Israel, Hizballah, and Iran: Rumors of Another Regional War

August 4, 2010

Yesterday’s fighting on the Israeli-Lebanese border has intensified commentators’ already quite heightened rhetoric about the risk of another armed conflict between Israel, on one side, and some combination of Hizballah, Syria, HAMAS, and Iran, on the other side.  The risk of another regional war needs to be evaluated, at least in part, through the prism of Israel’s established national security strategy.

We have written previously, on and elsewhere, about what we see as deeply problematic aspects of Israel’s national security strategy.  Our analysis focuses not simply on the determination of Israeli political and policy elites to preserve a regional balance of power that is strongly tilted in Israel’s favor.  More specifically, we focus on an entrenched strategic posture built on the proposition that Israel’s very survival depends on its ability to use force unilaterally, whenever and wherever it wants, for whatever purpose it favors.

In the context of the Israeli-Lebanese border, this strategic posture inevitably exacerbates the risks of conflict in an already volatile environment.  Two recent pieces of analysis consider the risks of another regional war arising from tensions and perceived threats in the Israeli-Lebanese theatre.  These reports also make recommendations on how to prevent war’s outbreak and minimize the damage should a conflict occur.

One of these pieces is A Third Lebanon War, a so-called Contingency Planning Memorandum, written by our former colleague in the U.S. Government, Daniel Kurtzer.  The other is Drums of War: Israel and the “Axis of Resistance,” a report by the International Crisis Group.

The ICG report lays out the course of Israel’s “after action” assessment and strategic planning since the 2006 Lebanon war:

For Israeli political and military planners, the outcome of the Lebanese and Gaza wars produced mixed messages.  Israel displayed overpowering military might and inflicted enormous damage and destruction.  In neither conflict, however, could it be said to have produced a clear-cut victory and, in both, the duration and intensity and the substantial harm suffered by civilians produced strong international pressure and condemnation that risked limiting the future margin of maneuver of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).  In part, this reflected difficulties in adjusting Israel’s traditional military doctrine — based inter alia on the use of force in enemy territory, preventive and preemptive action and quick achievement of specific, limited aims — to asymmetric forms of warfare against non-state actors operating from urban areas.

The conclusion many strategists appear to have reached — and publicized — is that another confrontation would likely be much the same, only with greater intensity in order to “reduce the period of fighting to a minimum and to create and effective balance of deterrence”.  In the words of a former defense official, “our hope is that Hizbollah will not attempt anything, for fear that Israel will inflict an even more powerful retaliatory strike in response to even a small move.  Israel’s interest is to maintain maximum ambiguity in terms of how far it might be willing to go”. . . .  The new proposed strategy is known as the “Dahiya doctrine”, named after a southern Beirut neighborhood harboring key Hizbollah assets and officials that was thoroughly devastated in 2006.

So, in other words, the Israelis have “doubled down” on their established strategy.  And, while this strategy is couched in terms of “deterrence” (a frequently used word in Israeli military vocabulary), the Israeli concept of deterrence is taken to include, as the ICG describes, “preventive and preemptive action” — which means initiating the use of force in the absence of any specific provocation by the adversary.

The ICG report then explains how Hizballah has responded to these developments:

Since [the 2006 war], Hassan Nasrallah, the movement’s secretary general, has pledged to respond in kind to any Israeli action.  In mid-2009, he warned that, unlike in the past, Hizbollah would respond to any Israeli strike against Beirut — including against its own southern suburb stronghold — with equivalent targeting of Tel Aviv.  In February 2010, he made the broader claim that any damage inflicted upon Lebanon would be matched with equal damage in Israel — an airport for an airport; a factory for a factory.  In May, in the aftermath of large-scale Iranian naval maneuvers in the Gulf, he vowed to attack all Israel-bound ships were Israel to subject Lebanon to a naval blockade, as it did in 2006. . . .  Much of this could be dismissed as bravado, threats intended both to boost militants’ moral and deter any Israeli operation.  Still, Nasrallah typically has sought to maintain his credibility by delivering on his promises, and Israeli officials take the threats seriously, based on their belief that Hizbollah now possesses as system of long-range missiles that can reach far south.

