The Great Game: Israeli, Hezbollah, and Iranian Edition

It’s tempting to ascribe the latest flare-up between Hezbollah and Israel as part of an ongoing “cycle of violence” that comes part and parcel with a region long on conflict and short on peace. News outlets portray the events like a tit-for-tat trading of fire–cue the typical White House and State Department platitudes and watch the eyes glaze over. Such a reading, however, misses the alarming trend taking place in the Middle East and it isn’t all about the Islamic State or ISIS. It portends what the region will look like in the near future, exposes Iran’s priorities and the constraints that will shape Hezbollah’s response, and reveals, yet again, that oft-quoted line that Las Vegas rules do not apply to Syria’s civil war: What happens in Syria won’t stay in Syria.

The latest dust-up is telling. Earlier in January, Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, claimed to have uncovered and arrested a senior Israeli spy who had penetrated Hezbollah’s network. He followed up with a January 15 television interview where he boasted of his Lebanon-based organization’s newly acquired Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles and threatened to overrun northern Israel. Then, on January 18, Israel struck a convoy in Quneitra that left 12 Iranian and Hezbollah senior officials and bodyguards dead on the Syrian side of the Golan. It appears the militants were dispatched to set up staging areas for launching missiles at Israel from Syria at some future point–an alarming alteration to the shaky status quo that has governed Israeli-Hezbollah actions in recent years.

The various portfolios of those neutralized in the raid underscores Iran and Hezbollah’s deep involvement on Israel’s doorstep. Among those confirmed killed was Abu Ali Tabatabai, the head of Hezbollah operations in Syria; Iranian Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi who was an Iranian ballistic missiles expert; and Jihad Mughniyeh who was recently given the job of overseeing Hezbollah operations in the Golan Heights and whose father was the arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. While these losses constitute a significant setback to Hezbollah’s operations in Syria, they also signify Iran’s growing dominance in the region and their desire to change the rules of the game with Israel vis-à-vis Hezbollah.

The Old and New Middle East
For decades, Syria was a junior partner of Iran yet it was a separate entity with distinct interests. Its foreign policy under the late president, Hafez Assad, was independent enough to engage in a peace process with Israel under American auspices–a process to which Iran was adamantly opposed. Syria would still apply military pressure on Israel through Hezbollah in Lebanon rather than its common frontier with Israel along the Golan Heights, thereby avoiding direct military entanglements that would put his state at risk.

During the 1990s, one could debate whether Iran or Syria had more control over Hezbollah’s actions but one thing was clear: When the fighting needed to stop, Damascus was the destination, not Southern Lebanon or Tehran. U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher negotiated a Hezbollah-Israeli ceasefire with Syria in August 1993 and again in April 1996 after Hezbollah’s barrage of rockets led to Israeli operations Accountability and Grapes of Wrath respectively.

With Syria exercising control over Lebanon, Hafez Assad was always keen to use Hezbollah as leverage in his negotiations with Israel and the U.S.– and it confined military action to Southern Lebanon and Israel, keeping Syria out of the fray. The U.S. calculus only began to shift in 2000 when the less experienced Bashar inherited Syria from his father. While Syria managed to emerge militarily unscathed from the 2006 summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, Bashar’s Syria was thereafter viewed as part of the region’s problems, not a destination to seek a solution.

Today there is a new regional reality where what remains of Assad-controlled Syria is an Alawite rump state or enclave. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Corps (IRGC) and Iran, through Hezbollah, controls both the Lebanese and Syrian borders with Israel. Given Assad’s irrelevance in this equation, Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s leadership are left to ponder the opposite calculation. Iran holds most of the strings, but Syria is no longer an independent actor, and it is now Nasrallah–not Assad–who must consider his domestic restraints in Lebanon rather than Syria.

Curbing Hezbollah’s Enthusiasm
This new reality reflects Hezbollah’s current concern about how its legitimacy is perceived of as the self-described protector of Lebanon. The Shi’a group has had a difficult time justifying its open participation in the Syrian civil war. It will undoubtedly be even harder-pressed to explain domestically why it is active in the Syrian Golan where so few Shi’a are located–especially after Nasrallah denied Hezbollah even had a military presence there in his January 15 interview with the Al-Mayadeen television channel.

This helps explain Hezbollah’s cross-border retaliation on Wednesday in an area adjoining the Golan Heights. The attack that killed two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish UN peacekeeper was carried out from Lebanon against Mount Dov (Har Dov) in Israel, known as Shebaa Farms to the Lebanese and Syrians. Israel captured the eight-square-mile territory from Syria during the 1967 war. After the UN certified Israel’s complete withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000, Syria ceded the territory to Lebanon, granting Hezbollah the claim that Israel was still occupying Lebanese territory. It provided the justification for the terrorist group’s attacks against Israel and legitimized its claim that its weapons were needed to defend Lebanon. The attack on Wednesday is an attempt by Hezbollah to make the recent escalation appear to be about Lebanon and Israel, not Hezbollah and Syria.

