Fighting in Syria Doesn’t Remove the Threat of Hezbollah to Israel

The prolonged quiet on the border poses a problem for Hezbollah, since it questions the main excuse it has for continuing to keep its weapons after other militias in Lebanon were disarmed – protecting Lebanon from Israel.

A Hezbollah flag near the Israel-Lebanon border fence, August 16, 2016.
Gil Eliyahu

On December 12, 2005 the new chief of staff, Dan Halutz, summed up intelligence assessments for 2006. In his first months in office, Halutz had focused on finalizing the plan for disengaging from Gaza and the northern parts of Samaria. This was the task he was assigned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who to this end even shortened the term of the incumbent chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, on the assumption that the latter would not toe the government’s line, which was that exiting Gaza would lead to quiet on the border. Halutz was now free to deal with other fronts.

Military Intelligence assessments about the northern front at that time were quite optimistic. In February 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had been assassinated. The killing led to widespread demonstrations, after which Syrian President Bashar Assad decided, under heavy international pressure, to evacuate his army from Lebanon. Israeli military intelligence experts were deeply impressed. This shake-up, they felt, was strong enough to bring about the division of the northern front into two separate subsidiary fronts, Syrian and Lebanese. This, they figured, would provide a chance for positive changes in the region.

The chief of staff went even one step further than the intelligence experts. In his summary of the annual assessment, Halutz determined that “Israel’s deterrence of Hezbollah is indeed effective,” particularly in light of that organization’s failure to carry out attacks on Israel. These words came only three weeks after Hezbollah failed in its bold attempt to capture Israeli soldiers in the border village of Ghajar. That attempt ended with four Hezbollah fighters being killed by a sniper from the Paratroops Brigade.

Halutz ignored warnings that his optimism exaggerated. The end, of course, is known: Exactly seven months after that summary of intelligence assessments, Hezbollah abducted the bodies of reserve soldiers Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser in an attack near the village of Zar’it; it turned out later that they had been killed. This incident led to the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, followed by the resignation of Halutz and the end of his public career.

Could Israel be repeating this mistaken assessment in its current analysis of the situation on its northern front? Conventional wisdom among intelligence agencies these days sees a high likelihood that the quiet on the Lebanese border will be maintained. Hezbollah is in over its head in the Assad regime’s battle for survival in Syria, and the Shi’ite organization’s Iranian patrons prefer that it focus its efforts there.

There are different opinions regarding Israel’s deterrence capabilities. The prevailing inclination is to believe that Hezbollah is worried about another round of fighting with Israel due to the damage it incurred in 2006, and to Hezbollah’s realization that the IDF’s offensive capabilities have greatly improved since that war.

However, it’s no secret that deterrence is a particularly tricky thing that can only truly be assessed in retrospect. Theoretically, an advantage gained by deterrence can end at any given moment. Thus, it would seem that Israel’s political and defense establishment should constantly re-evaluate its basic assumptions regarding the northern front.

Undoubtedly, the fighting in Syria is foremost on Hezbollah’s agenda, exacting substantial costs. The IDF assesses that over the last four years, at least 1,600 Hezbollah guerrillas were killed in Syria, with more than 500 others wounded. However, the prolonged quiet on the northern border poses a problem for the organization, since it questions the main excuse Hezbollah has for continuing to keep its weapons after other militias in Lebanon were disarmed – protecting Lebanon from Israel.

Therefore, it’s difficult to completely rule out the possibility that Hezbollah will abandon its current policy of restraint, given two possible scenarios: internal distress in Lebanon or, more likely, a series of miscalculations on the part of both Hezbollah and Israel. This almost happened in January 2015 when Israel (according to foreign sources ) assassinated Hezbollah operative Jihad Mughniyeh and an Iranian general on the Golan Heights. Hezbollah responded 10 days later in an ambush with anti-tank missiles, in which an officer and soldier from the Givati Brigade were killed at the foot of Mount Dov. In the same circumstances, that ambush could have led to the death of 10 to 12 soldiers, in which case political pressure on the Netanyahu government would have led to a much more forceful response.

