Israel and Hizballah: The Battle before the Battle

Jerusalem Post, 14/7

During the 2006 war beween  Israel and Hizballah, Israeli military actions were limited by the broader diplomatic situation.  The expulsion of Syria from Lebanon had taken place a year earlier.  The government of then prime minister Fuad Siniora in Beirut was considered one of the few successes of the US democracy promotion project in the region.  As a result, pressure was placed on Israel to restrict its operations to targets directly related to Hizballah activity alone.

Ten years is a long time.  Today, the view in Israel is that the distinction between Hizballah and the institutions and authorities of the Lebanese state has disappeared.

But while the government of Lebanon is no longer a particular protégé of the US and the west, the position taken in western capitals  regarding the Lebanese state and, notably, its armed forces remains markedly different to that  taken in Jerusalem.  The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) continues to be a major beneficiary of US aid.  This gap in perceptions reflects different primary security concerns.  For Israel, altering this perception in the west before the next conflict with Hizballah is a primary strategic task.

So what are the facts of the case?

One of the basic expectations of a functioning state is that it exercise a monopoly of the use of violence within its borders.  From this point of view, the Lebanese state ceased to function some time ago.  As the 2006 war and subsequent events graphically demonstrated,  Hizballah and its patrons could operate an independent foreign and military policy without seeking the permission of the official authorities in Beirut.

What has happened in the intervening decade, however, is that Hizballah and its allies, rather than simply ignoring the wishes of the state,  have progressively absorbed its institutions.

The events of May/June 2008 in Beirut finally demonstrated the impotence of ‘official’ Lebanon in opposing the will of Hizballah and its allies.

Then, on the official political level, Hizballah and its allies prevented the appointment of a Lebanese president for two years, before ensuring the ascendance  of their own allied candidate, General Michel Aoun in October, 2016.  For good measure, the March 8 bloc of which Hizballah is a part ensured for itself 8 portfolios in the 17 person Lebanese Cabinet. Of these, two are directly in the hands of Hizballah.

So at the level of political leadership, it is no longer possible to identify where the Lebanese state begins and Hizballah ends.  And the organization has long enjoyed a de facto, physical dominance, both within Lebanon and in terms of its actions across and beyond its borders (against Israel,  in its intervention in the Syrian civil war, and in its involvement with other pro-Iranian militia groups in Iraq and Yemen).

What of the issue  of security cooperation between Hizballah and the Lebanese Armed Forces?

No serious observer of Lebanon disputes that open cooperation between the two forces has increased over the last half decade.  The background to this is the threat of Salafi jihadi terrorism from Syrian Salafi groups engaged in the Syrian civil war.  A series of bombings in Shia south Beirut and in border communities triggered the joint effort by Hizballah and the LAF.

Of course, the bombings were taking place as retaliation by Syrian Salafis for Hizballah’s own involvement in the war in Syria on the regime side.   The LAF and Hizballah cooperated on the level of intelligence cooperation, and scored a number of successes in locating and apprehending Salafi cells on Lebanese soil.

As a result of the increasingly overt cooperation between the LAF and Hizballah, Saudi Arabia ended its military assistance to the LAF, cancelling a $3 billion pledge in February, 2016.  The cancellation was a tacit admission of defeat by the Saudis, an acknowledgement that their project of exerting influence and power in Lebanon through their clients had failed.

The US, however, has continued its relationship with the LAF, which was the recipient of $200 million in assistance from Washington last year.  Last December, the US dismissed Israeli assertions that M113 armored vehicles displayed by Hizballah in a triumphant parade in the town of Qasayr in Syria came from LAF stocks.  The LAF, according to a statement by John Kirby, then State Department Spokesman, has an ‘exemplary record’ in complying with US end-use guidelines and restrictions.

A statement by Lebanese President Michel Aoun in February appeared to confirm the situation of cooperation between the forces.  Aoun told the Egyptian CBC channel that Hizballah’s arms ‘do not contradict the state…and are an essential part of defending Lebanon.  As long as the Lebanese army lacks sufficient power to face Israel, we feel the need for ‘Hizballah’s arsenal, because it complements the army’s role.’

