The “room for denial” doctrine — under which Syria, Hezbollah and Israel all deny that Israeli attacks have occurred so as to avoid the need to respond — was dealt a blow on Wednesday. Hezbollah’s announcement that one of its bases in Lebanon was hit by Israeli jets and that the organization will respond when and where it sees fit, attests to a tactical shift, and perhaps even a new strategy.
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This doesn’t mean that from now on, either Hezbollah or Syria is going to make a public announcement every time Israel attacks. But the “open account” between Israel and Hezbollah has now become public, and that grants the Lebanese organization double legitimacy.
First, if it decides to attack Israel, it will no longer be accused of starting a war; it can defend the attack as merely “settling accounts.” Second, it can parlay the Israeli strike into official government support for it to retain its arms, which have come under increasing criticism within Lebanon due to the organization’s participation in the Syrian civil war. On Tuesday, for instance, Nabil Kaouk, deputy chairman of Hezbollah’s executive committee, demanded that the newly formed Lebanese government offer support to the “resistance” and declare this a fundamental principle of its policy.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s statement that the attack was not on Hezbollah alone, but on all of Lebanon, poses a dilemma for the new government. The organization is trying to force the government into responding to an attack that at least some ministers see as a punishment aimed solely at Hezbollah, not the country. And for Israel, Hezbollah’s new tactic means the “room for denial” policy no longer provides an umbrella under which it can attack without claiming responsibility, and to a large extent, without fearing a response.
From a military standpoint, Hezbollah has not lost its ability to respond. It can still launch just as many rockets and missiles at Israel as it could before. But domestic political considerations, as well as strategic considerations related to the war in Syria, are dictating its moves these days. Hezbollah’s desire to keep Israel from expanding its military operations in a way that would aid the Syrian rebels — who are now waging fierce battles in Syria’s Qalamoun Hills, near the border with Lebanon — could be outweighing its fear of an Israeli attack on its bases in Lebanon.
In this context, the statement put out by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is interesting. The group, which is considered close to the rebels, said that Israel struck a Hezbollah missile base near Baalbek from which missiles had been fired at the Qalamoun Hills. That statement was denied by Hezbollah, but it portrays Israel as having become an active player in Syria’s civil war, on the rebels’ side.
This isn’t the first time rebel spokesmen have reported on “Israeli military aid” for their cause. A few months ago, for instance, they reported that Israel had helped a rebel force entering Syria from Jordan by disrupting the Syrian army’s communications system, thereby making it impossible for the local field headquarters to communicate with the Syrian high command. On another occasion, rebel representatives voiced hope that Israel would continue to attack Syria, saying its previous attacks had helped the rebel forces.
What does Israel really want?
Publicly, Israel insists it isn’t involved in the rebels’ military operations. The only aid it acknowledges openly is the humanitarian aid it gives the rebels — medical treatment for the wounded and limited amounts of food. But according to Jordanian sources, Israel is briefed on the coordination between the United States and Jordan, where soldiers and officers of the Free Syrian Army are being trained.
At the same time, some Syrian opposition representatives continue to accuse Israel of wanting Syrian President Bashar Assad to remain in power. Assad’s regime, for its part, accuses Israel of aiding the rebels, seeking thereby to undermine the opposition’s legitimacy.
The uncertainty over Israel’s strategy on Syria has so far served to keep the radical Islamist groups, including those affiliated with Al-Qaida, from opening another front against Israel. Their fear is that any attack on Israel, even an unintentional one, could grant Israel license to expand its military operations in Syria beyond attacking missile convoys and Hezbollah bases.
So far, this fragile balance has been strictly maintained, and aside from occasional errant shelling in the Golan Heights, Israel is considered off-limits for attacks. But the key word in that sentence is “fragile.” The balance could be broken at any moment.