China Is Not Ten Feet Tall
How Alarmism Undermines American Strategy
As pro-government forces have retaken control of significant portions of Syria, Israeli planners have begun to focus anew on the prospect of another war with Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group and a major ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The last war between Israel and Hezbollah, in 2006, brought more than a decade of calm along Israel’s northern border. But over the ten years since then, Hezbollah has significantly increased the size and sophistication of its arsenal and has improved its political position within Lebanon. Another war could break out for a number of reasons: if a misperception on the part of Hezbollah or Israel produces an unintended escalation; if one of the two decides to exploit a perceived moment of weakness on the part of the other to attack; or if the behavior of either side crosses the redlines of the other.
Israeli strategists do not question the likelihood of a war with Hezbollah. But they wonder how Russia, which is a comrade-in-arms with Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, would respond to such a conflict. Israel has recently intensified its strikes against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, but it has so far managed to preserve a delicate modus vivendi with the Kremlin, often through personal entreaties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This pattern may not hold in the next war. If aggressive fighting between Israel and Hezbollah runs against Russia’s interests, Moscow will be well positioned to restrict the freedom of action of both sides and to help settle the conflict. The Kremlin would probably exploit such a war to improve its position and influence in the wider Middle East.
As the situation in Syria has stabilized, Russia and Iran’s competition for influence there has deepened. The Kremlin wants to preserve its assets under any future political arrangement, even if Assad is replaced as Syria’s leader or if the country is federalized. Iran similarly seeks to solidify its power in the Levant on its own terms. Both seek a permanent military foothold in Syria and geopolitical influence in the region, but the territories that Assad has reclaimed cannot host two different patrons.
Iran’s ambitions are becoming a problem for Russia. The Kremlin would like to circumscribe Iran’s aspiration for regional hegemony without souring relations with the country, which remains its biggest regional ally. Moscow prefers Iran’s and Hezbollah’s presence in Syria to be neither too strong nor too weak.
Israel’s resolve to use force may serve this goal. If conflict breaks out between Israel and Hezbollah, Moscow would probably let Hezbollah and Iran bleed in order to weaken their regional positions. But it would also seek to prevent a total Israeli victory, since it still needs Hezbollah as a strategic actor in the region, and because doing so could demonstrate to Israel the limits of its power. By settling the conflict and restoring the status quo ante bellum, Russia could validate that it matches or exceeds the United States as a force in the Middle East.
The best result for the Kremlin would thus be a short war confined to Lebanon that fades out and allows both Israel and Hezbollah to claim victory after having turned to Moscow to broker an end to the fighting. The worst outcome would be Lebanon’s disintegration—a development that would turn the country into a jihadist Pandora’s box like post-Saddam Iraq—and the spread of the fighting to the Syrian Golan Heights, which would endanger Moscow’s achievements in pacifying Syria and could destabilize the region.
The more stable Moscow’s position is in Syria, the greater will be Israel’s room for maneuver.
Hezbollah’s full victory or its effective annihilation are equally undesirable for Moscow: the former because it could embolden the group to the point that it disregards Moscow, and the latter because it would make Russia seem like an undependable ally. Under any outcome, Moscow might try to “freeze” the conflict—a measure it has practiced in post-Soviet territories such as Abkhazia, the Donbass, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ossetia, and Transnistria. That would require keeping tensions between the parties high enough to sustain the prospects for Moscow’s mediation and intervention, but not so high that they lead to a protracted war. Maintaining a measure of tenuous stability in Lebanon would increase all sides’ dependence on Russia, preserving Moscow’s indispensability. Conflict between Israel and Hezbollah could thus create an opportunity for Russia, so long as it can prevent counterproductive escalations.
The next war between Israel and Hezbollah will be distinguished by the new theories of victory that the two sides have adopted since their last conflict. Hezbollah is unlikely to limit itself to missile barrages against Israeli civilians, as it did in the past. It will also seek to damage the Israeli war machine. Improvements in the accuracy and range of Hezbollah’s missiles, and their growing numbers, could allow it to strike operationally important targets, such as Israeli air force bases, intelligence-collection installations, or even troop concentrations. Israeli planners also expect a small number of elite Hezbollah units to carry out sophisticated maneuvers into Israeli territory and possibly to capture some border settlements.
