Shift in strategy: Israel invades, War widens

Yesterday Israel sent thousands of ground troops into Lebanon, in a move widely assumed to be aimed at two goals: clearing southern Lebanon of the Hezbollah threat to prepare for the insertion of a potential international force, and destroying Hezbollahs long-range missile capabilities. Israeli officials estimate they need ten days to two weeks to achieve these goals; they are hoping that political pressure will not force them to stop sooner. Even a week may be optimistic given how much the time scale has lengthened in the past few days. In light of the Israeli timetable, Condoleeza Rice's statement yesterday could charitably be described as unrealistic:

"I still believe that if we really put our minds to it and work that this week [a ceasefire and lasting settlement are] entirely possible. Certainly, we're talking about days, not weeks, before we are able to get a cease-fire."
desertwar.JPGBroadly, the war has two fronts: the border area below the Litani River, and the Bekaa Valley in the northeast. The Israeli navy also continues to launch artillery at Tyre, on the western coast, but no actual fighting seems to have taken place there yet. Bill Roggio over at Counterterrorismblog posted a great reference map here.Israels daring raid in the city of Baalbek (in the Bekaa Valley) generated the most buzz today. The IDF claims to have captured five middling Hezbollah officials from their base inside a hospital; Hezbollah claims the building was just a hospital and the five Israel captured were civilians. All Israeli troops involved in the mission got home safely, but the reason for the raid is still unclear. Stratfor notes:
"During the night, Israeli commandos raided Baalbek, the main city in the Bekaa Valley. The purpose of the mission is obscure: Some reports claim it was to snatch someone from a hospital there, but it is hard to imagine that a raid of the reported magnitude and lasting long enough for major publicity about it to flow could have been for that purpose."
Elsewhere in the Bekaa Valley, Israeli forces have been conducting air raids where the highway from Damascus crosses the border. They aim to cut off supply shipments to Hezbollah, and one Lebanese paper reports that craters and debris have "effectively closed" the highway. Some reports claim that a few shipments are still getting through, however. U.S. media sources are strangely silent about the highways condition; its destruction could have been an indication that Israel has no intention to attack Syria.Everyone seems sure of Israeli strategy in southern Lebanon. Stratfor puts it most succinctly: "[The Israelis] are clearly planning to take southern Lebanon and destroy all Hezbollah infrastructure there." Tactically, the LA Times reports that the IDF is working north from the border and south from the river simultaneously, clearing out Hezbollah forces along the way. This theory is supported in the NY Times, which reports that the entire river is controlled by Israel (one way or another) and that ground forces have penetrated a few miles north of the border. The Washington Post, citing the same source, goes further and says "Israel now controls most of the zone below the Litani River, either with ground forces or through air missions." This is probably exaggeration, since Israel only began full-scale operations yesterday.The number of troops involved in ground operations is very unclear. Estimates range from 5,000 to 18,000 on the Israeli side, though the true number is probably closest to 10,000, spread between six brigades. The number is expected to climb; it could even triple. Hezbollah is thought to have between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters, of whom 250-300 have been killed so far.Israel has committed to clearing Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon, but big question marks remain about Hezbollah strongholds south of Beirut and especially in the Bekaa Valley. Stratfor speculates:
"it remains clear to us that unless the Israelis go deep on the ground into the Bekaa -- not with commando raids, but with a major force -- they will not identify and destroy the rockets that are the strategic threat to Israel. The Israelis frequently open ground operations with air mobile attacks designed to keep their opponents off-balance, knock out defensive positions and disrupt logistics. The Bekaa action may have been part of that. However, at this point, we are not seeing the armored thrust that would follow this up. Still, it must come soon or not at all. The diplomatic window for operations is closing, and the Israelis will need to be wrapping things up next week. That does not leave a great deal of time to occupy, locate, destroy and withdraw, which is the Israelis' announced strategy, and which we believe to be what they want to do. Israel is now on track with our earlier expectations, and we would therefore anticipate some commitment of forces for a ground attack soon."
Now that Israel has committed ground troops, it is much more likely to achieve its objective in southern Lebanon; Olmert claims they already have:
"If the military campaign would have ended today, today we could already say with certainty the face of the Middle East has changed."
Success elsewhere in Lebanon is more uncertain. In a few days, we'll probably know more about how the conflict will have changed Hezbollah.-- Eric HundmanUPDATE: Stratfor released more information on the Baalbek raid, with a heavy dose of speculation. The report is behind a subscription barrier, but for now you can access it by searching Google News for "Lebanon: Israel's Strategic Raid on Baalbek."

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