The current situation in the Middle East offers an opportunity to strengthen Israeli defense on its front with Lebanon by weakening Shi'ite militias and reducing Beirut's dependence on Iran, former military chief Gadi Eisenkot has argued.
In an article published on Monday by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, ex-Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Eisenkot writes that the international pressure on Iran over its reported breach of the 2015 nuclear agreement has created an opportunity to push the Iranian regime to withdraw its forces from Syria and its military “advisers” who operate alongside Hezbollah in Lebanon.
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Eisenkot, a fellow at the Washington Institute, adds the status of Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon could weaken if the United States increases its efforts in the region.
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Ahead of the United Nations' periodic discussion on extending the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon in August, Eisenkot recommends that the UN should “reinvigorate the mandate of its peacekeeping forces in Syria and Lebanon by increasing the number of troops, expanding their authority on the ground, and placing stricter enforcement requirements on them.”
He also says Western nations that support the Lebanese armed forces, including the United States and France, should pressure the army to become more involved in preventing arms smuggling from Syria to Hezbollah, and to expand its operations in southern Lebanon, along Hezbollah strongholds between the Israeli border and the Litani River. The international community should “pressure the civilian government to boost its sovereignty in the south and take full responsibility for what happens there,” Eisenkot writes.
The Israeli government also needs to increase its efforts to “promote shared interests with Beirut, such as drilling for gas in Lebanese waters and regulating land and maritime borders (with the exception of the contentious Shebaa Farms),” he adds. Eisenkot is of the opinion that the Shebaa Farms issue is too difficult to solve at moment.
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According to Eisenkot, “the current situation facing Hezbollah, Iran, and the [Iranian Revolutionary Guards] Qods Force may provide a strategic opportunity to further weaken their influence in Lebanon. Whatever the case, Israel must maintain its readiness and military superiority, both as deterrents to delay the next conflict and as instruments for decisive victory should conflict arise.”
Eisenkot also mentions Operation Northern Shield in which the IDF exposed and destroyed six Hezbollah cross-borders tunnels. Uncovering this costly and secretive project shocked Hezbollah and led it to downplay “a program that had been key to their strategy.”
Hezbollah withdrew most of its forces from Syria during 2018, says Eisenkot. About 2,000 of these operatives were killed in the fighting and another 8,000 injured.
The fierce fighting and heavy losses forced Hezbollah to enlist 16-year-olds into battle, and many of these young and inexperienced troops were killed, Eisenkot explains. The war in Syria also caused internal divisions within the organization, created a severe financial crisis and forced the organization to cut salaries for its personnel and social welfare programs for the Shi’ite population in Lebanon.
Eisenkot, who has hinted at it in the past, has now openly accused Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Qods Force commander General Qassem Soleimani, of assassinating the commander of Hezbollah forces in Syria Mustafa Badreddine in 2016 on an Iranian military base near Damascus.
The killing of Badreddine, allegedly due to internal rivalries, signifies the deepening relations between Hezbollah and Qods Force, says Eisenkot. “The decision appeared to reflect the wishes of both Soleimani and Nasrallah; since then, the organization has functioned without an independent military chief of its own.”
Eisenkot wrote the analysis to mark the anniversary of the Second Lebanon War, which started 13 years ago Friday. During the war, Eisenkot served as the head of the IDF’s Operations Directorate, under Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. Eisenkot has since defended the IDF’s achievements in that war – though he was also critical of the military's failures and in a number of cases presented positions contrary to those taken by his commanders during the fighting.
Hezbollah has increased its arsenal of missiles since 2006 but Israel’s defensive and offensive capabilities have also improved a great deal, writes Eisenkot. “The IDF enjoys major intelligence, aerial and ground superiority – enough to ensure victory in a future conflict and make Iran and Hezbollah pay a heavy price.”