Ex-Mossad, IDF intel, think tank try to predict Lebanon’s future

Exclusive: The Jerusalem Post reveals the results of the ICT-IDC open poker project.

A demonstrator waves the Lebanese flag in front of riot police during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, August 8, 2020 (photo credit: GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS)
A demonstrator waves the Lebanese flag in front of riot police during a protest in Beirut, Lebanon, August 8, 2020
The recent Beirut Port explosion and the resignation of the Lebanese government could mean that Israel will be faced with new and crucial political and defense policy choices, according to Boaz Ganor, director of IDC Herzliya’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT).
Reality has gotten to a point where several simulated scenarios that a counterterrorism group considered could play out in the real world in months or even weeks, he said.
For background, in April, two former top Mossad officials, two former ambassadors and a variety of think-tank officials connected with the ICT started an unprecedented three-month-long “open poker” simulation of developments in Lebanon.
From day one, The Jerusalem Post was given exclusive access to follow the developments, which were shared in real time on a group Google document, as well as concluding interviews and summaries.
The exercise was observed by IDF Intelligence officers, though for obvious reasons they could not directly participate. It involved 12 different parties operating in the Lebanese sphere, parties who were “played” by the former intelligence officers and diplomatic officials.
Unlike typical similar simulations, where one party on a panel speaks at a time, and then each one can individually react, this game of open poker allowed multiple parties to respond and counter each other’s ideas in real time.
The purpose of the exercise was to play out policy options for the political and defense establishment regarding three major scenarios in which the expert-players interacted, each for a period of weeks, to allow moves and countermoves, Ganor told the Post.
IN THE FIRST scenario, Lebanese President Michael Aoun announced an emergency government to cope with the dual health-economic crisis presented by coronavirus. This crisis is exemplified not only by infection and loss of income, but by a collapse in the sufficiency of medical equipment and other supplies needed to emerge from the crisis, as well as a wave of protests. As part of this emergency government, he forces Hezbollah out, compelling Iran’s Shi’ite proxy to decide whether to lash out using its superior physical firepower or to carry out a strategic retreat.
In the second scenario, Hezbollah completes a military takeover of the current government, a government over which it already has significant de facto control. The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, tells the country that it alone, with the aid of Iran, can save the nation.
Under the third scenario, no group or leader is capable of leading the country through the crisis, and Lebanese society descends into complete chaos, reminiscent of the 1976 civil war.
“All three [scenarios] could become reality,” Ganor said. “Israel must be ready for all three possibilities – and prepare itself the best that it can for each one.”
All three scenarios would have a major influence not only on the future of Lebanon, but on Israeli interests and the interests of the entire region, he said.
With the coronavirus tearing apart an already fragile Lebanese society long before the recent explosion that physically wrecked Beirut, Ganor said it was crucial to give Israeli decision-makers enough lead time, knowing they could be thrown any number of curve balls.
Former Mossad deputy chief Naftali Granot played the US; former Mossad senior official Amnon Sofrin played Syria.
Former UN ambassador Ron Prosor, Egyptian ambassador Itzhak Levanon and Ganor played Germany, the Lebanese Christian community and Israel, respectively. A range of other officials covered the remaining seven parties, including Hezbollah, Iran and Russia.
A RUNNING theme in all three scenarios is that Hezbollah finds itself in one of the most sensitive series of dilemmas it has had to maneuver through since it took de facto control of Lebanon around a decade ago.
Many Lebanese citizens, including within the terrorist group’s own natural Shi’ite camp, are less interested in any conflict with Israel and pleasing Iran than they are in surviving the simultaneous health and economic crises that have resulted from coronavirus.
In the scenarios, the most powerful local actors are Hezbollah, Israel and Iran. The Islamic Republic was expected to advise Hezbollah to conceal the scope of the harm caused by coronavirus, just as the ayatollahs did in their own country.
There was also potential that Iran would try to advise Hezbollah in organizing counterprotests to any protesters challenging its hold on power and to accuse other parties of failure.
Beside those parties, if there also would be internal Lebanese fighting or external fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, then Russia would likely play the role of moderator, Ganor said.
Each of the scenarios likely sees the US trying to leverage the situation to isolate and weaken Hezbollah and Iranian influence in Lebanon. The Saudis were also expected to act in this direction, though on some different planes of battle than the US.
Although it does not have the same ability to project power as either Russia or the US, France, due to its historic ties to Lebanon, is expected to try to play a stabilizing, diplomatic role.
In the war scenarios, the experts played out both limited and all-out conflicts between Israel and Hezbollah, including a limited invasion by the terrorist group of Israel’s northern border as well as rocket attacks of precision missiles on crucial Israeli national infrastructure points.
Hezbollah could still mount a limited invasion, even though Israel has largely neutralized its ability to carry out a surprise attack using tunnel warfare, Ganor said.
It was “fascinating” to see how early responses to the various new crises often determined and limited future options down the road for many of the players, he said.
While changing course from a failed strategy is always possible, this means that picking the correct initial strategy is important. Ganor said he hopes the open-poker exercise can help decision-makers make better strategy choices.
It was surprising that while many of the predictions have been correct, the consequences of the scenarios are galloping forward in real life “even faster than in the simulation,” Ganor said.