Tensions remain high between Israel and Iran. Tehran vows to avenge an Israeli strike killing its soldiers in Syria; Jerusalem intends to respond disproportionately to any Iranian retaliation. In the event of a direct clash leading to a larger conflagration, Hezbollah will join in and seize the opportunity to bring foreign Shi’ite fighters into Lebanon.
Yet rather than using these reinforcements to defeat Israel’s army, it may be planning to entrench them in Lebanon, in effect conquering parts of the country, after a quick cease-fire ends its hostilities with Israel.
Hezbollah declared its goal of bringing Shi’ite militants to Lebanon on Quds Day in 2017. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, promised that “thousands, even hundreds of thousands of fighters from ... Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” would battle Israel in Lebanon alongside his foot soldiers. Yemen’s Abdul-Malek al-Houthi was the first Shi’ite militia leader to pledge his fighters (and recently reiterated his promise). Other commanders soon followed, appearing in Lebanon and promising to wage war on Israel –including Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, whose Iraqi Shi’ite al-Nujaba militia formed a “Golan Liberation Brigade” in March 2017.)
Nasrallah’s threat that the Iran-led "Resistance Axis" will fight Israel as a united force in Lebanon is neither a bluff nor far-fetched. On Iranian orders, thousands of foreign Shiite fighters converged upon Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq are now fighting as a unified force, and Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiitefighters have deployed to Yemen to aid the Houthis. Hezbollah and Iran’s proxies could therefore conceivably do the same in Lebanon.
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Hezbollah managed to smuggle IRGC and Iraqi Shiite combatants into south Lebanon during the 2006 war, and has spent the past few years transforming neighboring Syria into a staging ground to bring in more. Hezbollah began uniting the Golan Heights and south Lebanon into a single front in early 2015, and a year later had nearly completed building weapons-transfer tunnels linking Syria’s Zabadani to its Bekaa Valley stronghold.
But Israel may not be the ultimate target.
If Hezbollah’s goal remains merely surviving the next war to claim victory, these reinforcements are unnecessary. Nor could Hezbollah be planning to defeat Israel in the classic sense with these fighters. Mere numbers — even the combined forces of the Iran-led “Resistance Axis” — cannot balance the group’s military odds against Israel. Instead, Hezbollah may have a more vulnerable target in mind: war-battered Lebanon.
Israel has been promising its future conflict with Hezbollah will be a “war to end all wars,” and has made clear that it won’t spare Lebanon– neither its army, nor its infrastructure. Hezbollah will likely concentrate on surviving, and leave Lebanon and its civilians to bear the brunt of the IDF’s furious onslaught.
As the Lebanese death toll and destruction mount with no commensurate impact on the terror group, international support for Israel will quickly erode, and the international community – particularly Saudi Arabiaand France, which recently invested billionsof dollars in Lebanon’s army and infrastructure – will move to bring the war to a hasty end with a UN Security Council ceasefire.
But once the dust settles, Lebanon won’t revert to the status quo ante bellum. Iran’s proxy militias won’t willingly leave, and judging by past performance the Lebanese army and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon will be unwilling, or unable, to eject them. Dislodging thousands of Shi’ite fighters from various parts of Lebanon may even prove too daunting a task for the Israelis, even if they think it worth violating the cease-fire to do so.
Instead, these foreign fighters will entrench in Lebanon, as they have in Iraq and Syria, effectively multiplying Hezbollah’s numerical strength and allowing it to solidify its control over whole parts of the country. This will make Israel’s northern border exponentially more dangerous after the war than it was at its outset.
Israel needs time to defeat Hezbollah, and to buy time, it must fight a smart and surgical war that spares Lebanon’s institutions and civilians. Simultaneously, the IDF must demonstrably damage Hezbollah, and immediately cut the infiltration routes of its Shiite militia allies.
If Israel delivers, the international community will delay a ceasefire, allowing its campaign to continue until it achieves decisive victory. Failure, however, will not only allow Hezbollah to live to fight again, but also to lay the groundwork for one of Israel’s greatest fears: an Iranian base on its northern border, setting the stage for an even more costly "Fourth Lebanon War."
David Daoud is a research analyst on Hezbollah and Lebanon at United Against Nuclear Iran.