Forgetting Westphalia: The Changing Rules of Middle Eastern Terrorism Reply

Hezbollah’s attack in Bulgaria and the Iran-Syria alliance is altering the way Israel approaches the security issues in the region

By Ben Rosner

There are a number of factors that have changed the political landscape in the region for Israel – from the massacre the Assad regime is inflicting upon its own people, to the Iranian nuclear threat, to the rapidly destabilizing Egyptian border – and all of these mean the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken a temporary backseat as the most vital issue in the Middle East.

The aggressively uncompromising mantra of the Iranian regime regarding its nuclear program, combined with years of Holocaustic anti-Israel rhetoric, has forced the Israeli government to view Iran as an existential threat. Tehran’s wish to become the Middle East superpower is overcoming any rational behavior dictated by realist theory as the Israeli military strike capabilities against this potential threat far exceed the Iranian. This irrational behavior is further evidenced by the Ahmadinejad administration fiercely rejecting proposals at multiple diplomatic gatherings to either regulate or remove their nuclear program, thereby inviting international sanctions. While the central bank freezes and numerous other trade barriers are crippling the Iranian economy, the regime stands by as their society falters, going down a road that pragmatism could never travel.

Meanwhile, as the Syrian government is on its inevitable path to downfall, the Israeli government is again faced with a potential threat. Having admitted to possessing chemical weapons, there is, in the eyes of the Israelis, a real and possibly imminent threat to the civilian population. The fear is the faltering Syrian regime triggering a hypothetical kamikaze switch, releasing a hail of chemical warheads if and when the Assad tyranny is put to an end. This move would give true meaning to the phrase, “If I’m going down, I’m taking you down with me.”

Recent events, however, have forced Israel to reexamine a most disturbing new trend in the Israeli-Arab conflict. July 18th was witness to a terrorist attack carried out in Bulgaria that killed 5 Israelis, wounding over 30. Intelligence reports have pointed the finger at the terrorist organization Hezbollah. It is not immediately important whether the attack was prompted by the purse-strings’ holder Iran as a distraction from regional issues, the political benefactor Syria, or merely as a way for Hezbollah to reassert themselves in the international arena. Rather, the concern is the fact that Hezbollah, with its triangular ties to Iran and Syria, has irreparably changed the dynamics of the conflict. By taking the terrorist attacks to European soil, the organization (and Iran for that matter) is demonstrating a lack of concern for collateral damage in the diplomatic arena. For their cause in the Middle East, they have made a grievous error by disregarding the state sovereignty of a European country, especially when taking into consideration that the regional group has historically had a predominantly pro-Palestinian policy in the Middle East region.

While the initial emergence and prominence of non-state actors in international relations began in its early phases to blur the lines of Westphalian warfare, this latest attack has completely obliterated it. A battle that, until now, has taken the form of a bilateral state vs. non-state conflict fought in a single region has transformed into a bilateral conflict taking place on a multilateral stage. All this, without even getting into the issue of state sponsored terrorism through the contributions of Iran and Syria to the Hezbollah cause. This transformation of current day warfare is the equivalent of chess pieces using a backgammon board as a battleground —  out of place and altering some of the basic tenets of terrorism as we know it.

This type of behavior goes hand in hand with the irrational approach exhibited by Iran, and could actually serve to harm their overall interest in the region, including weakening European support for the Palestinian cause. If such attacks continue on European soil or elsewhere, no Palestinian administration will receive the backing of nations whose lands are used as a battleground. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu describes his view on offensive tactics; among the most vital is to “attack the enemy’s alliances” in order to isolate and weaken them. While neither Bulgaria nor Europe have any type of alliance with Hezbollah, the terrorist organization is cutting the ground from underneath its own feet by bringing direct physical consequences of the conflict into European homes. Such behavior proves not only foolish, but extremely harmful for their ultimate goal as they are alienating their strongest non-Arab supporters.

The true consequences of such actions will be seen in the next few months. Given the decision-making process at the top rungs of Hezbollah, there is a very real chance that this is only the beginning of an international terror campaign against Jews and Israeli citizens worldwide. Although, by the same token, this could have been a one-time mistake made by the organization, an anomaly to never be repeated. The missing pieces of this puzzle are twofold; first, the Israeli retaliation against Hezbollah for such attacks, and second, whether the terrorist organization will continue to carry out terrorist missions on lands of militarily uninvolved nations. Regardless of how this plays out in the near future, this event has changed the dynamics and discourse of rational thinking with regards to non-state actors in the region: there are no longer boundaries to the actions extremists take, whether those actions actually further one’s cause or not.

Ben Rosner is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. His fields of expertise at SIPA are International Security Policy and International Conflict Resolution. He has previously worked as a policy advisor and speech writer for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the International Organizations, Human Rights, and United Nations Division. His views are his own.

Photo credit: Reuters

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