Hezbollah’s threats against Israel: From hollow to absurd

Sunday 04/06/2017
Bluster. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses supporters via video screen during a rally in southern Lebanon, last February. (Reuters)

Israel and Hezbollah are no strangers to mutual threats. In February, the latter’s boast that its rockets could reach the Negev Nuclear Research Centre in southern Israel led to the Israeli government’s threat to “hit all of Lebanon.”

The war of words took a turn to the absurd recently when Hezbol­lah Secretary-General Hassan Nas­rallah said a future conflict could take place inside Israel.

Since firing rockets into Israel would not be a new tactic for Hezbollah, the implication was that Nasrallah was threatening a ground assault. This would be preposterous even if Hezbollah was not already mired in the conflict in Syria. It simply does not have the military size or strength to carry out such a threat against the most advanced armed force in the region.

Hezbollah forced an end to Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon in 2000 and arguably fought it to a stalemate in 2006 because the movement was fighting on its own familiar turf and among its support base. Taking the fight into Israel would give the Israelis a huge home advantage, not least because Hezbollah has no air force with which to support ground forces.

Furthermore, there is no appetite in Lebanon for another Israeli onslaught. Memories are fresh of the nationwide devasta­tion Israel inflicted in 2006, not least because Tel Aviv keeps threatening to do the same in any future conflict with Hezbollah.

There is lingering resentment among many Lebanese about the price they collectively paid for Hezbollah’s kidnapping of Israeli soldiers — something Nasrallah admitted he “absolutely” would not have ordered had he known it would lead to war.

Factoring in Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria lessens its ability to fight Israel even on its own turf. As the leading ground force in support of the Assad regime, Hezbollah has seen its financial, military and manpower resources depleted since its entry into the conflict in 2012 and its increasing involvement since. It cannot wage war on two fronts.

Nor can it afford to divert significant resources from Syria to fight Israel because the Assad regime’s position is precarious regardless of its battlefield successes since Russia’s interven­tion in 2015 and despite the allies’ optimistic assessments about the war. The regime controls a minority of the country and has proven itself incapable of taking and holding territory without foreign backing, in which Hezbol­lah plays a key part.

Hezbollah and Iran have shown that their priority is not resisting Israel — not that Iran has ever resisted it — but ensuring the Syrian regime’s survival, so they will not jeopardise their primary goal by picking a fight with Israel.

Nor does Israel need to pick a fight with Hezbollah. Since 2012, it has been able to sit back and watch Hezbollah get bogged down in Syria, a conflict with no end in sight. Meanwhile, Israel has been able to target Hezbollah’s weapons and personnel in Syria from time to time without retaliation. It has done so twice in recent weeks. In effect, it has a free hand against Hezbollah in Syria. So why spoil a good thing?

Nasrallah’s threats against Israel are pure bluster serving two main purposes: To dissuade it from considering military action against Hezbollah at a time when the movement is stretched and to shore up the party’s domestic and regional popularity, which has nosedived due to its involvement in Syria. Israel is happy to oblige in the war of words because it plays well at home.

The problem for Nasrallah is that too much tough talk without follow-through smacks of weak­ness and that has characterised Hezbollah’s posture towards Israel since its involvement in Syria. This is particularly risky for a leader who garnered a reputation for putting his money where his mouth is.

This highlights the strategic blunder of Hezbollah’s interven­tion in Syria by a man who used to be considered a master tactician. The movement is unable to fulfil its raison d’être of resisting Israeli aggression — the source of its past regional popularity — because for the last several years it has been too busy killing Syrians in support of a brutal dictator.