruses and things of that nature.

But the fact that there are so many different groups in the Middle East that have achieved higher levels of technical proficiency with their military defensive and offensive capabilities should be troubling for the Israelis. And, of course, the Israelis are going to try to figure out new ways to overcome this, which only exacerbates the likelihood that there will be continued and expanding destruction all over the region without resolving any of the core issues, ironically.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke after the suspected Israeli drone attacked Beirut.

HASSAN NASRALLAH: [translated] What happened last night was an attack with a suicide drone on a target in the southern suburbs of Beirut in Lebanon. This is a breach of the rules of engagement established after the August 2006 war, the first clear and significant breach. We will do everything to stop something like this course. We will do everything to stop such a course. … From now on, we will face Israeli drones in Lebanon’s skies. We will bring down Israeli drones when they enter Lebanon’s skies. If Israel kills any of our brothers in Syria, we will respond to this killing in Lebanon, and not in Shebaa Farms.

AMY GOODMAN: And on Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: [translated] I heard what Nasrallah said. I suggest to Nasrallah to calm down. He knows well that Israel knows how to defend itself and to pay back its enemies. I want to tell him and to Lebanon, which hosts this organization that aspires to destroy us, and I say it also to chief of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani: Watch what you say. And moreover, be careful about what you do.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain the responses here, Rami Khouri, the Israeli prime minister and, before that, Hassan — and, before that, Nasrallah.

RAMI KHOURI: Well, the significant historical development, as I mentioned, is that Hezbollah, over the last 30 years or so, with significant Iranian aid, has been able to develop a very high level of technical military proficiency — offensive, defensive, camouflage, training, logistics, in all fields of military warfare — which has essentially created a situation of mutual deterrence on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Israel, between the 1970s and 2006, could come in at will at Lebanon with attacks and aerial attacks and missiles, do anything it wanted. They sent assassination teams. Ehud Barak, one of their prime ministers, came into Beirut disguised as a woman and assassinated some Palestinian people. So, they can’t do that anymore as easily, because there is a serious ability by Hezbollah, with tens of thousands of its rockets and missiles, to inflict huge damage on Israel, if Israel attacks Lebanon again with conventional warfare.

So, the talk by Nasrallah and by Netanyahu is partly political posturing, but it’s partly a reality that both sides have struggled now to come to terms with, which is they can’t conventionally attack each other, partly because the destruction would be so terrible for both sides — mostly civilians would be killed — and partly because they probably understand deep down that there is no military resolution to this political conflict.

But the critical point here is that the rules of engagement, that have been in effect since 2006, have now been broken by the Israelis. And those rules said that the Hezbollah and the Israelis would do tit-for-tat attacks against each other in the area called Shebaa Farms, which is between Syria, Lebanon and Israel, which is disputed area. The Lebanese and the Syrians both claim it’s theirs; the Israelis actually occupy it. So, the Hezbollah attacks against Israeli positions in Shebaa Farms are done because Hezbollah can say, “We have attacked the Israelis, but we haven’t attacked Israel proper,” and Israel hits them back and says, “We have attacked Hezbollah, but we haven’t attacked Lebanon proper.” So, that is over now. We’ll have to see what happens. Hezbollah will definitely respond. They always do. And they will make some kind of response in Israel at some point when they feel it’s possible or appropriate. And that might be another tit-for-tat attack, and then things would quiet down. But this takes us back to the point where both sides have capabilities. They’re willing and able to fight, if they have to. And they will continue to do this fighting with these limited attacks probably.

But the new really important thing is the fact that Israel is having to fight against four or five or six simultaneous foes now. And they attacked Lebanon twice. They attacked Syria. They attacked Iraq. They’re at war with Hamas. They’ve talked now about maybe attacking Houthi positions in Yemen. So, and, of course, behind all of this is the Israeli-American desire, now supported by Saudis, Emiratis and some other governments in the Gulf, to do whatever they can to push back Iran. The extraordinary irony of all this is that all the American-Israeli Gulf efforts to push back the Iranians in the last 15, 20 years have only resulted in much bigger Iranian strategic relationships across the region, many of them linked with Hezbollah technical training, leading to a condition today where Israel faces at least half a dozen foes around the region whose military technical capabilities are much, much greater than they were 15 or 20 years ago, and therefore cause strategic problems for the Israelis and the Americans and some of the Gulf countries.

One point that’s interesting, there’s a report that just came out this morning that the attack against popular mobilization militias in Iraq, that the Israelis presumably did, came from northern Iraq in an area controlled by militias supported by the United States and supported by the Saudis. So, what you’re seeing, this incredibly complex and moving configuration of forces, relationships, bases, attack points, and you’re seeing this now in four or five different countries simultaneously. And this is really the significant new landscape of warfare that we’re witnessing.

AMY GOODMAN: As these strikes were taking place over the weekend, you also had Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran, showing up at the G7 summit. Can you talk about the significance of this and also Iran saying they’re not going to meet with Trump or negotiate with the United States until sanctions are lifted?

RAMI KHOURI: Well, that Iranian position is perfectly logical. The Americans broke the agreement, and the Americans reimposed sanctions, so they need to roll those back and then get back to talking. They will eventually end up talking one day, that’s for sure.

What we’ve learned from the Iranian situation — and, of course, Hezbollah is an example of this, as well, because they work closely together — that if you take a strong, principled position, you have some support by the international rule of law, and you take military, political, any other actions to defend yourself, and your people support you, you’ll be able to hang in there and withstand any kind of pressures against you. Hezbollah has been an example of this now. They’ve become the strongest Arab military force probably in the region.

The Iranians have long adhered to this position. And the Iranians are essentially saying, “We’re willing to negotiate, but we’re not willing to negotiate as subjects of imperial and colonial and racist orders being given by Trump or Netanyahu or anybody else.” And the big lesson of —

AMY GOODMAN: Rami, I just want to, before —

RAMI KHOURI: And the big lesson of —

AMY GOODMAN: Before we wrap up —

RAMI KHOURI: The big lesson recently has been, of course, the nuclear agreement under Obama, with the sanctions and the nuclear issues dealt with together, and that’s the thing that has to be achieved. This would be a huge, huge setback, if the Iranians and the Americans started talking, which presumably will happen. I mean, it’s happened sort of indirectly now. If this happens, this is a massive setback for Netanyahu, for the Saudi leadership, for the Emirati leadership and all of these authoritarian people in the region, the Egyptian leadership, who have been clamoring for action against Iran, while —

AMY GOODMAN: Rami Khouri, I wanted to ask you a last question before —

RAMI KHOURI: — turning their states into authoritarian units.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you a last question before we wrap up, because you’re at Harvard. The 17-year-old Palestinian student who was scheduled to start his freshman year there, on Friday, was denied entry last week at Logan Airport. His name is Ismail Ajjawi. The Harvard Crimson says he told them he was interrogated by immigration officials and that they’re denying him based on what his friends have written on Facebook. We have 10 seconds. Your response?

RAMI KHOURI: This is part of a growing authoritarian trend. You see it in Israel, in Egypt, in the Gulf countries, in the U.S. and Brazil, where people use this kind of almost fascist-like control mechanism by governments to deny individuals their rights. And it won’t work.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but we’re going to do Part 2 with you and post it online at democracynow.org. Rami Khouri, senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, now at Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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