Media reports in recent days have painted dire scenarios for what is, supposedly, the inevitable conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Of particular note are persistent indicators that the next round, if or when it comes, will very likely involve Syria as well.
For quite a while now, the official position in Israel has been that the next war in Lebanon would be waged against the Lebanese state, not just against Hezbollah. The Israelis have also been warning Damascus that they would not tolerate Syria’s passing on to Hezbollah weaponry that might alter the military balance of power, namely air defense systems.
On that point, two recent reports are of interest. The first, in the Qatari daily Al-Watan a couple of weeks ago, quoted Syrian sources as saying that “there is a strategic decision taken by Damascus not to allow Israel to defeat the resistance movements.” One might have been tempted to dismiss this as rhetorical bluster, but another news report only a few days later called for a somewhat different assessment.
Speaking to the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai al-Aam, an unnamed American official sent a shot across Syria’s bow, telling the newspaper that should Syria deliver to Hezbollah anti-aircraft missiles, “a war would doubtlessly break out, and this time Israel would strike targets in Damascus.” The official added that the Syrians, according to intelligence reports, had allowed Hezbollah fighters to train on the SA-2 anti-aircraft (AA) system on Syrian soil. Those accusations were repeated last weekend by Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Daniel Ayalon, after his meeting with Michael Williams, the United Nation’s special coordinator for Lebanon.
The SA-2 itself may not be much of a threat to the Israeli Air Force. However, another pair of Russian-made AA systems – the mobile Pantsir and the shoulder-fired Igla-S systems – would cause concern. Both Syria and Iran have been persistently trying to obtain them from Russia, with conflicting reports about whether the systems have been delivered. Nor is it clear if Hezbollah has gotten its hands on the weapons or not. From an Israeli standpoint, however, this would qualify as a casus belli.
The result of a new war would doubtless be devastating for Lebanon – far worse than what happened in 2006 – and would likely spread to Syria. In a throwback to the policy of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, this past weekend Yossi Peled, an Israeli minister without portfolio, pointedly noted that Israel would “hold Syria and Lebanon alike responsible.”
There are other reasons why Syria could find itself engulfed in a future conflict. Although recent incidents, such as the explosion in a weapons depot in Khirbet Silm, indicate that Hezbollah has been reestablishing its positions in southern Lebanon since the 2006 war, the militia is said to have relocated its bunker infrastructure and dispersed its longer-range rockets throughout the Bekaa Valley and, reportedly, northern Lebanon.
Notwithstanding Hezbollah’s intentionally-leaked information about its intention to take the war to Israel by invading Israeli villages near Lebanese territory, this relocation of the bunker complex would mean that, aside from the expanded destruction befalling Lebanon, the war would be fought nearer the border with Syria. This border, along with Lebanon’s various ports, has served as Hezbollah’s weapons supply route.
During the 2006 war, the Assad regime took the bold step of supplying Hezbollah directly from Syrian military stocks – particularly when it came to longer-range 220mm Katyusha rockets, such as the ones that hit a train station in Haifa, and Kornet anti-tank missiles. Such a repetition, not to mention the possible detection of Syrian logistical support during combat, would raise the probability of an escalation involving Damascus. Israel’s armed forces would have to consider that possibility if it were to decide in favor of a ground incursion into the Bekaa Valley.
The security regime established under UN Security Council Resolution 1701 has failed to curb Hezbollah’s rearmament, both by land and by sea (or, for that matter, to prevent Israeli overflights). Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has been quite explicit about his intention to continue supplying Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the sea routes to Lebanon have evidently been used to great effect. The arms-carrying ship intercepted by Israel in November of last year was reportedly bound for the port of Lattakia in Syria. That was surely the tip of the iceberg, and you have to wonder how many such ships have docked in Lebanese ports as well.
There have been a number of reports in recent years indicating deepening military and intelligence coordination between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, and that includes Iranian listening posts and other technical assets present in Syria. Syria’s direct arming of Hezbollah, like the numerous reports on the Russian air defense systems, speaks much to the evolution of Syria’s view of the party. More than ever Hezbollah (not to mention Iran, its patron) is becoming integrated in Syrian military strategy.
This would explain Damascus’ “strategic decision” to extend to Hezbollah all possible support in the event of a new war with Israel. However, it could be a decision Assad, ever the gambler, might live to regret. One thing for sure is that Lebanon – all of Lebanon – will certainly regret it.
Tony Badran is a research fellow with the Center for Terrorism Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.