The difference of opinion between the US and Israel in this regard is of growing importance because of the emergent evidence of hitherto unreported Hizballah activities. In particular, there is deep disquiet in Israel regarding revelations of an Iranian-supported, homegrown Hizballah arms industry.  This, combined with what may be the beginnings of a slow winding down of the Syrian war raises the possibility of renewed tensions with Hizballah.

This does not mean that war is imminent. But from an Israeli point of view, the gap in understanding and perception between Washington and Jerusalem on the LAF, and by definition on the current nature of the Lebanese state, is a matter requiring urgent attention.  It is currently one of the missing pieces in the diplomatic structure which alone can make possible the kind of war that Israel will be wanting to fight next time round, should Hizballah attack or provocation come.

This is intended to be a war on a quite different scale and dimension to 2006.

The intention will be to dismiss any distinction between Hizballah and the Lebanese state, and to wage a state to state war against Lebanon, on the basis that the distinction has become a fiction.  This will involve an all out use of military force that will be intended to force a relatively quick decision.

For this to be conceivable,  a diplomatic battle has to first be won.  This is the battle to convince the west, or at least the US, that an Iranian proxy militia has today effectively swallowed the Lebanese state, making war against the former by its very nature involve war against the latter.  This battle before the battle has not yet been won.  It is part of a larger Israeli hope to focus the US and the west on Iran and Shia political Islam, in place of the current western focus on the Sunni variety.  Only thus will Israel be able to establish the strategic depth in the diplomatic arena that will enable, if necessary, its plans in the event of war with Hizballah to be carried out.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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6 Responses to Israel and Hizballah: The Battle before the Battle

  1. Arieh O'Sullivan says:

    You have an implied israeli tactical victory in between the lines of your story. From the behavior and experience shown by the IDF in the past decade, i wouldn’t take this for granted.

    • well I’m not assuming that the IDF necessarily would achieve this victory. I am merely pointing out in very broad strokes how I think they intend to attempt this. I agree one should not take their success for granted.

  2. Jonathan Karmi says:

    Yet another article gently implying that the Americans are naive and clueless about the Middle East and so right you are!

    • Yuval Brandstetter says:

      The Americans are neither Naive nor clueless. The Americans have had a long investment in the Arab world in general and Lebanon in particular, so that the spawn, literally of this investment now runs the State department and the Pentagon. Those Arabists have always considered the Jewish presence a nuisance , and a strong Israel anathema to their affiliations. The only way to change these inbred attitudes is to DrainTheSwamp which seems beyond the capabilities of all administrations. Generally the new administrations succumbs to prevailing attitudes on such unimportant matters as Jewish lives. Proof: The cave-in regarding the US Embassy

  3. Alex says:

    I find your perspective important and intriguing. It suggests strongly that Israels ‘defeat’ in 2006 was anything but. It was a diplomatic withdrawal prompted by Israel fighting with one hand tied behind its back. Hizbollah was not fighting alone: they were providing the frontline troops backed heavily by LAF in support. The suggestion that the IDF had declined in capability to such a point now seems premature. I can only assume that Israel is devoting massive resources to a seemingly inevitable conflict with Hizbollah/Lebanon: military & civilian intelligence efforts, international diplomacy both overt and behind-the-scenes etc.

    Recently it was revealed that Israel was very close to signing a Golan-for-peace deal with Syria when war broke out. Israels retention of the Golan will be crucial in any war on Israels northern border and indicates to me that The Golan should not be returned until Israel has secured peace with both Lebanon (an impossibility for the foreseeable future) and Syria. But coopting Syria to help defeat Hizbollah in Lebanon in return for getting the Golan back is a Pandoras box that no-one wants to open.

    And finally there is the he elephant in the room: the dark hand of Putins Russia in everything that has happened in the ME recently: It would not surprise me at all to learn that Putin was watching the Syrian-Israeli Golan negotiations closely and nervously: A civil war in Syria might have seemed like the only way to prevent such an outcome. A peace deal between Israel and Syria would remove a critical fulcrum for him to leverage his ongoing assault on the west.

  4. Pingback: Israel and Hizballah: The Battle Before the Battle - Israel News

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