We were in Lebanon in February 2010, just days after the Nasrallah speech referenced by the ICG.  As we wrote at the time on, the prevalent reading of Nasrallah’s speech in Western and pro-Saudi media outlets as “throwing down the gauntlet” to Israel and inviting war

is diametrically opposed to the prevailing local interpretation of the Hizballah leader’s rhetoric.   In his address, Nasrallah stressed that, while Hizballah would respond to any Israeli aggression, it does not seek war.  Nasrallah noted that, “since July 2006, nothing has happened on the South Lebanon front”.  A prominent Hizballah parliamentarian described Nasrallah’s speech as “historic and crucial”, underscoring that, while Hizballah was not fearful of another war, it was not seeking one.  Another Lebanese politician with close ties to Nasrallah told us that, the day after the speech, people throughout south Lebanon “breathed a sigh of relief” because, in their perception, the Hizballah leader’s speech had substantially reduced the risk of conflict with Israel over the next several months.

Just last month, we came back from another visit to Lebanon still persuaded that Hizballah’s current posture toward Israel is focused on deterrence of a classical sort — that is, on deterring the first use of military force by Israel, through the credible threat of a “second strike” that Israeli political leaders would consider unacceptable, so that they would therefore refrain from initiating military conflict.  Yesterday’s events on the Israeli-Lebanese border do not in any way contradict that assessment.

It is highly unlikely that those who fired from the Lebanese side were Hizballah fighters.  Rather, they were almost certainly members of the Lebanese Armed Forces.  And that means it is highly unlikely that the exchange was deliberately engineered — at least, not on the Lebanese side.  (There is also, as far as we know, no evidence supporting an assessment that the incident was deliberately engineered on the Israeli side.)

It would, of course, be a fine thing to see the whole Levant demilitarized — but that is not likely to happen until the underlying political conflicts between Israel and its neighbors have been resolved.  In the meantime, if Israel does not want Hizballah to launch missiles against Israeli targets, it should not attack Lebanon.

That seems straightforward enough, but here reality runs up against the logic of Israel’s grand strategy.  Because Israel’s grand strategy means that it is not enough simply to keep Israel’s enemies from attacking it.  Israeli strategy means that Israel should be able to use force first against targets in Lebanon — or in Iran and/or Syria — without fear of a significant retaliatory response.  And that is where Hizballah’s deterrent posture becomes a real problem for Israeli strategic planners.

Dan Kurtzer’s piece — in many respects, a quite sound analytic exercise — recognizes this dynamic.  As Dan writes,

There are two plausible scenarios for war in Lebanon.  First, Hezbollah could initiate hostilities. . . .  Hezbollah likely would argue that it was responding to Israeli overflights or an incident on the border that resulted in Lebanese casualties.  Hezbollah has so far shown little predisposition to do this — it ignored Israel’s recent firing of flares during an incident on the border and it has not reacted to persistent Israeli overflights of Lebanon. . . .

Second, Israel could attack Hezbollah or lure it into a war to destroy capabilities that threaten Israel’s security.  Israel could also decide to degrade Hezbollah’s capabilities in order to deny Iran a “second-strike” capability should Israel decide to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Israel could also use a conflict with Hezbollah as the catalyst and cover for an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Any of these circumstances could persuade Israel that a preventive military strike against Hezbollah is in its interest.

Of the two scenarios, the second is the more likely.  Hezbollah has probably already breached the limits of what Israel considers acceptable behavior.  The sheer number and enhanced quality of rockets Hezbollah has acquired in the past few years worry Israeli defense and homeland security planners, as does the effort by Hezbollah to acquire longer-range and more accurate surface-to-surface missiles. . . .  Another Israeli “red line” is Hezbollah’s acquisition of advanced surface-to-air missiles . . . which would reduce Israel’s air superiority over Lebanon.   Israel views its reconnaissance missions over Lebanon as critical in light of the failure . . . to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1701.  It also views as critical its ability to establish aerial dominance in the event of another war.  The combination of these three factors — the size and quality of Hezbollah’s missile inventory; the possible acquisition of long-range, accurate missiles; and the possible upgrading of Hezbollah’s surface-to-air missile capability — changes the equilibrium on the ground to an extent that Israel views as threatening.

We agree with Dan that a situation in which Israel might not be able to violate Lebanese air space or attack Lebanese targets — from the air or on the ground — whenever it wants “changes the equilibrium on the ground to an extent that Israel views as threatening.”  Unfortunately, Dan buys into and legitimates the Israeli argument on this point, stating categorically that “Israel’s security is increasingly threatened by Hezbollah’s rearmament, and the United States must respect its legitimate right of self-defense.”  He goes on to argue that the United States needs to recognize that “periodic wars in Lebanon may be inevitable to deal with continued Hezbollah threats in the future.”  On this basis, Dan recommends, among other prospective actions, that Washington

publicly restate U.S. support for Israel’s right of self-defense and U.S. concerns about Hezbollah’s rearmament.  Israel has legitimate security concerns about Hezbollah and Syrian/Iranian activities in Lebanon, and the United States should be clear that it understands Israel’s position. . . .  This message should be designed to deter Hezbollah from acting, as well as to assure Israel of its security needs.

