Domestic Politics and Deterrence will Shape the Next Israel-Lebanon War

BY RICK LIPMAN 

As governments across the Middle East have toppled or been plunged into bitter wars over the last several years, the few that have escaped such fates have absorbed the political shocks of their neighbors in tumult while attempting to remain comparatively above the fray. Whether or not countries facing tremendous domestic and foreign challenges of their own, having so far ridden the wave of the Arab spring, the Syrian crisis, and the rise of ISIS, can continue to do so is uncertain. Israel, at the heart of a region in turmoil, maintains a neutrality that has paid dividends, and the Palestinian Authority likewise lack either the political will or the capacity to engage in broader regional conflicts. But as Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon has been drawn further into the Syrian crisis next door, the odds of renewed conflict between Israel and the Lebanese paramilitary group rise as time goes by. While each side has shored up defensive and deterrent positions that make renewed conflict in the short term unlikely, another round of hostilities is all but inevitable down the road. Another conflict in the region would bode poorly for all involved, including the swelling number of displaced persons in the region and the world powers struggling to exert influence and expand the reaches of their soft power.

As a staunch ally in the region, Israel’s involvement in another war raises concerns for the US. Lebanon, likewise, is a recipient of large amounts of American military and financial aid,[1] [2] and the US relies on some degree of political stability and cooperation within Lebanon that would all but vanish in Hezbollah’s next war. The regional implications would likely have a ripple effect as well, unsettling the already enormous Syrian refugee population within Lebanon, drawing in other Iranian proxy agents allied with Hezbollah in Syria and elsewhere, and jeopardizing US-Russia cooperation in Syria as both powers find themselves balancing competing interests in the neighborhood.

It has been just over a decade since the last Israel-Hezbollah war, and much has changed in that time. The 2006 conflict, which raged for 33 days, began when three Hezbollah fighters crossed the Israel-Lebanon border and abducted two IDF soldiers, killing three others.[3] The ensuing fight ultimately resulted in a stalemate, which was celebrated as a victory by Hezbollah and widely seen as a defeat within Israel.[4] [5]

Over the next decade, the narrative within Israel shifted. 11 years of relative quiet on the northern border came to be largely credited to the 2006 war, although other regional factors including the Syrian conflict and the results of the so-called Arab spring across the region also played an important role.[6] [7] Within Israel, there was much soul-searching at the cultural and political level, complete with investigations into how prepared the country had been for an unexpectedly well-trained and disciplined Hezbollah. This culminated in the Winograd Commission Report, which harshly criticized Israel’s preparedness for and conduct in the war.[8] Even as Israelis enjoyed their ten years of quiet, military leaders began to look ahead to the next conflict with the armed Shiite group.[9]

The post-war period has seen great shifts in Hezbollah’s makeup and strategy as well. The Syrian war, beginning with the 2011 uprising and persisting to this day, has played an enormous role in forging Hezbollah from a scrappy terrorist group to a well-trained, well-armed paramilitary organization with extensive experience in urban combat. This experience has been a double-edged sword for the group, which is estimated to have suffered over 1,500 fatalities and another 5,000 injuries fighting in support of the Assad regime by mid-2015 alone.[10] [11]

Lebanon, too, is a changed place since the last war with Israel. In addition to the flood of some one and a half million refugees fleeing the Syrian crisis next door,[12] the evergreen mechanical failures of Lebanese politics saw the country without a president for over two years.[13] The recently-elected president, Michel Aoun, rose to power as part of a deal brokered between Shia Hezbollah and the largely-Sunni group Future Movement.[14] Aoun, however, is a strong supporter of Hezbollah, and has embraced the terrorist organization as a critical part of Lebanon’s defense institutions and as a key supplement to Lebanon’s military.[15] While clear delineations between Hezbollah and Lebanon – both its government and civilian populations – existed a decade ago, such lines have been erased by Hezbollah’s growing stranglehold on parliamentary politics, political power, and paramilitary might. Explicit approval from the Lebanese president means the actions – and mission – of the group are likely to be seen as sanctioned by the government, which could change the face of the next war.

While the last 11 years brought relative quiet to the northern front in Israel, it saw too both sides shoring up their strength. In that time, Hezbollah has acquired a reported arsenal of over 100,000 rockets,[16] increased its presence along the 49-mile border with Israel, in flagrant violation of UN resolutions, including those against keeping militias in Lebanon,[17] and gained critical urban combat experience from its ventures in Syria.[18] They are prepared to pack a bigger, deadlier punch in any future conflict than in the last, and their performance in the previous war was already unexpectedly strong.

Israel has sought to adapt to this transformed enemy, but its other security threats as well as diplomatic pressure related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict force Israel to play defense in any other potential conflict. Reacting rather than acting, the IDF has done everything from terraforming the northern border to make it more difficult for Hezbollah to penetrate[19] to staging raids in mock Lebanese villages.[20]

Aoun’s ascent, too, has been watched carefully by Israeli generals and politicians, who have responded to the Lebanese president’s at-time provocative statements – as well as statements made by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah that there will be “no red lines” in the next war[21] [22] by suggesting that Israel will not acknowledge any separation between Hezbollah and Lebanon in the next war.[23] While having avoided targeting civilian Lebanese infrastructure in the last conflict at the urging of the US administration, the public emergence of Hezbollah as governing partner as opposed to an uncontrollable rogue group means Israeli officials have begun to return Nasrallah’s verbal volleys. In one case, “[i]n response to Nasrallah’s warnings, Minister of Intelligence Yisrael Katz threatened in a statement to target ‘all of Lebanon.’”[24] [25] Writing in Al-Monitor earlier this year, analyst Ben Caspit noted that “[t]he IDF’s working assumption is that the Lebanese army will play an active role against Israel in the next war on Lebanon, operating under Hezbollah’s command.”[26]

War in the near term is unlikely, and neither side is anxious for another military engagement right now. Even amid Hezbollah’s own saber-rattling, Nasrallah characterized the organization as “in the defense position” and not advocating for renewed combat.[27] Likewise, a high-ranking Hezbollah commander quoted in The Nation in March of this year boasted about newly-acquired weapons systems that could be used against Israel, but demurred about the possibility of renewed fighting anytime soon.[28] The status quo is not sustainable indefinitely, but as both sides stake their claim to deterrent strategies and military contingencies, it just might hold for another year.[29]

Image source: albawaba.com

About the Author 

Rick Lipman is an intern with the Armed Conflicts Project at the ERA Institute. 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.