WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- The prospect of the United States attacking Hezbollah bases in southern Lebanon is no idle threat, the editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest said Friday.
On Friday the digest released a report saying the Bush administration is considering such strikes in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where the bulk of Syria's forces are deployed, as way to pressure Damascus. Jane's attributed this to its regional correspondent reporting from Beirut.
In a phone interview from London, Alex Standish, editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest, confirmed that his sources were American and that they were communicating the views of people close to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Asked if his sources were in the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, he replied that he could not identify them further.
"Our sources are pretty damn good," Standish told United Press International. "We've never had a libel action since we were founded in 1938. ... If you look at the track record of people who have given us this sort of information ... these are tried and tested sources that we have confidence in."
Standish dismissed the possibility that the information could have been planted by an American who wanted to derail any such attack.
"I think this is a U.S. administration that does what it says it will do," said Standish, stressing that this is a plan under consideration, not a decided course of action. "Clearly, this is about ratcheting up the pressure on Damascus. ... I think this is also part of the wider Realpolitik, which is to start the process of isolating Hezbollah much further. ...
"What we're looking at in this context are air strikes and the use of special forces snatch squads -- that kind of activity. We're not talking about a peacekeeping deployment or an invasion of southern Lebanon."
Standish said if this were another administration, there would be more room for skepticism. But the Bush administration is willing to go in a new direction after Sept. 11, 2001.
"Bush understands that he will get domestic support on foreign policy issues," Standish said, "and certainly enough domestic support to stand him in good stead for the forthcoming election. So I honestly don't think that this is simply an idle threat. I think probably one of the reasons this sort of policy is being considered, and why people close to Rumsfeld -- people within the circle -- are prepared to talk, is because they want to give fair warning." But Standish said he would not rule out the policy being executed.
"If you look at the robust nature of what's been happening on the Iraqi border, U.S. troops have made incursions into Syrian territory," he said.
Standish said if Syria were to follow Libya's example to change its behavior, "then I think you might be dealing with a different situation." But in fact "the same old military regime" stands behind Bashar Assad, who is "merely being used as a cipher with his father's name." Under these circumstances, any attempted reforms on the part of Assad will not succeed.
"Unless there is some serious movement, Syria is going to remain one of the unreformed regimes in the Middle East," Standish said. "And I don't think this administration will be prepared to allow this to continue indefinitely."
He said the kind of operation under consideration in Lebanon is relatively low risk. "Air strikes ... are a pretty simple and effective way of getting a message across without deploying troops on the ground," he told UPI.
"I think one can understand the reasons why people in Washington would like to apply this kind of pressure, because if Syria can be forced to cease backing Hezbollah -- which obviously has its own connections with Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- this is an issue. If you can cut the funding off for international militant organizations, that's a pretty big first step in reducing the effectiveness that they have in terms of the trouble they can cause."
How would air raids and special forces operations cut the funding?
"The funding comes from Damascus and Tehran. If the administration shows that it actually has the will to strike directly at Hezbollah targets, it sends a very powerful message: 'Look what we've done with your proxies. The next step along the line will be you.'
"I don't think for one second that we're looking at an invasion of Syria scenario. ... It's about destabilization of these regimes -- really presenting them with a pretty stark choice." Standish characterized that choice as compromising and "coming clean" vs. a path to "destruction."
Standish was asked why U.S. air strikes would have a different effect than Israeli air strikes.
The psychology would be different, he replied.
"Hezbollah expects to be hit from time to time by Israel. ... But if the U.S. itself chooses to engage, I think that is an enormous step forward because it's a difference fundamentally between Israel saying that it's acting in self-defense or in a measured response to a particular incident and the U.S. saying, as a matter of policy, that just as it made war against al-Qaida and closed its bases and denied it the freedom to operate in Afghanistan," it is taking the same steps against Hezbollah. ... "A key issue is to deny the enemy the ability to train, to maintain bases, and of course ultimately -- on the political level -- to attract funding from Tehran and Syria."
The United States, as the last superpower, can send such a message, Standish said.
"Already I think it's having an effect in the Iranian situation," he added, "if you look at the concessions in real terms that have been made on the nuclear front and the willingness to conduct covert diplomacy. It's been a pretty open secret that there have been middle-ranking talks (between the United States and Iran) over the last few years in Switzerland and other European locations. So I don't think we should be surprised if Tehran decides that to continue to put funding into Hezbollah is counterproductive for its own safety."
"I think this sends a message, and I think the message is uncompromising: 'There is still time for diplomatic maneuver, but patience may be limited.' "