Nicholas Saidel

Will Israel escalate its operations against Hezbollah in Qalamoun?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Israeli soldiers at a military outpost in February 2015 at Mount Hermon. (AFP/Bas Ratner)

Last week, ex-Mossad Chief Efraim Halevy basically thanked Hezbollah for improving Israel’s security. Halevy noted that due to Hezbollah’s military entanglements in Syria, the organization (1) is currently unable to focus on its eternal war against the Jewish State; (2) is incurring severe losses in manpower; and (3) is aiding in the effort to defeat ISIS—another potential enemy of Israel.


The three factors that Halevy identified means Hezbollah is probably not interested in a military confrontation with Israel any time soon. To strengthen his argument, Halevy should have also mentioned that Hezbollah is preparing itself for a deeper and more extensive role in the Syrian war as its depleted and demoralized allied forces, e.g. the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the National Defense Units (NDUs), are proving to be ineffective in battles in which Hezbollah is not present.


Moreover, Lebanese public opinion regarding Hezbollah is now reaching a nadir given its costly intervention in Syria, even among its core constituency of Lebanese Shiites. This loss in popularity is hurting the organization as it is increasingly unable to find new recruits at a pace commensurate with its losses in Syria or with the rebels’ seemingly endless supply of new volunteers. There are also signs that Hezbollah is undergoing financial woes.


Though the current chaotic environment in the Syrian Golan Heights could lead to miscalculations and an unforeseen or inadvertent conflagration with Hezbollah, the organization’s entrenchment and overextension in the Syrian conflict renders this outcome unlikely. The present circumstances bode well for Israel’s security – at least in the short term. 


In the long term, though, Israel may take preventive and preemptive measures to boost its security on the northern front. Hezbollah’s Syrian experience could enhance its military capabilities and embolden its posture in any future conflict with Israel, especially if it emerges victorious against the alliance of rebel forces in the Battle of Qalamoun. This battle is now underway and while there have been some initial setbacks for Hezbollah, it is currently winning. Hezbollah’s engagement in Qalamoun is one of vital importance as it is the area through which its supply lines between Syria and Lebanon run.  


If Hezbollah wins in Qalamoun, its power will grow: (1) The land routes Hezbollah uses—with the tacit support of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF)—to arm the Lebanese southern front with an arsenal of approximately 100,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel would be preserved indefinitely; (2) its battle-hardened forces would have gained invaluable familiarity with sophisticated weaponry and large-scale offensive maneuvers; (3) its currently hindered recruiting efforts would be revitalized; (4) the group would try to build on a Qalamoun victory to gain a permanent foothold in the Syrian Golan Heights—a second front in any future war with the Jewish State—and (5) a Hezbollah victory in Qalamoun would help advance Iran’s hegemonic aspirations in the Levant and allow it to continue its support of proxy forces that fight Israel on its behalf. While predictions are that embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad may fall, such an eventuality does not guarantee an end to the Resistance Axis (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah) or to the dangers it presents to Israel. 



Possible scenario


With this looming threat in mind, the question is justly asked: Would Israel conduct an extensive operation in Qalamoun to deliver a devastating blow to Hezbollah? Israel already hit Qalamoun twice in April 2015. This attack demonstrated Israeli resolve in preventing Hezbollah from acquiring “game-changing” weapons—a long-standing policy of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). It also demonstrated distinct erosion in Hezbollah’s deterrence capability. To date, there has been no Hezbollah counter-attack. This is unusual for the party, as its policy of deterrence usually dictates a proportional response such as was the case in the deadly tit-for-tat exchange that took place in January 2015 in Quneitra and Shebaa Farms. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah knows Hezbollah cannot effectively fight two wars simultaneously, especially given how critical victory is for Hezbollah against the rebels of Qalamoun. He also knows he cannot rely on Assad’s air force and air defenses to protect it from the Israeli Air Force (IAF).


Recent history demonstrates Assad has zero interest in protecting Syrian airspace from Israeli incursions. Nasrallah’s recently toned-down rhetoric against Israel also illustrates his fear of provoking the IDF. As the balance of power between the IDF and Hezbollah is now highly tilted in the IDF’s favor, the IDF may exploit this opportune moment when Hezbollah is vulnerable and exposed. Notably, other game-changing weapons are at play. Russia’s advanced S-300 anti-aircraft system, which will soon be sold to Iran, could end up in the hands of Hezbollah, as could chemical agents still possessed by Assad.


