Hizballah’s Complicated Calculus

Jerusalem Post, 31/7

The events at Har Dov earlier this week need in order to be understood to be placed in the broader context of Israel’s ongoing undeclared military campaign against Iran.   They also cannot be separated from Hizballah’s current status as the de facto ruler of Lebanon.

In the Israel-Iran conflict, at the present time, Lebanon is a secondary front.  A state of de facto mutual deterrence has largely held in this area since the 2006 war.  The preference of both Israel and Hizballah – for the moment – is that this situation should hold.

Israel, in addition to the quiet and ongoing campaign against Iran in Syria, and beyond it, is focused at present on the pandemic, and its various economic, social and political costs.

Lebanon and Hizballah’s focus is of necessity the same.  Hizballah is today the dominant force in Lebanese public life. The bloc of which it is a part holds a majority in the 128 member parliament, and a majority in the Cabinet. Prime Minister Hassan Diab is its obedient servant.

This means that the profound economic crisis currently gripping the country falls squarely in Hizballah’s lap.  It is required to operate and to make decisions as a governing force, responsible for the avoidance of  general socio-economic collapse which is now a real possibility in Lebanon.

The aforementioned dynamic ought to support the continuation of uneasy quiet along the border. The problem is that Lebanese Hizballah is not only or primarily a successful local political actor. Rather, it is a franchise of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Indeed, its local political predominance is a direct function of the outsize strength and capacity afforded it in the Lebanese context by Iranian support.

As an IRGC franchise, Lebanese Hizballah forms an integral and important element in Iran’s larger regional strategy.  Israel is currently engaged in an ongoing campaign to degrade and roll back a particular element of that strategy: namely, the effort by Iran to consolidate and extend its presence in Syria.

For Hizballah, the extension of this presence is a cardinal interest.  The Iranian deployment in Syria provides Lebanese Hizballah with a strategic hinterland and a potential extended frontline against Israel in the event of war.  Syria also contains nodes along the land and air bridges by which Iran seeks to supply its Lebanese franchise and improve its capacities and capabilities.

The Iranian presence in Syria is not maintained only or mainly by Iranian personnel.  Tehran maintains a variety of both local Syrian and international (Arab and non-Arab) proxies to advance its interest in this area.  This includes Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani elements.  The Lebanese IRGC franchise is also an integral and prominent element.

For this reason, despite the narrow mutual interest in quiet along the Israel-Lebanon border, Israel and Lebanese Hizballah are engaged in an ongoing, direct conflict on neighboring soil.

Israel has neither the desire nor the ability to avoid harm to the specific Lebanese component of the IRGC’s deployment in Syria.

So the question arises as to how to manage the continued current narrow mutual desire for quiet on the border, even as this conflict continues.

Clearly, Hizballah’s desire is to deter Israel to a point where it ceases to cause harm to its personnel in the Syrian context.  This appears to be unachievable. Failing this, it needs to show (not least to its own public and also to its Iranian masters) that the blood of its fighters cannot be shed without cost.

To do this, the movement needs to extract a serious price from Israel for all such actions in this regard.  But it needs to do this without causing a large scale Israeli retaliation into Lebanon which it can ill afford and does not want.  This is a difficult balancing act to perform.

The process was put to the test again this week.  The death of the Hizballah operative Ali Mohsen in an Israeli bombing in the Damascus area on July 20 made a response along the border inevitable.  Israel’s forces deployed in expectation of enemy action along the border.  An abortive effort, according to the IDF, took place on July 27, in which a section of Hizballah fighters crossed the border. The force was spotted, engaged by the IDF, and then rapidly retreated.

This was the third such occurrence in the last half decade.  There has been a decline in the potency of Hizballah’s responses across this period. But from the beginning, the counter-strikes were not proportionate to the damage the movement was experiencing.

In January, 2015, in retaliation for the killing of a senior Hizballah commander, an Iranian general and five others in the Quneitra area, Hizballah succeeded in launching an anti tank missile at an IDF jeep. Two IDF infantry soldiers were killed.

In September, 2019, the movement responded to an Israeli drone strike in Beirut on August 25 and the killing of two operatives in an airstrike on Damascus on August 24. On that occasion, Hizballah made do with firing anti tank missiles at an IDF outpost and an ambulance along the border. There were no fatalities.

On the present occasion, still less appears to have been achieved.  A group of fighters crossed the border, were engaged, and retreated, apparently without loss of life.

Following the incident, a Hizballah statement in the evening denied that any incursion had been attempted.  Hizballah’s statement in the evening of the 27th included an assertion that ‘our retaliation for martyr Ali Muhsen is surely coming.’  The IDF will no doubt remain in a heightened state of alert in the coming days.

But the declining level of Hizballah response to IDF killing of its members in Syria in recent years is notable.  The rule that Israel appears to be trying to impose is that the killing of Lebanese Hizballah members outside of Lebanon will continue, and that the movement’s situation is such that it will be obliged to make only a token response to this.  In this regard, Israel’s greater conventional military strength and hence capacity for damage is one side of this.

The other side is Hizballah’s domestic situation in Lebanon.  Ibrahim Amin, editor of the pro-Hizballah al-Akhbar newspaper, often reflects the thinking of Hizballah’s leadership in his editorials. In an article this week, Amin wrote that, ‘the resistance did not initiate the declaration of war, but on the contrary, it has always said – and it means what it says – that it does not want war. But not at any cost. In the sense that the resistance, which does not want war, also does not want to surrender in order not to have war.’

The oddly defensive tone of this statement is at odds with the usual timbre of Amin’s editorials. These tend to read like the haughty edicts of a triumphant general.   The article was written in Arabic, and is meant for local consumption.  It is clearly intended to ensure the Lebanese public, at a moment of unprecedented domestic crisis, that Hizballah is not seeking to embroil them in renewed conflict.  The movement’s dominant domestic position matters to it (and its masters in Teheran). It cannot be maintained by coercion alone.

This leaves Hizballah caught between the desire to maintain a general deterrence against Israeli strikes against its members, and the urgent need not to provoke a new war. The consequent possibility is that it may have to settle for rules of engagement in which Israel leaves it alone in Lebanon (unless provoked) while reaping a toll of its fighters in Syria.  The period ahead will show whether or not, given unavoidable realities, this latter arrangement is for now acceptable to the Lebanese IRGC franchise.

Following the 2006 War, Hizballah moved into a more overt and political role in Lebanon.  Since 2018, the coalition of which it is a part has ruled the country.  Some observers in Israel maintained at the time that Hizballah’s ‘hybrid’ status was its main asset, which would begin to evaporate as it became the overt ruler of the country in which it was established by the IRGC in 1982.  This theory is now being put to the test.

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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