25 November 2018

Hezbollah Took a Gamble in Syria, Raising the Stakes for Israel

Hezbollah has taken risks in fighting for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, but those risks are paying off. Israel, however, is on the losing end of this gamble. F 

With the Syrian civil war entering its final phase, the conditions are in place for a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel that neither side wants. As Hezbollah fighters begin making their way home after a costly but apparently successful effort to help save the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, there are growing signs that the status quo is about to change. 

The Israelis, whose attention is sharply focused on Hezbollah and Iranian installations along Israel’s border with Syria, are becoming increasingly concerned with Lebanon. The most recent war between Hezbollah and Israel ended in a stalemate in 2006. Israel officials believe that since then Hezbollah has stockpiled about 150,000 rockets, enough to hit every house in Israel. There is little doubt on either side of the border that another war will erupt.

War between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon may not be imminent, but it is extremely likely sometime down the line. Now that Assad’s survival is essentially assured, with Hezbollah and Iran regrouping, the outlines are emerging for a new conflict between Hezbollah, battle-hardened by its experience in Syria, and Iran, bolstered by the survival of its crucial Syrian ally, against Israel, determined to prevent them from further fortifying their positions along its border. 

Hezbollah Grows Into a Formidable Threat

For Hezbollah, the gamble of becoming involved in the fighting in Syria seems to have paid off, but that was not always so clear. Formerly hailed across the Islamic world as the champion of resistance to Israel, Hezbollah is now vilified by Sunni Muslims for its support of the Assad regime. Once respected for its financial probity, Hezbollah in recent years has seen the cancer of corruption take root within its ranks as the organization has grown in size and power. On the other hand, Hezbollah has swelled enormously in terms of manpower and weaponry. It has the capability in the next war to bring normal life to a halt in Israel. Hezbollah’s cadres have amassed new weapons and war-fighting skills in Syria and, most importantly, have gained critical combat experience in a brutal theater. Israeli military officials acknowledge that Hezbollah constitutes the Jewish state’s most formidable threat, illustrating that the military power of this non-state actor is comparable to that of a state.

Hezbollah Emerges Politically Strengthened in Lebanon

For the first time in almost a decade, Lebanese voters went to the polls in May and delivered a subtle but important message with regional ramifications. The results did nothing to ease tensions, instead sharpening enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran while marginally increasing fears of an impending confrontation between Israel and Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. The biggest winner in the election, the most powerful man in Lebanon, was not on the ballot: Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah was quick to declare the vote “a great political and moral victory.” Following Hezbollah’s controversial intervention in Syria, that outcome was far from assured. But May’s election strengthened the hand of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite organization and political party with deep links to Iran that Israel considers its biggest national security threat. 

Can Israel Prevent a Permanent Hezbollah and Iran Presence in Syria?

Many of Israel’s earlier fears have now been confirmed by the entrenchment of Iran, and especially Hezbollah, in Syria, providing them with the ability to open a second front against Israel. To its north, Israel faces a joint Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis that is growing more powerful and confident. Iran is reported to be building rocket-manufacturing factories for Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, saving the need to transport them from Iran and complicating Israel’s efforts to interrupt that flow of weapons. Iran is also working to restore relations with its erstwhile Palestinian ally, Hamas. Israel must seek to find a cautious balance between the need to prevent a significant Iranian-Hezbollah presence in Syria and maintain its deterrence, and its desire to avoid an escalation. This is a difficult task. 

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