IDF intervention in the Battle of Qalamoun is also an option considering its positive relationship with fighters on the ground. While Israel’s Syria strategy is officially one of neutrality, it has clearly sided with the rebels in this war. On several occasions, the IDF has attacked Syrian Arab Army (SAA) positions near the Israel-Syria border, even shooting down a Syrian fighter jet in September 2014. It also continuously provides assistance—mostly medical—to the more moderate rebel factions active in these borderlands. Rumors are circulating about a covert relationship between the IDF and Jabhat al-Nusra also operating, with much success, near the Israeli border and in Qalamoun. Israel’s ultimate goal may be to keep Syria weak and fractured, but for now, it is operating solely in support of the rebels, who, for the most part, either overtly or covertly welcome this assistance.



Hezbollah’s challenge


For Hezbollah to respond to an Israeli assault in Qalamoun, it would have to mobilize its forces in South Lebanon, which would elicit a harsh Israeli response. Such a response would likely result in South Lebanon’s near-complete devastation, both to infrastructure and in terms of civilian casualties. A recent Israeli report concluded that Hezbollah conceals most of its missile and rocket arsenal in civilian areas, a human shield tactic that will not prevent the IAF from operating in these areas. Therefore, if Israel did implement this Qalamoun strategy, Hezbollah would be forced to make many tough decisions.


First, an anticipated consequence of a flare-up along the Lebanese border is the death of many more Hezbollah commanders and fighters, a circumstance that would reduce Hezbollah’s capacity to redeploy elements of its southern force to Qalamoun if and when they are needed. Second, Hezbollah’s image as the ‘resistance’ that fights for Palestinian interests and protects Lebanon from Israeli ‘aggression’ has been severely tarnished among the Lebanese populace due to the organization’s intervention in Syria, which many Lebanese believe has put Lebanon in ISIS’s and other jihadist groups’ crosshairs. Thus, the Party of God would have to calculate whether it is willing to risk losing more popularity in Lebanon by launching attacks from inside Lebanon in response to Hezbollah activity in Syria and by forcing the Lebanese population to absorb relentless Israeli counterattacks. Third, Hezbollah would have to calculate whether and to what extent it should reallocate its forces given the opening of a second front in southern Lebanon, and how the organization will be able to resupply after its initial stock of missiles and rockets are launched at Israel given IAF activity directly over Hezbollah’s supply routes.



Israel’s challenge


A sustained Israeli operation in Qalamoun would be a massive undertaking with enormous drawbacks, political uncertainties and worst case-scenarios that Israel would have to consider. It would exact a heavy price on the IDF and the Israeli populace. Another Israel-Hezbollah war could result in as many as 1,000 Israeli civilian casualties, a major disruption of the Israeli economy and mass evacuations from Israel’s north. Furthermore, there is no indication that the newly-formed government in Israel has the political will or public backing to engage in such a provocative endeavor. The Israeli public is most certainly not begging for a an unprovoked and open-ended war with Hezbollah. Having said that, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was elected because of the Israeli public’s trust in him on security issues. If any world leader could drum up support for this war strategy successfully, it is Netanyahu. 


But this strategy also creates potential complications with respect to the already-frayed bilateral relationship between the US and Israel. Were Israel to support The Army of Conquest of Qalamoun in any meaningful way, it would pose a serious problem for the Obama administration. Jabhat al-Nusra, an instrumental member of this rebel coalition, is considered a terrorist entity according to President Obama, notwithstanding changing opinions about the group elsewhere in the region. Furthermore, the Obama administration is primarily focused on hitting ISIS in Syria—the ostensible enemy of Assad and his associated Hezbollah contingent. However, as reports now suggest Assad is working with ISIS, this could mitigate the harm of any Israeli operation against Assad’s allies, i.e. Hezbollah. Also, Netanyahu’s current policy of bypassing President Obama and courting the Republican-controlled US Congress could pay dividends and provide much-needed leverage in any future confrontation with the Obama administration should Israel attack Hezbollah in Syria. The US House of Representatives showed its own concern about Hezbollah by recently passing the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015, which would “prevent Hezbollah and associated entities from gaining access to international financial and other institutions, and for other purposes.”


