Hezbollah Threat Wanes, but Rising New Players in Lebanon Present Israel With New Challenge

Despite the atmosphere of mutual deterrence, the Shi'ite group's alliance with Tehran and Damascus, the Syrian war and the entry of new regional forces could spark a conflagration.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Two visits to the Lebanon border within a week reveal a new reality. Concern about the eruption of a military confrontation with Hezbollah there − which is something that has in the past dictated many of the Israel Defense Forces’ moves along the border − is fading. A feeling of mutual deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah appears to be taking root, and is helping to restrain both sides, besides which the Shi’ite organization is deeply involved in the civil war in Syria. At the same time, that protracted conflict is also aggravating instability in Lebanon, reducing Hezbollah’s control over developments there and introducing into the arena new players with whom Israel has not previously had to cope.

The IDF is nonetheless continuing to prepare for a possible war with Hezbollah − the adversary that poses the most serious challenge in the region and which, given its estimated arsenal of more than 70,000 rockets, constitutes the greatest danger to the Israeli home front. Still, one question that occupied IDF intelligence and Northern Command for years appears to be on the verge of being answered.

Israel had wondered how the other partners in the radical Shi’ite alliance − Iran and Syria − would react in the event of an Israeli-Hezbollah confrontation. The current assessment is not encouraging: The tightening of that alliance, under the influence of the aid that Iran and Hezbollah are providing to the regime of Bashar Assad, is heightening the Syrian despot’s commitment to his friends. Thus, Iran, the Syrian regime and Hezbollah can be seen as constituent elements of a common front that will act against Israel if the need arises. This is discernible in the Assad regime’s frequent efforts to transfer advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, despite warnings from Israel. ‏(Official sources in Washington have claimed that the Israeli air force has already mounted at least six attacks in Syria this year.‏)

‘High level of intimacy’

In the future, that mutual commitment will influence Syria’s response in the event of a clash between Israel and Hezbollah, or an IDF attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. If such scenarios comes to pass, the other partners in the Tehran-led alliance will find it difficult to sit idly by. To assist Hezbollah in a war with Israel, Syria could instigate low-level firefights along the border in the Golan Heights, which would serve to pin down soldiers whom the IDF would otherwise send into Lebanon, or it could launch precision missiles at air force bases in Israel’s north.

Israeli intelligence sources note a “high level of intimacy” among the three partners of the alliance, though Tehran’s dominance is clear. Iran deprived Hezbollah of independent authority to open fire on Israel after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and it was Iran that ordered the Shi’ite organization to intervene actively in the war in Syria last year, when Tehran feared that the Assad regime was going to fall. Indeed, Hezbollah’s forceful entry into the fray, after the assassination of a number of senior officials in the Assad government in an explosion in Damascus in July 2012, helped stem the tide that was about to engulf the regime.

Hezbollah itself is changing accordingly. Until 2006, the organization focused on firing rockets at Israeli civilian targets, deploying defensively in villages in southern Lebanon and blocking possible IDF access routes there by means of ambushes utilizing antitank missiles and explosive devices. The war in Syria has afforded Hezbollah an opportunity to upgrade its capabilities to initiate more precise attacks. In the key battle last June for the town of Qusayr, on the Syria-Lebanon border, Hezbollah’s intervention tipped the balance in favor of Assad’s forces. The organization sustained a large number of losses in the first two days of fighting, but by the end of the week, it had begun to take the initiative and reverse the outcome.

The current estimate is that Hezbollah lost about 100 fighters in that battle, most of them from special-forces units. Overall, more than 250 Hezbollah fighters have been killed to date in the war, and about 1,000 wounded. ‏This is a lower estimate than originally suggested, but it still constitutes a considerable blow to an organization that has fewer than 20,000 active fighters.‏ In the Qusayr campaign, Hezbollah operated Syrian army tanks, drew on the assistance of drones and made use of relatively high-quality intelligence data. Above all, the organization gained important experience in urban warfare, making coordinated use of units of company size (approximately 100) and larger.

At the same time, Hezbollah has maintained its deployment in southern Lebanon vis-a-vis Israel. Though its military presence in villages is under civilian cover, since the 2006 war, the organization has possessed the ability to fire a large number of rockets into Israel without being detected by IDF intelligence in advance.

