Another war between Israel and Hezbollah is almost inevitable. Although neither side wants a conflict now, the shifting balance of power in the Levant and shrinking areas of contestation are indicators of a looming showdown. The real questions are how and where—not if—the impending conflagration will occur.
By Mara Karlin for Foreign Affairs
The events of February 10 underscored the Levant’s instability. Israel shot down an Iranian drone that flew into its airspace and bombed the site in Syria from which the drone had allegedly been launched; during the latter mission, Syrian antiaircraft fire downed an Israeli F-16, the first Israeli fighter to be shot down by enemy fire in decades. Israel responded with massive retaliation against a slew of Iranian and regime-affiliated military targets in Syria.
Tensions in the region are only going to get worse. The Syrian civil war has so far resulted in nearly half a million dead, six million internally displaced, and over five million refugees, an overwhelming percentage of whom have now spent years in neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, which are eager for their swift departure. Yet as the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) winds down militarily, so too will the many marriages of convenience among its enemies. These impending divorces will return a number of issues to the foreground, including governance and reconciliation, the future of outside powers in Syria, and the shifting regional balance of power. The resulting tensions are likely to bring Israel to the brink of a regional war even bigger than the last one in 2006, when it invaded southern Lebanon.
THE NEXT WAR
For Israel and Hezbollah, the defeat of ISIS and the resulting shifts in focus will clarify the increasingly complex and dangerous relations between them. Hezbollah has lost nearly 2,000 fighters in Syria, damaged its reputation through unfettered support for the regimes in Iran and Syria, and is rumored to face financial trouble. Despite all that, it remains popular with its core constituency, Lebanese Shiites. It has brokered political agreements with other confessions in Lebanon, and analysts expect that the Lebanese parliamentary elections this spring—the first under a new electoral law creating a proportional representation system—will result in big wins for Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s military capabilities have almost surely grown during the Syrian war, as evidenced by the 100 or so strikes that Israel has made on Hezbollah personnel or facilities in recent years. Perhaps most meaningful, Hezbollah has gained substantial operational experience in Syria, where it has effectively knit together a number of violent nonstate actors in support of its expeditionary mission to prop up President Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, it is hard to find an actor in the region who hasn’t been impressed by Hezbollah’s performance in the Syrian war. These efforts, coupled with Hezbollah’s ominous threats to attack the alleged Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona and its ammonia storage facilities in Haifa, portend a foul fight.
For Israel, the strategic picture has shifted considerably as well. Its border with Syria, historically its quietest, is now unhinged. The Israeli leadership has made no secret of its concern about Hezbollah’s military maturation in the Syria conflict. And as worries about a nuclear weapons–capable Iran fade, Israel has begun to focus instead on the next war with Hezbollah, as a massive military exercise a few months ago—the largest in Israel since 1998—recently demonstrated. Since 2006, Israeli officials have repeatedly warned that in future conflicts they will follow the Dahiya Doctrine, named for Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern Beirut suburbs near Beirut–Rafic Hariri International Airport, which was devastated by Israeli bombing in the last war. According to Gadi Eizenkot, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, in the next conflict the IDF will follow these same rules of engagement but across a broader landscape.
It is hard to find an actor in the region who hasn’t been impressed by Hezbollah’s performance in the Syrian war.
Hezbollah’s and Israel’s long-term strategic goals are thus entirely at odds. Nevertheless, as of today, neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants to trigger a war. Israel is facing the potential collapse of the Palestinian Authority, a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and profound instability on its northern border, to say nothing of the political crisis surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who may soon be indicted for corruption. Nevertheless, concerns about Hezbollah’s growing capabilities inside Lebanon—namely, its potential construction of weapons factories—may leave the Israeli leadership feeling that it has no choice but to act.
Hezbollah, for its part, would also probably like time to recover from a long and hard conflict in Syria. Yet the group’s regional popularity has plummeted, and its anti-Israel credentials, which have been tarnished by years of killing Syrians, need burnishing. Perhaps some of its newfound partners in Syria would even be willing to assist in the next war with Israel, as at least two Iraqi militia leaders have suggested in recent months. And as the Assad regime consolidates its hold, Hezbollah’s attention will increasingly be drawn away from Syria.
A deliberate escalation by Israel or Hezbollah is unlikely to occur in the near term; an inadvertent one, however, is possible, as is an escalation courtesy of other actors currently tearing up the Levant, such as Iran, the Assad regime, or Russia. All three could benefit in different ways from such a conflict. Iran and the Assad regime could use it to distract from the horrific state of affairs in Syria while rallying regional support against Israel. The Russians could use a conflict to solidify their regional leadership role by brokering a cessation of hostilities and to further demonstrate their entrenchment vis-à-vis the United States. At a very tactical level, the narrowing battlefield in Syria almost surely will facilitate an inadvertent mishap among some combination of these actors. How they choose to respond will be crucial, but it is less predictable as the rules of engagement have become murkier.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
A further question is the location of a future war. Historically, conflicts between Israel and Hezbollah have largely—though not entirely—been confined to Lebanese territory. Since 1978, Israel’s invasions of and sporadic attacks on Lebanon have targeted violent nonstate actors who destabilized its northern border, including the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hezbollah. Hezbollah, however, has occasionally sought to take the conflict to Israel’s citizens overseas (and Jewish communities more broadly). A few notable examples include the 1992 Israeli embassy bombing in Buenos Aires, the 2012 bus attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, and a foiled 2015 attack on Jewish and Israeli sites in Cyprus.
The next conflict will also probably be fought within Lebanon, although it will likely go beyond southern Lebanon into Beirut. It will also, given the Dahiya Doctrine, involve the destruction of much more than just alleged Hezbollah military targets—the IDF could easily destroy Lebanese state infrastructure and military sites as well. And it is difficult to imagine how an Israeli effort to bring ruin to Hezbollah inside Lebanon would not similarly bring it to scores of Lebanese civilians. For its part, Hezbollah is no doubt counting on the international condemnation of Israel that will invariably arise in such a situation.
Unlike past conflicts, however, a new round of Israeli-Hezbollah fighting could involve military operations in Syria, too. Since the beginning of the Syrian war, Israeli air strikes against Hezbollah have been largely confined to Syrian territory, and to date, Hezbollah has mostly refrained from responding. Yet the group’s entrenchment inside Syria has made that territory vulnerable to further attacks by Israel. Israeli planners will be paying careful attention to how the group’s presence in Syria continues to evolve as Assad’s dependence on it decreases; they will also note Hezbollah’s location, its weapons, the number of its personnel, and the extent of its infrastructure in Syria, particularly in southwest Syria near the Israeli border. Netanyahu has warned that Iran cannot “entrench itself militarily in Syria,” but the real debate will be over the extent of this entrenchment—such as how close Iranian and Hezbollah personnel can be to the Israeli border—not whether it exists at all.
A WAITING GAME
Although the next Israeli-Hezbollah war remains on the horizon for now, it is almost certain to occur eventually, given both the risks of accidental escalation and the two sides’ long-term strategic goals. When it does happen, it will be ugly and will almost surely drag in external actors, willingly or not. Levantine security may then reach a new nadir, and the Lebanese and Syrian people will lose even more as their countries are further turned into playgrounds for others’ agendas.