Hezbollah has been cornered

Israel’s killing of Hezbollah fighters in Syria may be a tactical decision.

The timing of Sunday's strike seemed designed to challenge Israel's opponents, writes Nashashibi [AFP]

Israel’s recent actions against Hezbollah, Damascus and Tehran suggest two possible calculations. Either it feels able to provoke the three allies with little if any consequence, or it is goading them into a confrontation.

Sunday’s Israeli strike in Syria killed several Hezbollah fighters – including a commander and the son of the group’s late military leader Imad Mughniyeh – as well as a general in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.

Days earlier, Hezbollah said it had detained one of its operatives who had confessed to spying for Mossad. A few weeks prior, Damascus said an Israeli drone had been brought down over Syrian territory. That was preceded a week earlier by an Israeli bombardment near Damascus airport and Syria’s border with Lebanon. Add to that several previous Israeli strikes in Syria since the revolution against Bashar al-Assad began four years ago.

Threatening Hezbollah

The timing of Sunday’s strike seemed designed to challenge Israel’s opponents. It took place just days after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said it was their “right to respond” to Israel’s “frequent attacks” in Syria, and that retaliation “could happen any time”. However, Nasrallah, Assad and Iran have little room for manoeuvre in terms of a response.

Hezbollah is militarily bogged down in Syria in support of Assad. Its involvement there has led to a string of jihadist attacks on Hezbollah’s home turf, which looks set to continue, if not intensify.

Last week, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, al-Nusra Front, addressed the following threat to Hezbollah; “We will spare no effort to strike you in your heartlands.” Last month, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) issued a call for “all the jihadis to move to Lebanon to break Hezbollah”.

Hezbollah fighters killed in ‘Israeli attack’

According to opinion polls, Hezbollah’s popularity domestically and regionally has nose-dived due to its intervention in Syria.

This has galvanised its political opponents at home, and led to dissenting voices within its own support base.

Israel’s killing of Hezbollah fighters in Syria rather than Lebanon may be a tactical decision to avoid Lebanese uniting behind the movement against the violation of their country’s sovereignty, as they have done in previous conflicts with Israel. 

This thinking can be seen in an editorial by Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, which wrote that: “It is important to reiterate that the attack happened in Syrian territory, and it is up to the Syrian authorities to decide how and whether to react.”

Nasrallah’s primary regional allies are far weaker than they were during Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon. Assad, whose position is reliant on foreign fighters and weapons, has lost control of large swaths of Syria to various armed groups. Iran’s military is increasingly involved in Syria and Iraq.

This has strained its economy, which is suffering greatly from plummeting oil prices and western sanctions (US sanctions have recently been increased).

Ready for another war

Following Sunday’s strike, Nasrallah said his movement was ready for another war with Israel, but this looks more like posturing than reality. Hezbollah, Assad and Iran are too invested in each others’ conflicts, as well as internal pressures and regional rivalries, to afford an all-out war with Israel.

Full-scale war with Israel would mean the movement having to recall troops from Syria, which would be greatly damaging to Assad as it has been instrumental in a string of battlefield successes.

The situation today is far removed from 2006, when Hezbollah was able to take on its long-time foe with the help of its allies, who were able to focus on providing sufficient weaponry through stable supply routes.

This may explain why threats of retaliation have been somewhat muted.

The strongest words have come from Hezbollah, which is not surprising.

Full-scale war with Israel would mean the movement having to recall troops from Syria, which would be greatly damaging to Assad as it has been instrumental in a string of battlefield successes.

Tehran would potentially have to divert its military resources away from Syria and Iraq, not just to aid Hezbollah, but to secure itself against the risk of Israel carrying out its repeated threats to strike Iran.

As such, Assad and Tehran may be privately advising Nasrallah not to escalate the situation. Behind closed doors, Nasrallah himself might not need convincing. Even small-scale reprisals are a major risk as Israel could use them as a pretext to escalate.

‘Axis of resistance’

However, not responding to repeated Israeli provocations will make Hezbollah and its allies look weak, particularly given their threats of retaliation. Their credibility as the self-proclaimed “axis of resistance” would be undermined.

This would be particularly true of Hezbollah, which was established specifically as a resistance movement against Israel.

Meanwhile, with Israelis going to the polls in March, acting tough prior to elections tends to be a vote-winner, so it serves Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic standing to sabre-rattle, particularly if things are unlikely to get out of hand. 

From Israel’s point of view, there has never been a better time to challenge Hezbollah. This highlights the strategic blunder of the movement’s intervention in Syria, veering from its raison d’etre and leaving itself vulnerable against a sworn enemy that has yet to defeat it.

Hezbollah is in an unenviable position – it cannot afford to retaliate against Israel, but neither can it afford not to.

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.

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