Israel, for its part, is unlikely to conduct another so-called deterrence operation—its default option during the conflicts of the last decade, in which it mostly sought to impose limited damage on its enemies in order to forestall future rounds of violence. It could instead seek what Israeli planners call “battlefield decision,” or an undisputable victory on the ground accompanied by an image of triumph. Israel will not seek to annihilate Hezbollah, but it will probably come close.
A conflict shaped by these new doctrines could endanger Russia’s interests. The most daunting situation for Moscow would arise if Israel were to damage Hezbollah more than the Kremlin needs and were then to pursue the group further, with the goal of a decisive victory. Bringing Hezbollah to the brink of destruction would weaken Iran, Hezbollah’s patron and Russia’s main regional ally, and Moscow might press Israel to hold back. But Hezbollah’s potential zeal for escalation could be almost equally intolerable. It might instigate Israeli retaliation in Syria and Iran, further inflaming the Middle East without benefiting Moscow.
The extent to which Russia would seek to constrain Israel and Hezbollah will depend on the state of the Syrian war. The more Moscow needs Hezbollah to fight the remaining anti-Assad forces, the more it will shield the group from Israeli attacks. The more secure the pro-Kremlin regime is in Syria and the more stable Moscow’s position is there, the greater will be Israel’s room for maneuver.
If Moscow cannot broker a political end to the conflict, it could try to coerce both sides to end the fighting on their own. Driven by a desire to generate maximum benefits with minimum friction, Moscow could carry out limited cyber operations against civilian targets in Israel, such as ports or oil refineries. Such assaults would seem less escalatory and would be easier to carry out than attacks against military infrastructure, and Russia could attribute them to Iran or Hezbollah to benefit from plausible deniability and to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel. Moscow could then signal that unless Israel scales back its assault on Hezbollah, it could hit another “red button”—a previously implanted digital vulnerability within Israel’s critical infrastructure that is ready to be exploited in a moment of need. Finally, to undermine the cohesion of the Israeli public, it could spread misinformation or expose real secrets to set off a public scandal.
A conflict shaped by these new doctrines could endanger Russia’s interests.
On the battlefield, meanwhile, Russia could try to make Israeli planners think that Russian personnel are stationed so close to Hezbollah that a strike on one would endanger both. If that fails, Moscow could threaten to deploy anti-access/area-denial bubbles to prevent Israeli forces from striking Hezbollah targets in Syria and Lebanon. At the next level of escalation, it could electronically sabotage Israeli precision strikes or jam or shoot down Israeli drones. If Israel still does not respond, Moscow could carry out cyber-sabotage against its Iron Dome missile-defense battery, interfere with its air-raid sirens or social-media early-warning systems, and accompany those steps with an information campaign about the vulnerability of Israel’s civil defense aimed at causing panic among the public.
But Russia is likely to be pragmatic: it would probably seek to press Hezbollah, too, not only through Iran and Syria but also directly. After two years of fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with the militant group in Syria, Moscow is intimately familiar with its command, control, and communications architecture and the technology that supports it. Russia could seek to undermine those structures electronically if Hezbollah’s missile barrage goes too far. Here, too, it could cover its cyber tracks to obscure its responsibility. At the same time, Russia could seek to persuade Hezbollah directly, assuming that the organization, exhausted by the war in Syria, would be receptive to its demands.
Russia will be more involved in the next Arab-Israeli war than ever before. Israel’s instinct is still to turn to the United States during crises. Yet the dysfunction that characterizes the current U.S. administration and the Kremlin’s regional connections could make Moscow, with which Israel has already established military-to-military and political exchanges, a more relevant party in Israeli eyes.
If Israel were to ask for Russia to help handle the hostilities, it would mark the first turn of its kind since 1967, when Israel turned to the Soviet Union, then a superpower, in an attempt to prevent the Six-Day War. Such an appeal would mean that after a few years of Russia’s intervention in Syria, Putin would have had fully restored Moscow’s status in the Middle East, which it lost five decades ago. If war breaks out between Israel and Hezbollah, Russia could prove a winner.