The recent spike in tensions between Israel and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah have led some political analysts to notch up their forecasts of a war between the two to “impending”.
They base their predictions on the broader area of friction between the two sides, which has come to include Syria as well as Lebanon, the short intervals between their bouts of military strikes, and their race to bring about a significant shift in military balances.
Hizbullah has been amassing weapons in Syria and Lebanon, gradually expanding its area of deployment and recruiting auxiliaries from the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Palestinian factions were identified as the source of the two missile strikes against Israel on 20 July and of similar strikes against Israel from Lebanon during the Israeli war against Gaza in May 2020.
Israel has been working to curtail Hizbullah’s activities and abilities by expanding the scope of its preemptive strikes on Hizbullah targets in Syria, reinforcing its defence capacities, and staging attacks against the northern front. The tactics are part of the strategy the Israelis call the “campaign between the wars.”
Military analysts, on the other hand, do not see a great likelihood of an impending war, though they do not dismiss the possibility entirely. They believe that both sides are keen to avert war as much as possible for fear of its potential consequences. The premises of the military calculations today are not the same as they were at the time of the last war between Israel and Hizbullah in 2006 as the next war will be an existential one for both sides.
It would compel Israel to fight an open battle on at least two fronts, Syria and Lebanon, and to take on several adversaries, from Iranian forces in Syria to Hizbullah forces in Syria and Lebanon and the Palestinian factions in the camps in Lebanon. Israel would also have to be prepared to sustain major losses in the north of the country in particular.
Israeli intelligence estimates that Hizbullah’s missile arsenal has grown from an estimated 100,000-110,000 missiles last year to 130,000-150,000 today. The missiles are much more accurate, and Hizbullah now has the capacity to fire between 1,000 and 3,000 missiles a day. In addition, it has increased its attempts to smuggle fighters and mid-sized weapons into Israel and expanded its network of border tunnels.
Other factors also need to be borne in mind. First, the results of the last Israeli-Hizbullah war came as a stunning eye-opener to Israelis, and not just because of failings in the country’s Iron Dome defence system. Israel’s forced retreat from Lebanon had a profound impact on the domestic front, which will make Israel think twice before embarking on another war on the northern front.
Second, Hizbullah is clearly testing Israel’s political will under the new Naftali Bennett administration. While this is occurring at a time when another hardliner, Ebrahim Raisi, has been elected president in Iran, Tehran is preoccupied with domestic problems, such as the water protests in Khuzestan, and with delicate and still uncertain nuclear agreement negotiations. As a result, Iran is unlikely to risk supporting a drive to war at this point.
While Hizbullah is better equipped militarily today compared to how it stood in the period before the Syrian Civil War started, it is also keen to avert a slide into an engagement in which its very existence would be on the line or at the very least it would risk losing its gains from more than a decade of fighting in Syria at a time when it believes it will soon reap the fruits of them.
As a result, it appears that Israel and Hizbullah are establishing certain red lines, which, if crossed, would put paid to the rules of engagement they have worked by during the past decade despite the current escalation and the relative changes in Hizbullah’s capacities and patterns of deployment.
For example, after the Israeli strike against Hizbullah targets in Al-Safira and Al-Qusayr in the Syrian Aleppo and Homs provinces, Hizbullah retaliated indirectly from inside Lebanon via the Palestinian factions. According to Israeli accounts, these depend on Grad 122 mm missiles and are based in Qalile in the Beqaa region of Lebanon. The Israelis said they had come across one such missile that had not been fired and believe that the purpose was to leave it as proof that Hizbullah was not behind the attack.
The breakdown of the red lines established by the two sides would mean that their deterrent strategies had collapsed and that things had spiralled out of control. This point has not been reached, despite the current tensions.
Israel is compensating for the increased threats posed by Hizbullah by targeting the movement’s arsenal in Syria more than ever during the Syrian war. The politically wrapped military messages the two sides have been exchanging also reflect their ability to read one another closely.
