Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

The calm before the storm: expect more clashes between Hezbollah and Israel

Both are preparing militarily for another confrontation but are risking taking a miscalculated step

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah walked back his vow to shoot down Israeli drones, which continue to hover over Lebanon. AFP
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah walked back his vow to shoot down Israeli drones, which continue to hover over Lebanon. AFP

Tensions between the US and Iran, and Israel and Lebanon, might be decreasing, with all sides keen to avoid descending into a full-scale war at this juncture, but they are poised to recommence at any point. Critical meetings were held in Lebanon between officials from Iran and its proxy Hezbollah to adopt pre-emptive, escalatory steps but a decision was made not to take any action on the ground, at least in the coming week.

Tehran for its part is taking action on the nuclear and oil-export front, preparing itself for radical new steps concerning the 2015 nuclear deal, in the light of failed French efforts to salvage it. The US has pre-empted the Iranian escalation by announcing a new round of sanctions and is preparing for further sanctions next week if Tehran carries out its threat of stepping up its nuclear activities.

Meanwhile Israel is preparing for a limited operation in south Lebanon against precision rockets that Hezbollah admits to having, while denying it has facilities to develop them in Lebanon, as Israel suspects. According to sources, Israel is preparing to launch Operation Justified Defence. All sides are mobilising and next week will be critical but the precise timing for the next stage of their confrontation has not been set. Rather, it remains subject to calculations related to keeping the element of surprise while avoiding a full-scale war.

Hezbollah has still to respond to the Israeli deployment of drones over Beirut’s southern suburb last month, according to Israeli calculations

Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah said the recent attack on the Israeli base Avivim carried out by his party, which led to no Israeli casualties, represented an escalation in the capabilities of his organisation and pledged more of the same. Israel responded by limited shelling of Lebanese farms, prompting celebration among Hezbollah supporters who took this as a sign of success. But while Mr Nasrallah was vowing to shoot down Israeli drones and carry out attacks, he completely sidelined the Lebanese state and commandeered its right to control decisions of war and peace decisions, even as Israel threatened the whole of Lebanon if it failed to curb Hezbollah’s activities.

The first round of clashes between Israel and Hezbollah was contained, thanks to Russian, French and US efforts. It was carefully choreographed by Israel and Hezbollah to avoid casualties, following a pledge by the latter to respond to Israel’s killing of two of its fighters in Syria. However, Hezbollah has still to respond to the Israeli deployment of drones over Beirut’s southern suburb last month, according to Israeli calculations. If Hezbollah takes action in this case, Israel is readying a response, either by following through on its successive warnings to the Lebanese government with an attack that neither spares civilians nor infrastructure, or by carrying out limited operations against precision rocket facilities, which Israel claims are in the Bekaa Valley and south Lebanon.

A second round of clashes is to be expected then but will most likely not be as contained nor as co-ordinated. The Lebanese government’s position poses a danger to the country’s sovereignty and security, whether it endorses Hezbollah’s war cry or claims it is powerless to control the party. In truth, the mutual reassurances between Israel and Hezbollah have misled the latter’s supporters and increased the level of recklessness that could lead to confrontation, while the Lebanese state appears to have abdicated responsibility.

The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a warning to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, demanding Lebanon dismantle the Bekaa Valley rocket facility. Mr Pompeo warned his Lebanese counterpart Gebran Bassil that Lebanon should shut down the facility and made it clear the US would back an Israeli attack.

In reality, Washington deals with the Lebanese president and his son-in-law on the basis of their close association with Hezbollah, but it expects prime minister Saad Hariri to distance himself from this association, regardless of any accords to ease the smooth functioning of government.

Mr Hariri has addressed the Americans with language that might appear confrontational towards Hezbollah but on the ground, the language has remained conciliatory. Speaking to the American network CNBC, Mr Hariri said Hezbollah was both a local and regional problem, adding: "I am a pragmatic person and I know my limits and the limits of this region… I do not agree with Hezbollah [in] these actions”. Mr Hariri also said he does not endorse any Lebanese financial institutions that violated US sanctions. However, in the view of the US administration, as well as a large segment of the population of Lebanon, these remarks mean the prime minister has effectively relegated decision-making to Hezbollah.

During the Iranian-Hezbollah meetings in Beirut, which included senior commanders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, an agreement was reportedly reached for additional weapons to be delivered to the militia in the coming weeks. It was also suggested that Iranian advisers be deployed to south Lebanon.

In the meantime, Tehran is moving towards further escalation amid disappointment with European countries. Iran will not agree to Mr Macron’s proposal, which included a $15 billion lifeline in return for Tehran stepping back from increasing uranium enrichment and abiding by the nuclear agreement. The offer was rejected as Iran insists on the full lifting of US sanctions first.

According to sources, Tehran’s decision is to give Mr Macron and the EU time to conduct more talks. Most likely, the Iranian gambit will fail because US President Donald Trump does not agree to any of Mr Macron’s proposals. Washington has decided to impose more financial sanctions on Iran and its associates, with a focus on oil tankers to prevent Iran from selling its oil. The new sanctions are set to be revealed next week as Tehran begins measures to develop its centrifuges and accelerate uranium enrichment, which means edging close to shredding the nuclear deal.

Tehran might yet persuade the EU to adopt measures allowing Iran to sell its oil. However, Trump administration figures, especially national security adviser John Bolton, will work hard to block such deals. Washington continues to bet on its maximum pressure policy on Iran while Iran continues to reject dialogue or negotiations before sanctions are lifted.

Lebanon is still at risk of becoming a battleground for Iran and Israel. Hezbollah will receive new drones this week, according to sources, while precision rockets have already been delivered on ships. As both sides make military preparations, they are dancing dangerously on a cliff edge of miscalculation and arrogance.

Updated: September 7, 2019 07:37 PM

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