Olives and guns

In general, Israeli defense sources describe a gradual change in the conception of Iran and the radical axis when it comes to the nature of a future war. If in the
past − partially on the basis of the lessons of 2006 − the view was that the Arabs should wage a war of attrition that would batter the Israeli civilian front and exact an increasingly steep price, a different approach is now taking hold among the Iranians and their allies.

The new thinking among the allies is based on a better understanding of the destructive capabilities of the Israel Air Force. Iran and Hezbollah assume that Israeli bombing raids will inflict enormous and ongoing damage on them. They will, therefore, most likely prefer to deliver a powerful, focused blow in the first days of a conflict, in the hope that the international community will intervene and restrain Israel immediately. Thus, in a future confrontation, the IDF has to prepare for a scenario in which thousands of rockets and missiles will be launched against the civilian rear in the first two or three days.

This, in turn, will oblige the political leadership in Jerusalem to make quick decisions, in striking contrast to 2006. The army, which will have to operate against the clock, will press for a call-up of reserves and for ground troops to be sent in, to execute a substantial attack that will send Hezbollah reeling. The politicians will not be in a position to spend two weeks in fruitless discussion, while commentators in television studios urge them to attack in Lebanon. The government will have to decide very quickly whether it is bent on a broad ground maneuver or a cease-fire.

Still, at this point in time, these scenarios appear to be relatively distant. Hezbollah is now caught in a vice of internal constraints, not least growing criticism in Lebanon over its role in the war in Syria. This, in turn, has prompted challenges to the organization from both the Lebanese government and extremist Sunni organizations. Under this political pressure, Hezbollah has dismantled military checkpoints that it had manned for many years, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and in Dahiya, the Shi’ite quarter of Beirut. For the first time, residents of Dahiya also came under attack by Sunni militias, in the form of rocket fire and a booby-trapped car.

For now, the border with Israel remains quiet, thanks in part to a periodic tripartite meeting of representatives from the IDF, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon and the Lebanese army, at the Nakura crossing. There was almost a flare-up in mid-October, when Lebanese farmers harvested olives in a salient that is under Israeli sovereignty, though located north of the border fence. IDF and Lebanese army troops arrived on the scene. Senior officers who were called to the scene, however, were able to cool down the atmosphere and disperse the soldiers, who had their weapons aimed at one another.

“It would have been enough for one idiot to fire a first bullet for us not to have been able to stop the shooting for two hours, and without anyone even wanting a confrontation,” a senior IDF officer told Haaretz.

Mutual deterrence

Even though neither Israel nor Hezbollah appears to desire a war at present, the risks remain, principally because there are now a large number of groups active in the area. A good example is an incident in August, in which a radical Sunni organization fired Katyusha rockets into the western Galilee. In the past, Israel routinely assumed that Hezbollah was in control of all activity in southern Lebanon. In this case, though, a rival organization was behind the attack. The purpose may have been only to strike at Israel, or perhaps the rival group - which belongs to an extremist front that is trying to topple Assad - hoped to spark a clash between the IDF and Hezbollah, and thus draw the Shi’ite fighters out of Syria.

Israel, in response, made do with bombing an old command post belonging to the Palestinian organization of Ahmed Jibril in Nueima, south of Beirut. The circumstances surrounding the entire incident were vague, at best: Jibril is actually part of the Syria and Hezbollah camp.

In any event, quiet has returned to the border area − not necessarily for 40 years, as Prime Minister Menachem Begin aspired to at the outset of the 1982 Lebanon war. But even seven years is an impressive feat, particularly in light of the limited achievements of the Second Lebanon War itself.

However, the reason for the calm - contrary to the claim of supporters of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who point to his supposed great management of the war - is becoming clear only in retrospect. The quiet is founded mainly on mutual deterrence. Although the IDF’s vast destructive capability is deterring Hezbollah, Israel is apprehensive about the tens of thousands of rockets in that organization’s possession. In the absence of a direct interest in a confrontation, the army can continue to prepare itself for any future contingency. Now that the government has approved a controversial budget increment for the IDF, it’s to be hoped that the money will be earmarked for the right purposes and that, when the moment of truth does arrive, the army will not be caught unfit and unprepared, as in 2006.

Hezbollah fighters.Credit: AP
Hezbollah musicians stand before a poster of an Israeli soldier at a rally marking the anniversary of the Second Lebanon War, this past August. The organization's strategy has changed in seven years.Credit: AP

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