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The War Nerd February 25, 2005
The Enemy of My Enemy is Dead By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

Looks like things might be heating up again in Lebanon. Somebody blew up the ex-President of the country with a suicide Buick. The bomb-ee was a billionaire named Rafik Hariri, a local boy who'd made good. He went to Saudi Arabia with nothing, made friends with the royal family, and came back worth $4 billion. There's a whole lot of money in the construction business in Saudi Arabia. Just ask the bin Ladens—that's how they made enough money to send little Osama on those expensive Jihad tours.

What gets me is why anybody with Hariri's money would go into politics when they could be tanning in Maui. Especially Lebanese politics. There's no place in the world with a gorier history. Their motto is "One detonator, one vote." I guess these billionaires just get so cocky they think they can't be killed.

Or maybe the last few years sort of lulled Hariri into a false sense of security. Lebanon's been quiet for a while. The Israelis pulled out of Southern Lebanon in 2000, and the Syrians took their troops out of Beirut a year later. Things were cooling off, and rich Arabs were even starting to book weekends at Lebanese beach resorts.

But you can always count on something to go wrong here. The whole country is a mirage anyway, shoved onto the locals by the Brits and French after WW I. Until 1918, it was just another province in the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Turks owned most of the Middle East, and the Arabs stuck to local clan loyalties. Nobody had any idea that there were "countries" like Iraq, or Syria, or Lebanon.

Then came WWI. The Ottomans made the mistake of siding with Germany, so the Brits started infiltrating the Turkish Empire, stirring up the Arabs. And they were real good at it. Still are, for that matter. You'll notice their part of Iraq is a lot quieter than anybody else's.

If you've seen that great old movie Lawrence of Arabia, you may remember the ending, when Peter O'Toole stomps off in his white dress because he knows the Brits are going to betray their Arab allies. Well, that's pretty much accurate. All through the war, the Brits promised everybody everything. They promised the Arab nationalists they'd get one big, united Arab Republic stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean; they promised the desert warrior chieftains (Lawrence's boys) that they'd get a big kingdom covering exactly the same ground; and they promised the Jews they'd get a homeland in Palestine, right in the middle of that republic, or kingdom, or whatever they were calling it.

When peace broke out in 1918, everybody showed up wanting what they'd been promised. The Brits started making deals fast, divvying up the whole neighborhood into "countries" called Syria, Iraq, Transjordan (Jordan), Palestine and Lebanon.

So on the map, there was this new "country," Lebanon. But on the ground, there was nothing but a bunch of ethnic gangs ready to turn on each other in a second. Lebanon has some of the weirdest militias in the world. What makes it unique is that a lot of the Arabs here are Christian, not Muslim. They call themselves Maronites, and they hung on all through the Muslim conquests, sticking close to the Lebanese hills and mountains—good defensible positions.

A lot of these Maronites emigrated in the 1800s, and a lot of Muslim Arabs moved in and outbred them. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: in the 20th century, birthrate was the most powerful weapon of all, and the Muslims, especially the Shia, had a phenomenal birthrate. Pretty soon the Maronites were on the defensive, and it was chronic war between their gangs and the Muslims. Real nasty war too, like the Balkans in a smaller court: massacres, assassinations, rapes, tortures—and naturally, no real battles.

It's not just Christian vs. Muslim, either. We're talking Arabs here, so naturally the lineups are shifting all the time. Some of the nastiest massacres were by one Christian militia against another. I read this one account—man, I'll never forget it—about how one of the Christian warlords found out his fellow Christians in another militia were having a big picnic on the beach, so he jumped them right in the middle of the volleyball game. What happened after that was pretty sick, even for Lebanon: first, the attackers mowed down the men of the rival clan, then they took the leader of the beaten militia, dragged him over to where they were keeping his female relatives, and made him watch while they gang-raped all the girls and women, then slit their throats one by one.

Now try imagining what happens when you introduce a whole new player to a game like that. That's what happened in 1948, when Israel was created and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees fled north to Lebanon.

Suddenly it was a multi-sided war: Maronite Christians vs. Sunni vs. Shia vs. Palestinian vs. Syrian. We sent American troops to calm things down in 1958, and Lebanon chugged along, more or less, until the big blow-up in 1975. That's when the Lebanese Civil War started. 18 months later, about 45,000 people were dead, another 200,000 had been wounded, whole villages and neighborhoods just vanished, and the country was a Syrian province, patrolled by an "Arab Deterrent Force" that was 90% Syrian troops. Militarily, it was a tough fight to follow—like a giant gang fight in NYC.

