Middle East war clouds

The next deadly clash between Israel and Hezbollah is brewing

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Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak presented senior Israeli Defence Forces officers with stark options for Israel’s future security at a meeting earlier this year. “In the absence of an arrangement with Syria, we are liable to enter a belligerent clash with it that could reach the point of an all-out, regional war,” he told them.

That such an “arrangement”—or peace deal—might be crafted in the near future was, until recently, a realistic hope. The two sides came close to a settlement in the 1990s and resumed secret negotiations through Turkish mediators in 2007. The framework for any deal is “straightforward,” says Dan Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Syria wants to reclaim the Golan Heights, which it lost during the 1967 war with Israel; Israel wants to isolate Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon from their sponsors in Damascus. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton once said the details could be sorted out in 35 minutes.

But Syria broke off negotiations because of Israel’s 2008-2009 war in Gaza, and since then tensions between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Syria’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, have steadily increased. In February, speaking via video link, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah told thousands of supporters in Beirut that the militia would target all of Israel in any future conflict. “If you bomb Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut, we will bomb Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv,” he said. “If you bomb our docks, we will bomb your docks. If you bomb our oil refineries, we will bomb your oil refineries. If you bomb our factories, we will bomb factories. And if you bomb our power plants, we will bomb your power plants.”

Nasrallah also promised to extract revenge from Israel for the 2008 assassination of senior Hezbollah member Imad Mughniyah, which he blamed on the Jewish state. “Our options are open and we have all the time in the world,” he said.

Nasrallah’s threats mirror increased bellicosity from Hezbollah’s patrons in Syria. Last year in Beirut, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, who had previously taken part in peace negotiations with Israel, pledged his willingness to be “a soldier at the disposal of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.” At an Arab League summit in Libya this March, Syrian President Bashar Assad reportedly urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to take up arms against Israel, saying, “The price of resistance is not higher than the price of peace.”

Syria has backed up its rhetoric with action. Damascus, along with Iran, another Hezbollah sponsor, rearmed the militant Islamic group after its inconclusive 2006 war with Israel. This April, Israel claimed Syria shipped Hezbollah Scud ballistic missiles, which have a range of more than 600 km and could therefore threaten all of Israel. In 2006, by contrast, Hezbollah’s attacks were limited to the north of the country.

The reported shipment, which Syria denies, has fuelled speculation that another war between Israel and the Lebanese militia is brewing. Speaking at a private meeting of the U.S. Congressional Friends of Jordan in Washington this April, King Abdullah of Jordan described fears in his country that such a conflict was “imminent.”

The last time Israel and Hezbollah clashed, more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed, along with between 200 and 600 Hezbollah militants, 121 Israeli soldiers, and more than 40 Israeli civilians. The next conflict will almost certainly be deadlier. One reason is the arms that will be employed. “Syria has really upped the ante by sending Hezbollah an increasingly potent set of weaponry,” says David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Center for Near East Policy.

Scuds, despite the publicity they attract, are not the most effective weapons in Hezbollah’s arsenal. While they carry a large warhead and the psychological effects of a missile landing in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem would be considerable, they are also cumbersome, slow to load, and difficult to hide. “Once they are installed, they are sitting ducks,” says Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Israel. But Hezbollah has reportedly also obtained Syrian versions of the Iranian Fateh-110 missile system, which is much more accurate and easier to deploy. With a range of more than 200 km, these missiles could reach central Israel and fulfill Nasrallah’s pledge to bomb Ben Gurion International Airport.

There may be other weapons Hezbollah has but of which Israel is not yet aware. During the 2006 war, Israeli tank crews suffered numerous casualties from sophisticated shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons, including, unexpectedly, state-of-the-art Kornet missiles, which are made in Russia and reached Hezbollah via Syria.

Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center, predicts that Israel’s next confrontation with Hezbollah will be more extensive than the last. “From all my conversations, and from my knowledge from senior Israeli sources, they are increasingly concerned about Hezbollah’s strength and feel that next time they want to do the job right,” he said, explaining that many Israeli politicians and military commanders believe the country did not achieve its objective of weakening Hezbollah the last time it fought the Islamist militia.

It’s also possible that a war between Israel and Hezbollah will expand to include all of Lebanon. “Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in an interview with Maclean’s. “If Hezbollah is going to attack Israel, that’s an attack from Lebanon, and that has consequences on the type of response that Israel would be considering. In the past, Israel distinguished between Hezbollah as a terrorist military machine and the country of Lebanon. It’s very difficult to make that decision today.”

Such a war might even involve Syria. At least one Israeli politician, minister-without-portfolio Yossi Peled, said that in the event of another conflict on Israel’s northern border, which he described in January as a “matter of time,” Israel would hold “Syria and Lebanon alike responsible.”

Hezbollah’s most powerful sponsor, however, is Iran—whose weapons, money, and training give it significant influence over the Lebanese militia. And despite recent growling by all the potential belligerents, both Israel and Iran have good reasons to avoid triggering a war on Israel’s northern border just now.

Even with long-range missiles, Hezbollah is not an existential threat to Israel. But many Israelis believe a nuclear-armed Iran is such a threat, and that the country’s window to deal with it is closing. A war with Hezbollah would absorb Israel’s military resources and constrict its ability to launch strikes against Iran.

From the Iranian perspective, among its most effective deterrents against an Israeli air attack is an intact and well-armed Hezbollah that is ready and able to retaliate on Iran’s behalf. A war with Israel now would waste that deterrent.

But the fact that there are good reasons why a war shouldn’t take place doesn’t mean it won’t. Ehud Barak’s warning that conflict might flow from the absence of a formal peace was not an empty one. Hezbollah is rearming. Israel will not indefinitely tolerate its growing strength. And Syria—despite U.S. efforts to engage it—shows little sign of turning its back on either Iran or its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza. This could be a violent summer.