February 2, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Hizballah, Iran, and Israel: Out of the Shadows
• While the threat of an immediate escalation between Israel and Hizballah appears to have subsided after deadly tit-for-tat attacks, the trend lines suggest greater conflict ahead
• In an important and ominous speech on January 30, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah created, in effect, one long front against Israel that now includes Syria and the Golan Heights as well as Lebanon, increasing the potential for conflict with Israel
• Iran is no longer moving in the shadows but rather is openly coordinating strategy with its proxy Hizballah as the two seek to strengthen and expand ‘the resistance’ against Israel
• All parties involved have specific reasons to avoid a near-term conflict—the upcoming Israeli elections, ongoing Iranian nuclear negotiations, Hizballah’s commitments in Syria—but shifting regional power dynamics will only increase the likelihood of serious fighting between them.
With the declaration “We in the Islamic resistance are no longer concerned with anything called the rules of engagement,” Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah clearly stated what many in the region already felt: that the conflict between Israel, Hizballah, and Iran was moving out of the shadows and into the open, with potentially dramatic consequences. In his January 30 speech, Nasrallah stated that his group would respond in kind to every future Israeli attack, with no geographical limitations. The group has, in effect, created one long front with Israel, with the important addition of the Golan Heights as part of Hizballah’s sphere of influence and action.
The threat of an immediate escalation of fighting between Israel and Hizballah appears to have subsided, though for temporary reasons that do nothing to alleviate the pressure building across the region. The January 28 Israeli missile attack in Quneitra (on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights) killed six Hizballah fighters and a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) official, General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, a high-ranking officer whose death will not be forgotten by Iran. Hizballah’s response on January 28, which killed two Israeli soldiers on patrol in the disputed Shebaa Farms area near the Golan Heights, was striking in that it was intended to be a mirror image attack of Israel’s, though using anti-tank missiles instead of a helicopter.
The Israeli government is likely keen to avoid serious fighting before its March elections, as it is impossible to gauge how the public might react to losses and setbacks; the government of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was greatly weakened by the 2006 conflict with Hizballah, which proved far costlier and more difficult than expected. Hizballah is less worried about the political cost of a fight with Israel as it is the price in manpower and equipment. The group has been operating in Syria for several years now, providing the Assad regime with vital armed support. A sustained engagement with Israel would hamper Hizballah’s ability to help Assad stave off collapse—an outcome the group wants to avoid at great cost. While it has far more missiles now than it did in 2006, the group might prefer to wait and solidify the situation in Syria more before it acts against Israel. As the Shebaa Farms attack showed, Hizballah would indeed retaliate, but whether it will escalate is uncertain.
For its part, Iran is nearing some version of an endgame in the long-running negotiations over its nuclear weapons program. Fighting with Israel before the conclusion of the talks would not only derail negotiations but also increase opposition to any negotiated settlement that permits Iranian nuclear capability, even for energy. Iran very much wants to get out from under the crippling sanctions imposed over its nuclear program, and persistently low oil prices are further damaging the country’s economic health. For these reasons, Iran will likely hold off, at least in the immediate term, on direct retaliation for the death of IRGC’s General Allahdadi, and restrain its proxy, Hizballah, from inflaming the situation further in the near term.
Yet the long term bodes poorly as it relates to open fighting between these longtime adversaries as the underlying issues remain and fester. Qasim Sulaymani, the head of the Quds Force wing of the IRGC, is openly meeting with Hizballah’s leadership and talking of a unified resistance against Israel. He spent an hour reading the Qur’an on the tomb of Jihad Mugniyah—the son of Imad Mugniyah, longtime senior Hizballah operative, assassinated in 2008—who was killed in the January 18 attack; such a high-profile gesture sends a strong message about the bond between Iran and Hizballah. In his speech, Nasrallah spoke of a unified front of Lebanon, Syria, and Iran against Israel, which, given the group’s position of influence in Syria, is more than mere rhetoric.
The current and understandable focus on extremist groups such as the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra has obscured what might be a more serious geopolitical battle shaping up between Israel and Iran, Hizballah, and Syria. All sides are on high alert, with massive amounts of weaponry and friction points between them—a recipe for unintended disaster. Serious effort will be required to keep the inevitable friction points from sparking into a regional fire.
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