An Israeli War with Hezbollah Risks War with Iran

In a speech on August 13, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary General, reassured his public that Israel will not attack Hezbollah and Lebanon, arguing that Israeli officials believe “any war on Lebanon, no matter its objectives, will not be worth the costs Israel will incur in such a war.” In other words, Israel will go to war only if faced with no other course of action.

In his speech, Nasrallah was addressing two audiences: a Lebanese public that was concerned about an impending Israeli attack as a result of the usual summer war of words between Hezbollah and Israel; and Israeli citizens. The mutual deterrence regime that has been in place in southern Lebanon since the end of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah has benefited constituencies on both sides of the border.

Nevertheless, Hezbollah and Israeli officials have engaged in occasional rhetorical escalation since 2006, partly to convey to the opponent their resolve and readiness to fight and partly as a psychological warfare tactic to sow fear in their opponent’s constituency. Both sides paint apocalyptic images of this war – Israel threatens to level all of Lebanon’s infrastructure, while Hezbollah vows to strike Israeli nuclear facilities in Dimona.

Despite the occasional flare-ups between the two sides, as in 2015 when Hezbollah antitank missiles killed two Israeli soldiers in retaliation for Israel’s drone strike, which killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general in the Syrian region of Quneitra, both sides have avoided actions that would lead to an all-out battle. For the past 11 years, military escalations between the Israel and Hezbollah have been very short in duration and followed a carefully calibrated tit-for-tat pattern with clear messaging from both sides seeking de-escalation.

Since 2011, Syria has offered the military theater of choice for both sides to settle scores and/or to reinforce the rules of the game between them. According to the Israeli prime minister, Israel has struck Hezbollah weapons convoys in Syria on a dozen occasions to prevent Hezbollah’s acquisition of “game-changing” weapons. Yet, Hezbollah responded only once, in May 2014, when it claimed that an Israeli attack on a weapons convoy on the Syrian side of the Lebanese-Syrian border had in fact hit a Hezbollah military base inside Lebanon. The message from Hezbollah was clear: As long as Israel hits Hezbollah weapons storage facilities and/or convoys in Syria, Hezbollah will not retaliate. This rule will not change anytime soon. Neither Hezbollah nor Russia, which now controls the Syrian skies, are going to stop Israel from continuing its attacks on Hezbollah weapons convoys and storage facilities in Syria.

Absent a wild card, neither Hezbollah nor Israel sees all-out war as serving their short-to-medium term interests. Hezbollah prioritizes the fight in Syria, and for the foreseeable future, Hezbollah will be in Syria shoring up and expanding the Syrian regime territorial holdings. A Syrian leadership whose political survival depends on the military muscle provided by Hezbollah and pro-Iranian forces serves Hezbollah and Iranian objectives in the Levant.

Until 2011, Bashar al-Assad was a hedging partner to the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas resistance axis. On one hand, he provided Hezbollah with secure strategic depth and Hamas with a base for its expatriate leadership. Hezbollah maintained weapons storage facilities in Syria, and Assad guaranteed the group secure transport routes through Syrian territory. Some of Hezbollah’s military hardware was also made in Syrian regime-owned weapons factories assisted by Iranian experts. On the other hand, the Syrian regime stuck by its 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel, denying Hezbollah and Hamas the permission to launch attacks against Israel from Syrian territory. Moreover, when either Hezbollah or Hamas was engaged in a military confrontation with Israel in 2006 and 2008-2009 respectively, the Syrian regime offered them rhetorical support.

Bashar al-Assad has followed his father’s playbook in his policy vis-à-vis the conflict with Israel: Support proxies to fight Israel, be it Lebanese and/or Palestinian groups, while keeping the door open to peace negotiations with Israel. In the summer of 2006, while Israeli airplanes were bombarding Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon, Assad was conducting back-channel diplomacy with Israel.

Assad can no longer follow this hedging policy vis-à-vis Israel. Not only has Syria become a testing ground for Russian military hardware, it has also become the hub of an Iranian-Hezbollah co-led Shia-majority expeditionary force that consists of tens of thousands of Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghani, and Pakistani fighters whose mission is to secure Iranian and Hezbollah interests in the Levant. In a June 23 speech, Hassan Nasrallah warned that any future Israeli war against Syria or Lebanon will draw thousands of fighters from the same array of militias now fighting in support of the Syrian regime, thereby indicating that the response to such an Israeli attack will be on waged on multiple fronts.

Southwestern Syria might provide the flashpoint for such a war. A de-escalation agreement reached by the U.S. and Russia with Jordanian assistance has established a safe zone in southwestern Syria. One objective of the agreement is to secure Moscow’s help in denying pro-Iranian groups, including Hezbollah, the ability to operate close to Jordanian and Israeli borders. In the short-to-medium term, the Syrian regime and its Iranian patron seem to have concluded that it is their interest to live by this agreement. On the one hand, they need the U.S. to fight ISIS. On the other hand, they need Russian permission and air force in the fight against al Qaeda affiliated groups in Idlib.

Once these fights are brought to successful completion, their calculi might change, especially if the Trump administration decides to then exit the Syrian military theater, as seems to be their future plan. If Iran and Hezbollah were to expand their military presence near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Tel Aviv might come to the conclusion that it has no choice but to attack Hezbollah forces positioned there. Given Nasrallah’s recent warning of a multi-front war, the all-out battle that analysts have been predicting for the last 11 years might then become a fait accompli.

THE AUTHOR IS RANDA SLIM

Randa Slim is director of the Track II Dialogues initiative at The Middle East Institute and a non-resident fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced and International Studies (SAIS) Foreign Policy Institute. A former vice president of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, Slim has been a senior program advisor at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a guest scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, a program director at Resolve, Inc, and a program officer at… Read More
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