This is an especially curious recommendation as, earlier in the paper, Dan notes that, once it has decided on its policy, “the United States needs to send a clear message to Israel,” for “[h]istory shows that Israel will read U.S. ambiguity as supporting its own views.”  If the United States publicly restates its “support for Israel’s right of self-defense and U.S. concerns about Hezbollah’s rearmament,” as Dan recommends, how would the Israelis read that message — except as the proverbial U.S. “green light” for Israel to initiate the use of force under the rubric of “preventive or preemptive war”?

We continue to believe that the Israelis are not likely to initiate a new war, not against Iran and probably not in Lebanon either, at least in the near term — that is, at least through the end of the year.  As we have written previously, we estimate that Israel is playing a longer game, working to lay the groundwork for military action against Iran, and perhaps other adversaries, in the medium term — perhaps in the next 12-18 months.  Nevertheless, we cannot categorically rule out a decision to use force by Israel at some point to deal with its Hizballah “problem,” perhaps as a preparatory step for eventual military action against Iran.

In this regard, both papers also take up the question of how “broad” a new regional war would be.  The ICG report includes an interesting discussion of the degree to which Iran, Syria, and Hizballah are planning ahead and coordinating their prospective responses to an Israeli attack.  It also notes a number of factors which have come together to render Israel’s previous willingness to limit its military operations to south Lebanon and largely ignore Lebanese state institutions “obsolete”:

Hizbollah retains a strong presence south of the Litani River — its traditional preserve — and, according to Israel, has stored vast quantities of weapons and fighters in southern Lebanon. . . .  At the same time, Hizbollah has redeployed at least part of its assets to a second line of defense, notably in the eastern Bekaa Valley.  Should Israel decide to go after Hizbollah and seek to durably impair its military capacity, it almost certainly would need to extend the fight to that area. . . .  Moreover, Hizbollah is more embedded in the Lebanese state than ever, greatly diminishing Israel’s willingness to distinguish between the two.  The Shiite movement is now fully integrated in the government and enjoys better relations with most of its former domestic foes.  As the relationship between the state and the militant organization evolved from confrontation to accommodation over the past five years, Israeli officials made it increasingly clear that the central government would, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak put it, be held “accountable” for Hizballah’s acts. . . .  Further enhancing the risks of a broader conflagration, Israel is increasingly likely to extend a war across the Syrian border.

Dan also notes the real possibilities that an Israeli air campaign against Hizballah in Lebanon “could be followed up with a ground invasion” and that Israel could “attack facilities and weapon storage sites in Syria that it claims Hezbollah is using.”  However, while not completely dismissing the possibility, Dan judges it “unlikely that Israel would strike Iran during a Hezbollah crisis; a possible strike against Iran would require the utmost concentration of resources by Israel, and Israeli planners would not want to be engaged on the ground in Lebanon while conducting a risky and complicated mission against Iran.”

As we have written before, this is a situation that cries out for constructive leadership by the United States — first of all, with Israel.  Dan describes very well what such an approach would look like in action:

The United Sates could tell Israel privately at the highest level that it would not support an Israeli-initiated war and would withhold diplomatic or military support if Israel chose to attack Hezbollah.  Specifically, the United States could threaten to initiate or support a UN Security Council resolution directed against Israel, should Israel start a war.

But Dan also goes on to tell us why that is not likely to happen — certainly not with President Obama in the Oval Office:

Israel would likely mobilize its supporters in the United States to push back against the administration, and the Obama administration would face a firestorm of pressure from Capitol Hill and the pro-Israel lobby organizations.  It is not clear that the administration could muster strong arguments for a policy position calling for Israeli restraint or threatening diplomatic action against Israel in case of war.

So, we are left with our judgment that Israel is not likely to push for war — with Iran or Iranian allies like Hizballah and Syria — right now.  But, even if we are right, the larger problem is not going away.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran under a Creative Commons license.  See, also, Nicholas Noe, “LA Times: Preparing the Ground for War” (The Mideastwire Blog, 3 August 2010); Camille Alexandre Otrakji, “Will Rising Tensions in the Middle East Lead to Another Catastrophic War?” (Syria Comment, 3 August 2010); As’ad AbuKhalil, “The Mood in Lebanon” (Angry Arab News Service, 4 August 2010).

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