The Christian militias called themselves "the Lebanese Forces," and their mostly-Muslim enemies were the "Lebanese National Movement." After a year and a half, the only sure thing was that the Christian militias, who started out with the advantage in training and weapons, hadn't done as well as expected. The Muslims, and especially the Shia, fought better than expected.

The PLO had actually tried to stay out of the fight in the beginning, but got drawn in after the Christian militias took a Palestinian refugee camp in East Beirut and did what came naturally—killed everybody they could catch, that is. The PLA, the armed wing of the PLO, jumped in against them at that point and turned the tide.

The Muslims took a lot of Christian hilltop villages and looked to be winning. At that point, in Spring 1976, one of the weirdest turns in the war happened: the Syrian Army intervened AGAINST the Muslim forces. They took a lot of heat from other Muslim countries, but they were thinking about their own interests, not Islam, and they didn't want a radical Palestinian/Islamic state to their West. Some of the hardest fighting of the war came when the Syrian Army went up against the Palestinian/Muslim forces.

It's worth remembering that. Syria's not as simple as Bush's people make it out to be. A lot of guys in the CIA, like this Robert Baer guy who wrote that Saudi expose, consider Syria a serious force against Muslim craziness in the Middle East. The Syrians proved they were serious about that by wiping out the Muslim Brotherhood in Aleppo, along with a whole lot of unlucky civilians, when the Brothers tried to stage a religious uprising. It's a real mistake to lump the Baathist secularists in the Syrian government with Iran and Libya—they're different animals.

At the level of weapons and tactics, Lebanon had some real important lessons for future warfare. For one thing, it was mostly an urban war, and what we're re-learning in Iraq right now is that we better find out how to do irregular urban warfare if we're going to have a future running this planet. There are more than six billion of us around, and we take up a lot of space. Nobody can afford to assume future war will happen on open ground.

People assume that Lebanon was just small-arms combat between little squads of infantry, but that's wrong. Thanks to the flood of weapons in the Middle East, there was some serious armor involved in the urban battles. And it turned out that tanks weren't the best weapon for street fighting. Instead, the militias favored their Soviet anti-aircraft cannon vehicles, the ZSU-23. With its two- or four-barrel 23mm cannon firing hundreds of rounds in the time it would take a tank to get off a shot from its main cannon, the ZSU-23 could be used to wipe out snipers in an apartment building without risking infantry. They'd just pull up in front of the building and start hosing it down, like window washers. Once they'd stitched up every floor, you could moonwalk to the front entrance without any trouble.

Of course it was bad luck for any civilians still trying to live there, but that's one of the grim features of urban warfare: the civilian is always a human shield, like it or not.

The other weapon that proved itself in the street fighting… well, I probably don't have to tell you by now: it was the ol' reliable RPG. Simple to learn, unbreakable, light, and devastating. A magnificent weapon, as we're finding out the hard way in Iraq. It ended a lot of stalemates in the Beirut fighting. They trumped small arms every time.

Small arms are called that for a reason: they have to be perfectly aimed, or lucky, to hurt you. One thing you'll find in reading accounts of combat in built-up areas, or "urban canyons" as they call them in contemporary military studies, is that with all that cover, non-sniper fire is usually ineffective. Guys fire hundreds of rifle rounds at a shadow down the street, and it just keeps firing back.

That's where the RPG came into play. The militias found that instead of wasting ammo, it was better to get an RPG up, point it in the general direction of the enemy, then advance when it went off. Even if it didn't kill the enemy, the blast put them out of action for a good long time, long enough to overrun them.

Unfortunately, that's something else we're re-learning in Iraq: even when an RPG round misses, it breaks your concentration, opens you up to small-arms fire.

The US Army is doing some interesting stuff with urban tactics these days. I recommend this site on Military Operations in Urbanized Terrain (MOUT):

Have a look at their section on new weapons and we'll meet up next issue for Lebanon, Part 2, where I take us up to the present in this cool little beachside Hell of a country, including the Israeli Invasions of 1978 and 1982, the US intervention in 1982, and the Shia/Christian/Israeli three-sided war in South Lebanon.

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Gary Brecher
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