Israel believes that its border with Lebanon has become precarious because of Hizbullah’s attempts to penetrate the country. However, in addition to countering infiltrations and the border tunnels, it is also working together with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and is stepping up its strategy of building up anti-Hizbullah sentiment in Lebanon, taking advantage of the part Hizbullah has played in worsening the crisis in the country.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz recently said that Israel would not allow the political, social and economic situation in Lebanon to turn into a threat to the security of Israel. He also offered Israeli aid to Lebanon via UNIFIL, but Beirut rejected the offer.
Commander of the Israeli 91st Division Shlomi Bender, responsible for the Israeli northern front, explained that Israel feared that Lebanon’s collapse could bring the collapse of the Lebanese army, which would give Hizbullah access to advanced weaponry, enabling it to control Lebanon and Iran to expand into the country directly.
Recent statements by Lebanese army commanders have expressed concern over the lack of commitment of some military personnel and their failure to return from leave on time. This has been interpreted as a silent protest against the army’s inability to pay salaries due to the economic situation in the country.
According to some US and Israeli assessments, there has been a pickup in arms smuggling in Lebanon, particularly of modern weapons that Hizbullah does not possess, raising concerns that the economic crisis has driven some army personnel to sell arms in order to make money.
If, as military analysts believe, the evolution and repercussions of the Lebanese crisis have become key factors in the calculations of the conflict between Israel and Hizbullah, then the exchange of missile fire and the situation at the Lebanese-Israeli border are merely preliminary symptoms of worse to come if Lebanon slips into a “black hole,” as Israeli assessments put it.
One Israeli viewpoint holds that Hizbullah’s tactical approach is to take advantage of Lebanon’s collapse in order to impose its own de facto control. But Israel’s greater challenge is to prevent the situation from turning into an Iranian encirclement of Israel’s northern borders with Syria and Lebanon.
This explains why Israel is so keen to help Lebanon in its current economic crisis, despite Beirut’s repeated rejection. Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s recent appeal to Iran for oil supplies in order to help Lebanon through the fuel crisis has heightened Israeli concerns in this regard. Earlier reports revealed that Iran had succeeded in delivering oil to Lebanon via Syria, using various forms of camouflage to convey it to the Baniyas Port south of Latakia, from where it was transported down the coast to Lebanon.
For the moment, the Lebanese fuel crisis has abated thanks to an agreement between Lebanon and Iraq that should provide enough oil to last Lebanon for the next four months. However, Iran still retains the ability to resort to its camouflaged shipping strategy in the future.
Changes in the Russian position towards the recent escalation between Hizbullah and Israel should also be taken into account. In the past, Russia tended to turn a blind eye to Israeli strikes in Syria, leaving it to the Syrian army to declare its own stance. However, in the wake of Israel’s strikes against Hizbullah targets in the Homs and Aleppo provinces, Russia issued two successive statements.
These focused on the interception of the Israeli missiles by the Syrian aerial defence forces (which are actually Russian) and illustrated how this took place. Israel staged around 14 missile strikes in Syria in the first half of this year, destroying some 41 targets, such as weapons and ammunitions depots and military equipment and bases.
According to Syrian reports, the Russian statements were misleading, since in fact the recent strikes did hit military installations, one of which was a scientific research centre, in areas under joint Iranian-Hizbullah-Russian influence.
But Russia’s calculations operate on a different set of premises. Russia is determined to sustain its status as a key player in Syria capable of steering developments in the country. On a larger strategic level, Russia is also keen to prevent further Iranian expansion into Lebanon because of how this would impact the balance of power in Syria.
On the other hand, the Israel escalation occurred as the Iranian navy was taking part in a Russian military exercise on the anniversary of the founding of the Russian Navy and at time when the Russians and Iranians need to coordinate more closely against the backdrop of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
At this stage, therefore, Russia is keen to send positive signals to Iran, and one of these took the form of its sharp denunciation of the recent Israeli strikes. Washington’s growing concern over political developments in Lebanon is informed in part by changes in the Russian position, the incremental strengthening of the Russian-Iranian partnership and the decline in Russian-Israeli coordination in Syria.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.