A host of Middle East nightmare scenarios have unfolded in recent years, from chemical warfare to attempted genocide to state collapse to the takeover of significant territory by an unprecedentedly brutal jihadist group.
One of the region’s most dangerous frontlines has remained quiet through it all.
Even amid a regional meltdown, the number of rockets that the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah has fired on Israel since the conclusion of their summer 2006 war can be counted on one hand.
Few believe that the Israel-Hezbollah front will stay quiet forever. On December 20th, the calm between the two sides faced its most severe test yet, when Hezbollah commander Samir Kuntar was killed in a suspected Israeli airstrike in the outskirts of Damascus, Syria.
The Lebanese-born Kuntar committed one of the most notorious terrorist attacks in Israeli history in 1979, killing a man in front of his 4-year old daughter before smashing her head with a rifle butt. He was freed from Israeli prison in 2008 as part of an exchange with Hezbollah in which Israel released several Hezbollah prisoners in return for the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in the 2006 conflict. Despite this history, Kuntar was reportedly targeted because of his role in organising Hezbollah cells on the Syrian-demarcated side of the Golan Heights for operations against Israel.
Kuntar’s death won’t be enough to spark another Israel-Hezbollah war. As Hanin Ghaddar writes in Now Lebanon, Hezbollah is too tied down in Syria, where the group has reportedly had one-third of its fighters killed or injured, to risk an escalation with Israel, and is also concerned at what the Israeli military’s apparent freedom of operations in Syrian airspace might indicate about Israeli-Russian intelligence sharing.
But few believe the Israel-Hezbollah front will stay this quiet forever, and Kuntar’s death is a reminder that the two are still very much on a war footing. And if war ever does break out, it could be the most destructive and challenging conflict that Israel has faced in decades.
On November 12, Avi Isaacharoff reported for The Times of Israel that Israeli intelligence officials believe Hezbollah now has an arsenal of 150,000 rockets, a 50% increase over an estimate from May 2015 — and that’s before sanctions have even been lifted on Iran, Hezbollah’s state sponsor. Now that the Iran nuclear deal is on track for implementation in early 2016, the group will have access to increased assistance from Tehran as soon as this coming year.
Hezbollah may be deeply entrenched in the Syrian quagmire at the moment, where it’s fighting to preserve the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against various armed groups. But Hezbollah is still stockpiling weapons for use outside of Syria and against a conventional military with sea and air capabilities, “continuing its efforts to acquire SA-17 and SA-22 ground-to-air missiles as well as P-800 Oniks air-to-sea missiles,” Issacharoff reports.
Although Israel has repeatedly attacked Hezbollah targets inside of Syria, the group and Iran, its state sponsor, have actually “upped … efforts to bring in more Iranian weapons,” which include “a number of long range Iranian-made missiles capable of striking Israeli cities from north to south.”
The Russian weapons system off of which the SA-22 surface-to-air missile is modelled can hit targets at up to 60,000 feet from a distance of up to 12 miles. The P-800, meanwhile, can carry an over 400-pound warhead at distances of up to 180 miles.
These weapons are intended to bridge the qualitative gap between an irregular force like Hezbollah and an advanced modern military. They provide Hezbollah with the battlefield capabilities needed to keep the Israeli military occupied as the group wages a full-on rocket attack against targets inside of Israel — the kind of barrage that could undermine Israeli morale and sew panic and confusion on the homefront.
Israel is often on a short clock even in defensive wars, as international opinion usually hardens against the country within days of a major military operation. With its growing stock of advanced weaponry, Hezbollah can fend off an Israeli counterattack long enough for the conflict to be internationalized and for the UN and other actors to call for a halt in hostilities — a development that will penalise Israel far more than Hezbollah, even though the Lebanese group’s entire weapons stock is already proscribed under the 1989 Taif Agreement.
From Israel’s perspective, the problem is only going to get worse.
The nuclear deal signed between Iran and a US-led group of six world powers lifts many of the most stringent sanctions against Iran, including all UN sanctions authorizations. Iran, for whom Hezbollah is a highly effective proxy force, is estimated to receive anywhere between $29 billion and $150 billion in immediate sanctions relief as a result of the deal.
In the long run, the nuclear deal also results in the removal of all ballistic missile and conventional-weapons-trade-related restrictions on the country after eight years. The deal enriches Iran, and eventually gives it access to a wider range of advanced weaponry.
At the same time, the post-nuclear-deal strategic landscape might also make a war likelier. The primary purpose of Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal was to deter against an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The nuclear deal means that an Israeli preventative strike is highly unlikely at the moment, given the likely political fallout.
But this pause in the threat of an Israeli attack also gives Iran and Hezbollah additional time to build up their deterrent capacity. Israel may believe that failing to act against Hezbollah during the front-end of the nuclear deal increases the future blowback of a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Hezbollah might have reasons of its own to launch a war against Israel. Despite the lack of a response to Kuntar’s killing, there have been signs that Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors have been seeking to open a southern front along the Syrian-Israeli disengagement line in the Golan Heights over the past year. In January, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps general was killed in an Israeli airstrike, along with the son of the notorious Hezbollah terrorist Imad Mugniyah. On January 17, Hezbollah launched an attack along the Israeli-Lebanese border fence that killed two Israeli soldiers.
Hezbollah might not want a full-scale war with Israel, but could see some kind of political benefit within Lebanon and the broader Arab world in turning attention away from Syria, and toward Israel. The possibility that Hezbollah seeks a short-term conflict for internal or tactical reasons shouldn’t be much of a source of comfort to Israel: Neither Hezbollah nor Israel intended the 2006 conflict to escalate at quickly or as severely as it did. And the costs of a semi-accidental conflict with Hezbollah are only increasing as the Lebanese group grows its arsenal.
So far the stockpiling of 150,000 rockets, including long-range anti-air and antiship weapons, hasn’t been enough to trigger a major Israeli preemptive strike on Hezbollah’s weapons supplies inside of Lebanon, while Israel’s killing of top Iranian and Hezbollah leaders inside of Syria hasn’t been enough to trigger a notable response. But Hezbollah is still moving closer to an unstated Israeli red line, whatever that may be. And Hezbollah may feel itself pushed to a point where it has to attack Israel in order to retain its deterrence and credibility as a “resistance” group.
Hezbollah is the most capable nonstate armed force in the Middle East, with an advanced arsenal, a powerful state sponsor, and a core of battle-hardened fighters and commanders. The strategic balance may be shifting in ways that Israeli leaders believe they can no longer accept — with worrisome consequences for what’s remained one of the Middle East’s quietest yet most dangerous front lines.
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