Notwithstanding possible blowback from the Obama administration, regional actors are setting a new diplomatic precedent, one that relies less on American support or endorsement for military actions. One need look no further than the Yemen crisis for evidence of this as Saudi Arabia notified the US of its invasion of Yemen mere hours before the operation commenced. As the US recedes from the Middle East and positions Iran as a regional hegemon, American foreign policy will play a decreasing role in the calculus of local powers such as the Arab League, the GCC, and states like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. These state actors—ever since August 2013, when Obama failed to act on his own red line and bomb Damascus after a sarin gas attack was blamed on the Syrian regime—are becoming more aware that they must now act alone at times, create regional security coalitions when possible and defy US policy when necessary. 



The Iran factor


One final potentiality to consider is Iran. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Quds Force are already deployed in Syria and Iraq, with conflicting reports as to whether or not they are directly involved in the fighting. If push came to shove and Iran were to intervene directly on behalf of Hezbollah in Qalamoun, the escalation could lead to mission creep, an eventual war between Iran and Israel, and quite possibly an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. However, outside of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s, Iran’s military strategy has been somewhat risk averse and primarily based on enabling local proxy forces to do its bidding so that the home front is insulated from harm. We are seeing evidence of this not only in Syria but also in Iraq, with the Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) and Kataeb Hezbollah (and many other Shiite militias), in Gaza with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and, more loosely, with the Houthis in Yemen and Al-Wefaq in Bahrain.


Would Iran engage the IDF directly should the Qalamoun assault begin to work? Iran needs a compliant Syrian regime and Hezbollah to achieve its hegemonic aspirations in the Levant and the broader Middle East, but Iran’s survival is not at stake here. Heretofore, Iran has not directly engaged the IDF on behalf of Hezbollah during the latter’s clashes with Israel. Also, Iran did not respond militarily against Israel after one of its own generals was killed by the aforementioned IDF strike in Quneitra. Iran could still function as a highly self-sufficient state without its Resistance Axis ally. And assuming a nuclear deal is achieved, sanctions are lifted, and Iran is welcomed back into the community of nations, it could be a thriving state. However, exporting the revolution, which necessarily entails upsetting the status quo world order through subversion abroad, is still the sine qua non of the regime. Therein lies the rub.


It is thus unclear how Iran would respond to a continuous Israeli campaign in Qalamoun outside of ramping up its support for Hezbollah and mobilizing its other Shiite mercenaries in Syria, e.g. its Pakistani and Afghani militias, to do the same. One factor to consider is the potential domestic fallout the Iranian regime would face should Iranian soldiers be brought home in body bags en masse as a result of a war of adventurism far from the Iranian home front. Having said that, new information suggests Iran may soon sign a mutual defense pact with Syria and may be sending as many as 50,000 troops to shore up Assad’s defenses along Syria’s coast towards Damascus. So Iran may be betting the house on Assad, though a catastrophic and protracted war with Israel in Qalamoun or elsewhere is not a factor in this prospective deployment. Russia’s potential involvement, given its base in Tartus and its geo-political and financial interests in Syria’s offshore energy, is another nebulous part of the equation. Unlike Iran, Russia—the superpower that many believe is the only reason Assad is still in power—seems to be abandoning its support of the Syrian regime, which may in turn affect Iran’s decision-making in the near future. Only time will tell how these very new developments will unfold and what impact they will have on IDF strategy in Syria.   


Nearly all military experts agree that another war between Hezbollah and Israel is inevitable. Just this week, Cypriot police caught a Hezbollah operative with five tons of chemicals that were likely to be used in a terrorist bombing targeting Israeli civilians or Jews abroad. Israel has reason to confront Hezbollah. Whether the recent Israeli strikes on Hezbollah will escalate to a wider operation really depends on the level of risk Israel is willing to take.


Nicholas Saidel is Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania. He tweets @nicksaidel


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Israeli soldiers at a military outpost in February 2015 at Mount Hermon. (AFP/Bas Ratner)

IDF intervention in the Battle of Qalamoun is also an option considering its positive relationship with fighters on the ground. While Israel’s Syria strategy is officially one of neutrality, it has clearly sided with the rebels in this war."