Analysis |

After Attack on Syria: Trying Hezbollah's Patience

After killings on Sunday of members of the organization, Israel's hope is that its leader Nasrallah is too busy with politics to retaliate by launching a war.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A Hezbollah parade in south Lebanon, under a poster of Nasrallah, Nov. 2014.
A Hezbollah parade in south Lebanon, under a poster of Nasrallah, Nov. 2014.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The targeted killing on Sunday of at least six members of Hezbollah operating in Syria, which some media sources have attributed to Israel, was mostly a declarative action. Among the dead in the missile attack, two stand out in particular. One is Jihad Mughniyeh, son of the former Hezbollah “chief of staff” Imad Mughniyeh, whose death in Damascus in 2008 has been attributed to Israel (which will neither confirm or deny that). The second and more important person who was reported by the Lebanese press as being killed was Abu Ali al-Tabtabai. He had replaced the elder Mughniyeh as commander of the special forces he had built up; these forces operate mostly in Syria and have even won a few victories along the Syrian-Lebanese border.

The younger Mughniyeh may have held the title of deputy commander, but his operational responsibility was secondary. Tabtabai acted in conjunction with and subordinate to the commander of the Iranian Al-Quds forces, Qassem Suleimani, who is responsible for coordinating the war against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq, and for overseeing defensive and offensive operations in southern Lebanon in tandem with Hezbollah – among other things.

The killing of Tabtabai will not shake up the command structure of the special forces units or the military array that exists at present in Syria and Lebanon. Just as Tabtabai was appointed to replace the elder Mughniyeh, a new commander will be named to replace him too.

Still, such a declarative move by Israel, whose operational benefits still remain to be seen, may provoke a snowball effect of responses, and counter-responses.

In any case, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the extremist Shi'ite movement who last Thursday told of the organization’s arsenal of new and advanced missiles, is now faced with a severe political dilemma. Hezbollah is now involved in a dialogue with its political rivals from the Al-Mustaqbal movement, headed by Saad Hariri, the son of the former prime minister of Lebanon who was killed in 2005 in an assassination which Hezbollah may have been involved in. The main goal of these talks is to reach agreement on the appointment of a new Lebanese president after the term of Michel Suleiman ended nine months ago.

At the same time, Lebanon has recently experiencd a wave of suicide bombings, mostly in the north of the country. Meanwhile, in the Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp in the south, a battle for control has been raging, with the involvement of forces from the Syrian Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida.

A military response by Hezbollah to Israel's attack on Sunday, which would naturally lead to a broader Israeli counter-response, would most likely not only thwart the domestic Lebanese reconciliation talks, but would also present Hezbollah as the one responsible for opening a whole new front against Israel in response to an incident that actually took place inside Syria.

Moreover, at a time when the broader public in Lebanon opposes Hezbollah's ongoing activities in that neighboring country, and views the militant organization as being responsible for the Syrian war "leaking" onto Lebanese soil – Hezbollah will find it difficult to justify opening Lebanon up to an Israeli attack.

These considerations could very well be much more important than the rationale that Hezbollah will avoid attacking Israel because of its involvement in the war in Syria. Launching missiles against Israel does not require a lot of manpower, and Hezbollah units manning its launching units in southern Lebanon have not suffered a significant thinning of ranks because of the fighting on the Syrian front. If necessary, Hezbollah could move some of its units now operating in the Bekaa Valley quickly.

At the same time, Nasrallah has made it clear a number of times that an Israeli attack on Syria is equivalent to an attack on Lebanon, and it will not go unanswered. If an intention to take action is to be put to the test, however, it will need to be coordinated with Iran, the supreme decision maker vis-a-vis Hezbollah actions inside Lebanon, and outside of it too. But Iran now has two high-priority fronts to deal with – one in Iraq and the other in Syria – so a “private” war between Hezbollah and Israel is not at the top of its list of priorities, certainly not when its dwindling budgets could act as an important brake when it comes to financing another front.

The range of issues Hezbollah is facing could prevent a deterioration of the situation on the northern border, once again. The problem is that no one in Israel knows where the militant organization has drawn the red lines between restraint and response, and what the incident will be that will tip Hezbollah over the edge and provoke it to react.

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