The rules shift in Iran, Hezbollah and Israel’s great game

The events point to the fluidity of the rules of the game and that an adjustment is under way.
February 18, 2018
The remains of a missile that landed in the southern Lebanese village of Kaoukaba near the border with Syria, on February 10. (AFP)
Remnants of war. The remains of a missile that landed in the southern Lebanese village of Kaoukaba near the border with Syria, on February 10. (AFP)

The escalation of tensions in Syria between Iran, Hezbollah and Israel suggests that all sides are manoeuvring to establish new rules of the game that dictates the scale and intensity of their long-simmering conflict.

However, this adjustment period, which has seen the downing of an Iranian drone and an Israeli fighter jet as well as multiple air strikes in Syria, is fraught with potential miscalculations that could trigger a war that neither side seeks nor desires.

In Lebanon, the level of anticipation among Hezbollah’s cadres that another war with Israel is drawing close hasn’t been higher since the latest conflict ended in August 2006. Hezbollah fighters, some of whom have been withdrawn from Syrian battlefields to Lebanon, are preparing for the possibility of a war breaking out, one that the cadres describe apocalyptically as the “last war” with Israel.

The conflict between Hezbollah and Israel has long been conducted by unspoken “rules of the game,” which both sides implicitly understand and usually abide by. In the context of the war in Syria, new rules were established in January 2013 when Israel staged its first air strikes against targets in Syria associated with Hezbollah. They included alleged arms convoys rolling towards the Lebanese border or facilities where armaments destined for Hezbollah were stored.

When the air strikes began, it was unclear whether Hezbollah or the Syrian government would respond. In May 2013, Israel carried out two separate strikes inside Syria. After the second, Syrian President Bashar Assad said: “We will respond to any Israeli aggression next time,” hinting at opening a resistance front against the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights.

However, when Israel made a fourth strike in July 2013, there was no reaction from the Syrian regime. The lack of response confirmed a new set of rules had been drawn — Israel could strike Hezbollah-related targets in Syria with relative impunity.

Israeli jets in February 2014 destroyed a building used for arms transfers in a Hezbollah-controlled zone just inside Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. Hezbollah vowed that the party would retaliate. There followed over the next three weeks a series of unclaimed attacks or attempted attacks against Israeli troops, all but one emanating in the northern Golan Heights. The exception was a roadside bomb ambush in the Shebaa Farms, a mountainside on Lebanon’s south-eastern border that is occupied by Israel but claimed by Beirut as Lebanese territory.

The reprisal operations ended after four Israeli soldiers were wounded when their vehicle was struck by a bomb in the Golan. The episode led to a readjustment of the rules of the game. While air strikes in Syria would be ignored, Hezbollah would retaliate to any attack inside Lebanon. Since then, both Israel and Hezbollah have abided by this unspoken rule.

Most of Israel’s air raids in Syria emanate from Lebanese airspace. The attacking aircraft fire long-range missiles to protect against the possibility of coming under attack by Syrian air defences.

In March 2017, Israeli jets flew deeper into Syria to attack a suspected Hezbollah arms convoy near the T4 air base north of Palmyra. The returning jets came under fire by Syrian air defence units. Two SA-5 anti-aircraft missiles were launched, one of them shot down by Israel’s Arrow anti-missile system. The launching of anti-aircraft missiles represented a new threat to Israeli aircraft and signalled a readjustment of the existing “rules.”

The latest events point to the fluidity of the rules of the game and that another further adjustment is currently under way.

In response to the breaching on February 10 of Israeli airspace by an Iranian drone, which was shot down, Israeli aircraft attacked several targets in Syria, including the command-and-control centre at the T4 airbase where the drone had originated. The Syrians — or possibly the Iranians — responded by launching some 20 anti-aircraft missiles at the Israeli aircraft, hitting an F-16, which crashed in northern Israel after the crew ejected.

This was a significant escalation in terms of the number of missiles fired at the Israeli jets and appeared to be a determined effort to down an aircraft and warn of the consequences of further Israeli air raids into Syria. However, the Israelis swiftly responded with wide-ranging strikes against unspecified Iranian targets and Syrian air defence positions, apparently reducing Syria’s air defence assets by half, the Israelis said.

So, once more, in this lethal game, the ball is back in the Syrian court.

Will Syria and its Iranian partner repeat the heavy barrage of anti-aircraft missiles the next time Israeli jets pound targets in Syria and risk further reprisals against its air defence network? With the first Israeli jet shot down in action since 1982, will Israel adopt a more cautious approach when it feels it must attack targets in Syria?

In such situations, there are many variables that can upset finely laid plans and trigger an unwanted escalation. For example, what if the next time an Israeli jet is shot down, the crew, instead of bailing out and landing safely in Israel, find themselves ejecting over enemy territory in Syria or Lebanon and are captured?

With all sides manoeuvring for advantage and with the latest iteration of the rules of the game still to be settled, it is worryingly apparent that the continuance of the tense calm and a disastrous large-scale war are separated by the most fragile of divides.