The Israel Factor
Israel has watched the growth of Sunni Salafi terrorist groups in Syria such as ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front as they battle Iran’s Shi’a proxy, Hezbollah, in support of Assad. While either axis would undoubtedly rejoice in Israel’s removal from the map, the core existential threat it faces comes from the Iranian axis and its quest for nuclear weapons. The proof lies in how Israel has responded to threats emanating from Syria in recent years. The ebb and flow of the civil war has seen Syria’s boundary with Israel on the Golan Heights change hands several times, including al-Nusra Front’s seizure of the Quneitra border crossing late last summer where it kidnapped scores of UN peacekeepers. While it was a cause for alarm in Israel, it was not a cause for definitive Israeli military action.

Israel’s only involvement in Syria’s civil war has focused on preventing advanced Iranian and Syrian arms shipments from reaching Hezbollah, a red line the Jewish State has enforced with several military strikes since the uprising began in March 2011. Its January 18 attack on the convoy in Quneitra, Syria is consistent with past Israeli actions aimed at lessening the threat posed by terrorist organizations with missiles along its borders.

Contrast Israel’s reading of the Middle East threat matrix with that of the Obama administration. In Washington, ISIS is considered the primary threat facing the West and Iran’s nuclear ambitions represent a bonus since its negotiated resolution will ensure the president’s foreign policy legacy. It is no wonder, then, why Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu are at loggerheads. It’s not just personal animosity; it’s a substantive disagreement on policy where the price for getting it wrong is prohibitive to Israel.

Tony Badran, a Levant expert at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, explains:

To understand Israeli behavior, we must take into account three key factors: Iranian influence in the Levant is expanding rapidly, it is doing so with American consent; and, moreover, no one in the Middle East actually believes that the Obama administration will stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

 It must be understood that Iran has managed to make these dangerous inroads without a nuclear weapon and without being a nuclear threshold state. The White House has yet to articulate how reaching a nuclear accommodation with Iran would reduce its rogue behavior.

Israel has endured under former President Clinton’s strategy of Dual Containment (of Iran and Iraq) and Comprehensive Peace (between Israel and its Arab neighbors); it endured the Bush Doctrine of spreading democracy and pre-emptive, unilateral war if necessary; but it has found the Obama Doctrine (“Don’t do stupid sh**”) to be wanting. This latest foray between Israel and Hezbollah, therefore, carried an important message for both Iran and Mr. Obama, namely, that Israel rejects Iranian hegemony in the region–and America’s acquiescence to it–and will act to turn back that rising tide.

Back to the Future
It is in this context one must view the slow boiling cauldron to Israel’s north and this latest episode between Hezbollah and Israel. Both may be looking to create a new strategic balance of deterrence and alter the rules of the game, but it is unlikely that either will respond with a large-scale military escalation in the immediate future. Israel understands that the threat from Hezbollah is part of the larger issue with Iran–and much depends on Washington in the coming months. In the meantime, Israel will likely continue to enforce its red line vis-à-vis the Iranian axis. Netanyahu’s domestic constraints include the upcoming Israeli elections in March where if he wins, the greatest accomplishment of his long tenure as Israel’s prime minister might be weathering the Obama administration’s foreign policy–at least from an Israeli perspective.

Despite Iran’s reported warning to Israel through the U.S. that “the Zionist regime should await the consequences of their act…” and that it has “crossed our red lines,” the rulers in Tehran would likely see a serious escalation as a waste of weapons and manpower at present. Since 2006, Iran has worked feverishly to restock Hezbollah’s missile arsenal and beef up the organization’s defensive capabilities. With the 2011 outbreak of hostilities in Syria, the IRGC has also been training an ever-expanding class of less disciplined fighters to replace the veterans killed protecting Iran’s interests in Syria. It has done so with its eye on a future response to an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. Tehran likely has no interest in wasting those resources on border skirmishes that have no strategic value to the Iranian regime.

Hezbollah, for its part, signaled Thursday that it would like to avoid a serious escalation, at least for the moment. It will, however, undoubtedly continue to build up its presence with Iranian backing on the Syrian side of the Golan, expanding its threat to Israel. Domestic constraints weigh against such an escalation as the potential folly of a larger-scale military offensive from Syria grows even more acute if Israel directs its response against Hezbollah operational centers in Lebanon. Hezbollah will likely seek to avoid the kind of adventurism that could again result in a costly war with no discernible benefit for the Lebanese.

The most likely response will be a continuation of smaller-scale clashes. Hezbollah will also be keen to step up covert operations against Jews outside of Israel, such as the July 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria. But each response carries its own risk of failure and Murphy’s Law often applies. The 2006 summer war was an unintended consequence of Hezbollah’s cross-border raid and abduction of Israeli soldiers. And recent covert operations abroad have proven to be problematic with public failures exposed in Azerbaijan, India, Thailand, Egypt, and Peru.

Nevertheless, the Middle East remains a powder keg with most regional actors balancing precariously upon a tightrope. The danger of a misstep that could plunge the region into a new war is ever present and unfortunately, nothing suggests that trajectory will change anytime soon.