The Lebanon Evacuation Window
As I have witnessed previous evacuations in Lebanon for about two decades, and as I am monitoring the ongoing evacuations of Western and American citizens by US and European military, I was able to establish a security map through which the evacuation is taking place. In short it is happening in a very dangerous geopolitical context, more than many believed it would be.
South of Beirut and Bekaa
As shown on the map, evacuating persons from Hizbollah-controlled areas faces significant dangers. The confrontations between the Israeli Air Force and Hizbollah's militia can impede transportation in these areas and would endanger the ships coming closer to the shores just south of Beirut. Hence, the entire coastal area south of the capital is off any landing zone. In addition all areas shown in yellow, under Hizbollah control, are also off staging areas for helicopter evacuations. In addition, helicopter landings in the south and the Bekaa plateau are not possible on security grounds.
Areas in the extreme north including in Tripoli's port and the districts surrounding are also dangerous for evacuation operations as pro-Syrian elements are omnipresent.
Al Qaida Factor
In addition to Hizbollah's risk, which most likely won't develop at this stage because of the need of the organization to appear as legitimate worldwide, another high danger is potential: al Qaida. Surfacing from underneath Hizbollah, al Qaida allied cells are present in the Palestinian bases along the southern coast and in the far north as of Tripoli. Even against the will of Hizbollah, al Qaida operatives can -if they decide so- launch attacks against US and other Western units coming close to the shores in these areas. These targets would be ideal to al Qaida as they fulfill their desire to attack US military and citizens.
Map of Evacuation Dangers from MSNBC interview with Walid Phares
(click to enlarge)
While very few audiences in the world notice it, there is a narrow geographical window in Lebanon more secure for the ongoing evacuation process. It stretches from the Beirut Port in East Beirut to the Batroun Port in the North: about 65 km of coastlines, where US and Western military and other personnel can land, circulate and organize its logistics relatively safely. One, there are no significant sympathizers to Hizbollah and almost no presence to al Qaida. Besides, the populations of these mountainous and waterfront zones are strongly anti-Syrian. They have formed the majority of the marchers of the historic March 14 demonstration. The core of the Cedars Revolution, these areas have had a dire history of bombardments by the Syrian occupation army during 1976-1990. Western military and evacuees can enjoy a 20 km depth into the mountains as well. Technically, this "zone" can offer launching pads for helicopters and obviously the two major ports of Beirut and Juniah for ship operations. In addition, the Shuf Mountains can secure landing zones for helicopters for the purpose of evacuation process, if needed.
However, in the future these areas, from the Cedars peaks to Beirut and throughout Mount Lebanon to the Shuf district, may well become targets for Hizbollah infiltration and pro-Syrian penetration. For the anti-Western axis in Lebanon would need to secure these zones so that no anti-Syrian areas can obstruct their war with Israel, which dramatically may put these region under Israeli military activities. In fact all depends on the Lebanese Government's readiness to deploy the Lebanese Army solidly in these relatively "secure" areas before the international community equips the Government with needed tools to deeply the Army into the Hizbollah zones in the future.
In sum, US and allied forces, in coordination with Lebanon's Government security, are now operating a challenging rescue operation to extract up to 20,000 citizens from Lebanon. The operation is delicate as it factors monitoring the transportation of US and European citizens from regions as diverse as one can imagine into Beirut Port and the helicopters pads in a variety of spots. The operation, protected by Western ships and jets ready to fly, has established a maritime bridge with Cyprus. As I traveled by boat and by helicopter between Lebanon and Cyprus, sometimes under direct artillery action by the Syrians in the 1980s, I realize how dramatic this voyage can be. In the 1980s, the travelers were embarking on commercial ships with no Navy escort, under shelling by the long-range Syrian artillery. The first hour of voyage was the most dangerous, for the shells menaced lives from the port's docks to about 15 miles off the coasts.
Today's evacuees are lucky to be transported by the most powerful military in the world and under the reporting of most world media, two insurance policies non-existent at the time. Those US and Western citizens are traversing waters a few miles from where al Qaida cells would have potentially launched attacks, and not far from areas dominated by Hizbollah, now busy fighting Israel, and not yet set on harming Americans and creating another "act of war" with it.
Dr Walid Phares is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the author of Future Jihad.