Confrontation between Israel, Iran and Hezbollah looks inevitable
BEIRUT - The intensifying confrontation between Israel and Iranian forces in Syria is perilously close to slipping into a broader regional conflagration.
The intensification of Israeli air strikes against targets associated with Iran in Syria is pushing Tehran into a corner. If Iran does not fulfil its vow to retaliate against Israel, its deterrence will be critically weakened and will encourage Israel to continue attacking Iranian facilities in Syria. If Iran does retaliate, it risks counter-retaliation from Israel and an escalation that could drag Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah into a destructive and unwanted conflict.
It is evident that Iran is seeking to entrench militarily in Syria, a reward for its efforts in assisting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. It has established military bases and is reportedly moving in weapons, such as surface-to-surface missiles and air defence systems, from Iran.
Israel views Iran’s military consolidation as a “red line” that it cannot accept and has attacked numerous Iranian facilities.
Neither side appears willing to compromise and there is no interlocutor who has the will to chart a path away from a potentially disastrous conflict. Russia, which talks to both Israel and Iran, generally has remained impassive towards the Israeli air strikes.
Following an attack in April on the T-4 airbase in central Syria, which left at least four members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps dead, Tehran vowed to retaliate. Israel took the threat seriously but so far Iran has refrained from acting.
Despite Israeli concerns over a potential Iranian retaliation on April 29 it allegedly staged another, more powerful, series of air attacks against three locations, two in the Hama province and one near Aleppo airport. One of the air strikes detonated some 200 missiles, the New York Times reported, setting off an explosion that registered as a 2.6 magnitude earthquake.
Following the attack, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei signalled that Iran would take a tougher stance towards Israeli strikes.
“The era of hit-and-run attacks has ended and, from now on, any attacks will be answered resolutely,” he said.
Iran’s retaliatory options are limited, however, especially given the timing. Hezbollah has been preoccupied with the May 6 parliamentary elections and has no appetite to become embroiled in a conflict between Iran and Israel.
Furthermore, the fate of the Iran nuclear deal hangs in the balance with a May 12 deadline for US President Donald Trump to decide whether to recertify the accord or abandon it.
A stinging retaliation by Iran at this juncture could spin into a conflict that drags in Lebanon and Hezbollah and could harden Trump’s resolve to walk away from the nuclear deal.
Hezbollah understands very well through decades of experience the importance of maintaining a balance of deterrence with Israel. In the 1990s, during the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah developed a strategy of firing rockets into Israel every time Lebanese civilians were killed by Israeli shelling or air raids.
From 2000-06, Hezbollah used Lebanon’s southern border with Israel as a locus of retaliation for Israeli actions, such as assassinations or air strikes. More recently, Hezbollah used its presence in the northern Golan for the same purpose, staging — sometimes deniable, sometimes declared — retaliatory operations against the Israeli military.
Iran can ill afford to allow Israel to destroy its military assets and kill its personnel at will. A failure to retaliate would make Iran look impotent against its Israeli enemy at a time when the Iranians are exerting influence from Tehran to Beirut.
Until recently, there were well-established “rules of the game” defining the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Since January 2013, Israel has periodically attacked Hezbollah-related facilities in Syria, such as weapons convoys or arms depots. Hezbollah and its Iranian and Syrian allies muttered warnings or ignored the air strikes.
However, the one-time Israel staged an air strike on Lebanese territory, in February 2014, Hezbollah responded with small-scale attacks against Israeli troops in the Golan Heights.
Israel is seeking to redefine the “rules of the game” by expanding and intensifying its air strikes in Syria against Iranian targets.
Tellingly, Israel continues to abide by the rule of refraining to attack targets in Lebanon, even though it has publicly complained about an alleged missile assembly facility in Lebanon operated by Hezbollah and hinted at destroying it. This suggests that Syria and Lebanon have two different dynamics and are not necessarily a single, united, coordinated front.
Hezbollah has a vested political interest in maintaining calm in Lebanon. Iran, too, is unwilling to see its Lebanese asset pummelled by Israel. Israel, by the same token, knows that an open and full-scale conflict with Hezbollah would lead to heavy destruction and loss of life on the Israeli home front.
At some point, Iran will likely retaliate even at the risk of escalating hostilities with Israel. It appears to be in the interests of all parties, for now, to keep the fighting limited geographically to Syria and short of all-out war.
The risk, however, is that an escalation between Iran and Israel in Syria could quickly run out of control and spill into Lebanon, triggering the broader conflict many have feared since the end of the last one in 2006.