A New “Good Fence?”: Turkey Should Learn from Israel’s Experience in Lebanon
In Feb. 2015, a Hizballah official remarked that its allies needed to launch a counterattack in Syria to prevent its fall to “Israel’s agents.” If not, he feared a foreign power aided by rebels would establish a “security zone.” By this point, the Syrian civil war was four years old. President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces backed by Iran, Russia, and Hizballah were in a life and death struggle against rebels supported primarily by Turkey and the United States. From Beirut, Hizballah — or the “Party of God,” an armed Lebanese political movement that supports the Syrian government — watched developments in Syria with alarm.
Hizballah’s organizational knowledge regarding security zones was hard won. The group was formed in 1982 in response to Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon. For 18 years, Hizballah fought to expel Israel and its local surrogates from the “Good Fence,” a roughly 800-square-mile area along the border. Decades later, the group has grown into a significant regional player, with a missile force capable of striking Israel.
Now Turkey and its Free Syrian Army partners are creating a similar security zone. While no country — besides Syria itself — has felt the impact of the civil war more than Turkey, missteps from Ankara could backfire. The government, facing intense pressure to address refugee flows and spillover violence from Syria, has chosen to focus its energy on breaking the Democratic Union Party. This Syrian Kurdish party consolidated power, with help from the United States, in northeastern Syria, thereby posing a serious challenge to Turkey’s longstanding hostility towards regional Kurdish autonomy.
Turkey, and other states relying on local partners to intervene in Syria, should take a hard look at Israel’s experience in Lebanon before proceeding further with its plan to establish a security zone. By ineptly addressing one national security threat, Turkey could be creating an even bigger one.
The Limits of Force
Military interventions that employ overwhelming force to achieve limited objectives are more likely to be successful than long-term occupations. Operations conducted for the purposes of deterrence, like Operation Desert Storm — in which armed forces get in, hurt the enemy, and get out — are an example of this in practice. By comparison, expansive objectives that rely on local partners to help build new institutions in occupied territory, such as in Operation Iraqi Freedom, are far more likely to fail. Building stable institutions in war-torn areas requires complex political arrangements that military forces are ill-equipped to construct.
Israel’s interventions in Lebanon in 1978 and 1982 varied in their objectives and demonstrated these trends. The former, Operation Litani, was a straightforward clearing operation with a limited scope. It relied on the South Lebanon Army to act as a holding force but did not seek to impose drastic political changes beyond the expulsion of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from the border area. The latter, Operation Peace for Galilee, aimed to link up with the Phalange, a Maronite Christian political party-cum-militia, to destroy the PLO and install a government in Beirut willing to sign a formal peace agreement. Israel succeeded in expelling the PLO, but its plans for a pliable Christian-dominated Lebanon failed. Israel’s attempt to wade into the domestic politics of its neighbor encountered stiff resistance. Blowback from the operation threatens Israel to this day.
Like Israel in Lebanon, Turkey risks becoming bogged down in an open-ended commitment in Syria with unintended consequences. Unlike its current operations in Syria, previous Turkish operations in northern Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Democratic Union Party’s organizational forebearer, were short in duration and limited in scope. This was in part due to Turkey’s ability to induce Iraqi Kurds to suppress their co-ethnic rivals.
Turkey’s current operations against the Democratic Union Party — Operations Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch, and Peace Spring — go beyond this formula and seek to create new facts on the ground. Talk of massive refugee resettlement in the security zone means disruptive demographic changes that will need to be managed and enforced. Turkey’s pre-2016 regime change policy in Syria offered indirect support to the Syrian opposition. That discrete policy has been replaced by a gamble on partnering with Free Syrian Army units to organize governance structures in the safe zone and conduct counterinsurgency operations.
Beware of Small Occupations
Foreign occupations produce countervailing forces of nationalism and resistance that galvanize a community around defeating the occupier. A supportive population is a key element of guerrilla strategy, which enables a relatively weak force to adapt and defeat a stronger opponent. Mass community support can lead to social acceptance of extreme forms of resistance, including suicide attacks, that demonstrate support for the homeland and commitment to the cause.
Israel’s 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon was successful in driving the PLO from its border but also birthed Hizballah, a far more adaptive and deadly organization. Hizballah conducted a sustained campaign of suicide attacks — establishing an associated cult of martyrs — and eventually built a stockpile of missiles able to threaten Israeli population centers. Israel’s partnership with the South Lebanon Army also created a moral hazard that undercut Israel’s counterinsurgency policy and played into Hizballah’s narrative of “national resistance.”
Likewise, the Turkish security zone is likely to strengthen the military wing of the Democratic Union Party. PKK veterans, who cut their teeth in guerrilla campaigns featuring suicide operations, make up the core of this wing. The population of the occupied security zone, skeptical of Turkey’s intensions, has already been subjected to Free Syrian Army units engaging in human rights abuses against civilians. Such abuses will provide a widening base of support for resistance. Ultimately, Turkey’s current policy will not satisfy its security needs and could very well lead to a more adaptable and deadlier insurgency both in Syria and at home.
Babysitting Your Allies
Should a sponsor deploy troops alongside its local ally? On the one hand, doing so is the best way to ensure that a local ally is advancing the sponsor’s interests. However, it also makes the local ally’s collaboration painfully obvious in the eyes of the population and puts the sponsor’s troops in harm’s way. This tension is especially problematic when more than one state is offering support — as is the case in Syria — which can incentivize opportunistic behavior by local armed groups. Multiple potential sources of revenue allow groups to ignore sponsors’ demands, diversify support networks, and/or change sides when interests diverge. Sponsors can overcome this challenge by implementing monitoring and screening mechanisms to try and control groups or by making support conditional on behavior. Whichever strategy a sponsor pursues requires a degree of institutionalization to be successful. This increases the temptation to put boots on the ground.