Coordinating expectations

The Vienna accords signed last July gave Israel a break of undetermined duration in its dealings with the Iranian nuclear threat. The threats posed to Israel’s security by Hamas and the Islamic State (ISIS) are quite limited. The most challenging potential military threat is posed by Hezbollah. As long as the northern border remains quiet, this is the perfect time for the government and army to coordinate their expectations regarding a military campaign that may develop there in the future.

What would Israel wish to achieve? Would it make do with aerial strikes? Would it hit strategic Lebanese infrastructure this time? (The Olmert government refrained from doing so in 2006 due to pressure by the Bush administration.) If the army is sent into Lebanon, how far would ground operations extend? At what price? These are questions that need to be addressed now, realizing that a confrontation could erupt there even if the two sides do not intend it to happen.

Last month Nadav Pollak, an Israeli research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, published an extensive study of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. Pollak based his research on a long series of talks with experts and intelligence officials in Israel, the United States and Lebanon. From an Israeli perspective, his conclusions are less optimistic than those of senior Israeli officials, who detail the price Hezbollah has paid in Syria. Along with the costs, Hezbollah has accumulated many gains, according to Pollak.

Hezbollah, he writes, developed over the years from a small cadre of activists into a large guerrilla movement, then into a semi-military organization that is an important regional player and an essential partner in the Iranian-Syrian alliance. He believes Hezbollah is ready and capable of continuing fighting in Syria, and even though it’s been exhausted by the fighting, “It has so far not been brought to its knees.”

Assessments that cast doubt on Hezbollah’s ability to remain standing at this point remind Pollak of similar ones made in Israel before the 2006 war, during which it was proven that the organization has the capacity to survive. “It’s clear that Hezbollah doesn’t desire a war with Israel at this point, but this doesn’t mean it can’t sustain fighting on two fronts at the same time,” Pollak concludes.

The Iranian nucleus in Syria

The Daily Mail published an extensive story this week on the deep involvement of Iran in the war in Syria. Usually, this British newspaper, and especially its website, renowned for tabloid-style inflation of scandals from around the world, is far from being considered a reliable source. However this time someone, presented by the paper as “Syrian activists,” has done a very thorough job.

According to the Daily Mail report, Iran, which usually tries to minimize coverage of its involvement in the fighting in Syria, operates a secret command post from within a large building nicknamed “The Greenhouse,” situated close to Damascus’ international airport. From this location many intelligence operations are carried out, with millions of dollars in cash stowed away there being sent to Damascus on direct flights from Tehran.

The paper contends that Iran has invested billions of dollars in Assad’s survival, and that no fewer than 60,000 Shi’ite fighters are under its command in Syria, including Revolutionary Guards from Iran, Hezbollah fighters and other militia members from the Middle East and other Asian countries.

This is four times as large as previous estimates made by Western observers. These numbers, even if somewhat inflated, can explain some of the Assad regime’s success last year in stabilizing its military situation despite fierce fighting by rebel groups.

The second explanation for Assad’s survival is linked to Russia’s massive support, which intensified last September with the deployment of two squadrons of jets in the Alawite areas of northwestern Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pleased with the improvement of relations with Moscow and with the establishment of coordination mechanisms between the IDF and the Russian army, intended to prevent unwanted confrontations between fighter planes and aerial defense systems on both sides. These mechanisms are working impressively and have on several occasions prevented the eruption of dangerous incidents.

But all Israel did was find a tactical solution geared to preventing further deterioration following a strategic change – Russian intervention – which in any case was beyond its control. The relative warmth shown by Moscow in recent months can in no way compete with the deep relationship between Israel and the United States, or serve as an alternative. Moreover, the reinforcement of Russia’s aid to Assad has tipped the balance in favor of the alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, apparently ensuring the continued presence of the Syrian tyrant in the picture, at least for the short term.

The U.S. itself is also coordinating positions with Russia as part of their joint battle against ISIS, thereby indirectly consenting to Assad’s remaining in power.

After the Vienna accords, it is impossible to argue that Iran’s increased status and influence in the region, illustrated by Washington’s persistent attempts to reach understandings with Tehran, somehow means good news for Israel.