The assassination of Samir Kuntar, the leader of the Druze terrorist network that has carried out operations against Israel at Iran’s behest from the Syrian border, heralds a new period of heightened tension in the area where the Syrian, Lebanese and Israeli borders meet.
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While Israel isn't responding to allegations by Hezbollah regarding responsibility for the killing, the point of departure for the discussion in the international media is that Israel is indeed behind the assassination.
From this point onwards, the developments appear to primarily dependent on Iran.
Kuntar’s assassination will not be a cause of regret for anyone in Israel. He was a terrorist long in the making. At the age of 16, as a Druze citizen of Lebanon, he took part in a terrorist attack carried out by a Palestinian organization in the northern Israeli coastal town of Nahariya in which four members of the Haran family were murdered, including a four-year-old girl whom Kuntar killed himself, hitting her in the head with his rifle butt.
Israel refused to release Kuntar to Hezbollah in exchange for the return of Israeli Elhanan Tannenbaum in 2004. Kuntar’s continued detention by Israel served as an excuse for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to order the kidnapping of Israeli reservists on Israel’s northern border in 2006, which in turn led to the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War. Kuntar returned to Lebanon two years later, in an exchange worked out with Hezbollah for the bodies of two of the reservists, Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser. Since then, Kuntar hadn’t made do with serving as a Hezbollah propagandist, but instead took on an operational role.
Despite his relatively advanced age, Kuntar led a network that acted in the Syrian Golan Heights on behalf of Hezbollah and initiated attacks against Israeli citizens and soldiers on the Israeli side of the border. In the last year, the operations of the network, which officially calls itself the Syrian National Resistance in the Golan, have changed.
Hezbollah has gradually withdrawn from the picture and Iran and has taken over the reins. Defense sources in Israel have contended for the past several months that Kuntar, along with Farhan Shaalan, who was also killed on Saturday, were preparing additional attacks in the Golan. If the international media are correct, and Israel was in fact behind the assassination attack, it is reasonable to assume that the reason for carrying it out was to address future threats rather than settling the score for past attacks.
What happens next in large measure depends upon Iran. Israel and Hezbollah have had several rounds of tension over the past several years, mostly as a byproduct of the Syrian civil war. The international media have attributed a long series of operations on Syrian territory to Israel, mostly involving aerial bombardment of convoys with weapons due to be smuggled to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In only a few of the cases (including some in involving operatives from Kuntar’s organization) terrorist cells acting under the direction of Iran and Hezbollah in the Syrian Golan Heights were targeted.
Other incidents occurred in Lebanon: the attack on a weapons convoy right after it crossed the border from Syria; the assassination of senior Hezbollah official in the Beirut suburb of Dahiya; and explosive charges that blew up when sappers from the organization attempted to dismantle listening devices that were said to be planted by Israel.
Israel has not publicly commented on these incidents, but in recent months Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has more openly spoken about events in the north and has acknowledged that the Israel Defense Forces are working to foil weapons smuggling and hit terrorists there.
Hezbollah has chosen restraint when it comes to most of these attacks. When the attacks have shifted over the border from Syria into Lebanese territory, the group has responded, but mostly from the Syrian border and via proxies, including Kuntar’s men.
The largest test to the relative stability, preventing Israel from becoming totally involved on the northern front and in the Syrian civil war, came last January. In an aerial bombardment in the Syrian Golan that was also attributed to Israel, a senior operational figure, Jihad Mughniyeh (the son of former Hezbollah “chief of staff” Imad Mughniyeh) was killed along with an Iranian general and five other military operatives. Hezbollah responded 10 days later with a pinpoint attack, an ambush using anti-tank missiles on the approaches to Mount Dov that killed a company commander and another soldier from the Givati Brigade. Israel refrained from responding to that and as a result the situation settled down.
Currently, we may be facing a kind of rerun of the prior round of blows and counterblows, but this time, the address on the other side is Iran rather than Hezbollah. Tehran has other, broader considerations. Some relate to the continued implementation of the Vienna agreement signed on its nuclear program with the world powers in July. The Tehran regime is expecting a lifting in the short run of some of the sanctions that were imposed on it over its nuclear program.
Other important considerations relate to the continued civil war in Syria. In recent weeks, the Iranians have deployed about two-thirds of the military force stationed in the north of the country to assist the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and to complement the aerial attacks that have been undertaken by Russia against rebel groups in Syria. Any approval for a response on the part of remnants of Kuntar’s organization or a directive to Hezbollah to carry out a revenge attack will also require that these aspects of the situation to be taken into account.
Whoever was able to find Kuntar and his men on Saturday in a Damascus suburb certainly relied on precise, quality intelligence information. It’s reasonable to assume that in the general chaos prevailing in Syria, with so many countries and terrorist organizations acting there at the same time, such an operation will not bring about a fundamental change in the situation. Nevertheless, this has involved a substantial raising of the stakes. Its implications will become clear down the road.