Israel partnered with several Christian militias during the course of its operations in Lebanon. First, it partnered with the Phalange when pursuing regime change. However, once ensconced in Beirut, the Phalange refused to comply with Israeli demands and engaged in behavior that fragmented the Christian military coalition. Israel then partnered with the South Lebanon Army to pursue the more limited goal of establishing a border security zone. Israel deployed thousands of its own troops and kept the South Lebanon Army on a relatively tight leash. This increased the South Lebanon Army’s compliance with Israeli policy but helped drive a wedge between the South Lebanon Army and the population of the occupied security zone, and cost Israel 265 killed and 891 wounded between 1985-2000.
Absent a shift in strategy, Turkey will need to keep its own troops deployed to maintain its current dominant status in northeastern Syria. Its reliance on a loose coalition of Free Syrian Army units to displace the Democratic Union Party and stabilize the border poses significant risks of coalition fragmentation. Turkey’s regional rivals could offer individual Free Syrian Army units a better deal, especially if Turkey abandons the regime change policy favored by many of the militiamen. Fragmentation could also occur if some units perceive others as receiving preferential treatment in the allocation of Turkish resources, causing them to defect. This will likely result in mounting casualties in Turkey’s conscript army, which could undermine domestic support for the security zone over the long term.
Back to the Future
Great powers that seek to change the internal politics of another state face a lengthy track record of failures. In fact, pursuing regime change is more likely to produce chaos, not calm.
America’s tacit support for Israel’s 1982 bid to install a friendly government in Beirut and overt support, along with Turkey, for the Syrian opposition were both attempts to unseat governments considered hostile. The Reagan, Obama, and Trump administrations engaged in remarkably similar internal debates on the potential pitfalls of the use of force. However, all three defaulted to policies of regime change, first in Lebanon, then in Syria. When attempts at regime change failed, in both cases the United States was forced to intervene to prevent the collapse of its local partners. The U.S.-led Multinational Force helped defend a Phalange canton in Lebanon and 30 years later, Operation Inherent Resolve flew close air support for the Democratic Union Party in northeast Syria.
In contrast, Russia’s policy in Lebanon and Syria was and remains regime maintenance. Following the Camp David Accords and Egypt’s pivot, Syria’s strategic position vis-à-vis Israel became increasingly precarious as Israel no longer faced a potential two-front war. Syria viewed growing instability in Lebanon as an exploitable opportunity for Israel. Despite initial misgivings, the Soviets backed Syria’s play to fill the Lebanese vacuum and counter Israel’s new regional hegemony. U.S. support for regime change in Iraq and Libya primed Russia to respond with vigor in 2015 to calls for the overthrow of its client in Damascus.
The United States has been criticized for not sticking by its Syrian Kurdish partner, especially since Russia appears to be solidifying its dominant role in Syria. While this statement is arguably true in the current context, it is confusing tactics for strategy. The real question is why under this set of conditions has Russia maintained its alliance with Syria, while the United States has waffled on its commitment to the Democratic Union Party? In both Lebanon and Syria, Russia backed a state ally based on mutual long-term strategic interests while the United States, much like Israel and Turkey, formed “temporary, transactional, and tactical” relations with a series of ideologically diverse militias. If the United States’ strategic goal was bleeding Russia in Syria, then this outcome could potentially be considered a success. However, consistent U.S. calls for regime change and democratization throughout the Syrian conflict, including prior to Russia’s involvement, contradict this claim.
Security partnerships with armed groups are inherently unstable. While militias and states may face shared immediate threats, unless interests and ideologies align, both should plan for an eventual parting of ways.
Quit While You’re Ahead
Turkey’s intervention in northeast Syria may produce a dramatic shift in the local balance of power, but perhaps not in the way Turkey envisions. So far, Turkey has achieved limited success in pushing the Democratic Union Party out of the expanding security zone and forcing the United States to reduce, if not end, its support for the group. But Turkey’s pursuit of the security zone is based on at least three very questionable assumptions.
First, that Free Syrian Army units are capable of displacing and holding cleared territory in a manner that does not aggravate the local population. Second, that Turkey’s forward leaning policy will not inadvertently empower the very forces it seeks to defeat, namely the Democratic Union Party. Finally, that geopolitics will not get in the way, as Turkey’s actions in the safe zone are influenced and limited by American, Russian, and Syrian forces.
Turkey should quit while it’s ahead. In the near term, Ankara should immediately drawdown its forces in the security zone and cut ties with the Free Syrian Army. Turkey’s recent foray into Syria leaves it in a strong position to press the Syrian government, and its Russian patron, to curb Kurdish autonomy — evidenced by the Democratic Union Party’s recent negotiations with Damascus to incorporate its forces into the Syrian army. In the long term, Ankara must restart peace negotiations with the PKK or risk yet another cycle of violence that leaves Turkey in a state of permanent insecurity.
Israel’s “Good Fence” policy in Lebanon produced negative security outcomes and failed to achieve strategic policy goals. Turkey’s security zone policy will likely also fail to achieve its objectives.
Dylan Maguire is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University. His dissertation examines transnational political-military partnerships between militias and states and focuses on the Lebanese and Syrian civil wars.