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The Syrian civil war has left virtually no pillar of the Middle East undamaged. The most recent geopolitical victim, it seems, is the post-2006 relationship between Israel and Hezbollah, which was based on de facto mutual deterrence and resulted in an uneasy calm along the Israeli-Lebanese border. The reported January 18 Israeli airstrike against a Hezbollah–Iranian car convoy in southern Syria is the latest and boldest in a series of tit-for-tat operations that, since last February, have gradually eroded the old order and inched Israel and Hezbollah ever closer to a war that neither wants.
In the early days of the bloody internal conflict in Syria, both Israel and Hezbollah took active steps to protect their interests. Hezbollah invested substantial military and political capital to support its strategic ally, the Bashar al-Assad regime, and help preserve the status quo. Israel’s reaction to the war focused on border defense and on ensuring that Hezbollah would not benefit from transfers of advanced weaponry, a strategy that was initially carried out by marking a clear “red line” for limited intervention in the conflict and, reportedly, by occasionally defending that line through unclaimed aerial strikes in Syria. For a couple of years, these strategies coexisted: Israel and Hezbollah treated limited strikes carried out in Syria—which neither ever acknowledged—as being outside of the scope of the post-2006 rules of engagement and, therefore, not an open provocation.
That shaky arrangement was partially challenged after an Israeli attack against Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The February 24, 2014 operation led Hezbollah to openly admit that it had been targeted and to commit to retaliate. To balance its desire to avoid an all-out war and its need to respond to the airstrike carried out on Lebanese soil, Hezbollah reportedly chose to orchestrate low-level attacks, including an attempt to place an explosive device along the Golan demarcation line and—for the first time since 2006—the detonation of a roadside bomb in the Sheeba farms. Israel responded to this operation by firing shots against Hezbollah, and the incident subsided. Yet, by engaging in tit-for-tat operations to reestablish credible deterrence, both sides were chipping away at the post-2006 paradigm of mutual restraint.
A further erosion came last October, when Hezbollah placed another explosive device in the Sheeba farms area, this time in retaliation for the killing of a Hezbollah explosive expert. Unlike the post-February 24 attacks, the group openly claimed this operation. In its announcement, it stressed its right to conduct operations in the Sheeba farms, an area that Hezbollah considers to be still occupied by Israel.
After the this exchange of violence, it became clear that the Syrian civil war had changed the game between Israel and Hezbollah, and that alleged Israeli operations against the Lebanese-Shia organization were gradually becoming bolder and more extensive. For its part, Israel assumed that Hezbollah’s military engagement in Syria would prevent the group from striking back and risking another full-fledged war.
The January 18 attack seems to have taken this trend even further. The aerial strike reportedly targeted a small car convoy in the vicinity of Al-Quneitra, in the south of the Syrian Golan, and killed five Hezbollah mid- and senior-level members—including Imad Moughaniyyeh’s son, Jihad, as well as a number of Iranians who were accompanying them. Among the dead was also General Mohammed Ali Allahdadi, a high-level Iranian member of the Revolutionary Guards, who was, according to Iran, advising Hezbollah fighters on their engagement in Syria. Israeli media claimed that, in reality, the group was instead planning a cross-border attack.
The impact of this strike exceeds by far all the previous post-2011 limited Israeli operations against Hezbollah. Organizationally, the killing of Jihad Moughaniyyeh—reported to be in charge of Hezbollah’s operations in the Golan—and Mohammad Issa, who played a strategic role in leading the Syrian campaign, represents important losses for the Party of God.
Even more important, the death of Jihad Moughaniyye—and the general scope and scale of the attack—are powerful symbolic blows for Hezbollah, which raise questions about its capabilities and openly defy the secretary general’s recent threats against Israel as well as his red line with respect to Israeli attacks taking place in Syria.
Even so, Israel is not deliberately trying to escalate the level of confrontation with Hezbollah, nor does it want to be dragged into the Syrian civil war. Rather, this attack seems to be guided by the notion that, given Hezbollah’s current domestic and external constraints, Israel can get away with it. The assumption may be right, but each time the country acts upon it, the risk of escalation grows.
Hezbollah is already fighting two wars: supporting Assad in Syria and combating the rise and infiltration of Salafi-jihadists groups in Lebanon. Both military campaigns are of crucial importance to the group, require significant military resources, and have resulted in important losses. Under these circumstances, renewed conflict with Israel could stretch the group to its limits. This is a particularly bad time since Hezbollah is also, to some extent, suffering financially, as well dealing with important internal issues ranging from internal discipline, corruption, and boosting its counter-intelligence capabilities.
Yet, despite Hezbollah’s very real predicament, the ongoing slow increase in the number of strikes and counter-strikes is incredibly risky and, if unchecked, may very well lead both Israel and Hezbollah toward another all-out war. Israel may indeed risk underestimating both Hezbollah’s ability to inflict extensive damage as well as its willingness to do so.
On the one hand, despite important losses, Hezbollah does still possess an extensive and sophisticated arsenal and, thanks to its post-2006 upgrading and upsizing, it still has the manpower to engage the Israeli military and inflict substantial damage. In this sense, the Syrian civil war has provided a formidable training ground for the next war.
Further, Hezbollah’s credibility and deterrence would be severely hit by a failure to respond to the January 18 attack, especially in light of the red lines the group had drawn shortly before the operation took place. Paraphrasing an article in the Lebanese newspaper as-Safir, Hezbollah’s preferred option is likely to be more than a gesture, less than a war, referring to the fact that Nasrallah’s organization will try to show strength and project power without restarting the fighting in earnest. For example, it could rely on foreign operations against Israeli assets or personnel, like the group reportedly did in Burgas in July, 2012, or engage in small-scale operations in either the Shebaa farms or the Israeli Golan. Even though such operations would be aimed at avoiding a massive escalation, they would likely be broader than anti-Israeli operations carried in the past three years and, in addition, there would be plenty of room for miscalculations and misunderstandings.
Needless to say, in their approach to project power, establish deterrence, and protect their interests, both Israel and Hezbollah have started down an incredibly unstable and risky path. Hopefully, both parties’ awareness of the situation will allow them to turn back before it is too late.