Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 August 2018

Don’t rule out a full-scale conflict in this tug of war

Israel and Hizbollah appear uninterested in any further escalation of conflict but Iran might not be satisfied with an immediate return to the status quo, writes Hussein Ibish
Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon’s militant Shiite Muslim movement Hizbollah, addresses supporters through a giant screen on January 30, 2014. Joseph Eid / AFP
Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon’s militant Shiite Muslim movement Hizbollah, addresses supporters through a giant screen on January 30, 2014. Joseph Eid / AFP

The latest flare-up of violence between Israel and Hizbollah along both the Lebanese and the Syrian borders with Israel should, in theory, be over for now. Neither Israel nor Hizbollah are showing an interest in further escalation. But a third main player – Iran – may not be satisfied with that.

Tehran has taken Israel’s attack of January 18 very seriously. The air raid in the Quneitra area of the Golan Heights targeted a Hizbollah convoy but among the dead was a senior Iranian general, Mohammad Allahdadi. Ten days after the Quneitra attack, Hizbollah struck Israeli troops on the border with Lebanon, killing two and injuring six.

There are indications that Tehran may be preparing to push Hizbollah to exact more of a price from Israel, or even that Iran might take retaliatory action on its own. And Iran may not be prepared to let Israel have the last word by ruling out Hizbollah deployments in the Golan Heights either.

On January 30, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Ali Jaffari, said that “Hizbollah’s response to Israel was a minimum response that was given to the Israelis, and I hope this response will be a lesson not to make these mistakes anymore.”

For his part, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said: “We do not want a war but we are not afraid of it and we must distinguish between the two, and the Israelis must also understand this very well.” He added: “We have the right to respond in any place and at any time and in the way we see as appropriate.”

One of Mr Jaffari’s key lieutenants, Hossein Salami, hinted that Iran might act on its own if Hizbollah does not, saying that “No page will be closed, and the time and place to respond to them is not determined.”

Iran’s ire, and the threat of further retaliation at a time and manner of its choosing, and potentially directly rather than through proxies like Hizbollah, reflects how seriously it takes the Quneitra attack. The general who was killed was reportedly a major figure in Iran’s efforts to shore up Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad. Also killed was Jihad Mughniyeh, son of Hebollah’s late military leader, Imad. He was assassinated in Damascus on February 12, 2008. Now, The Washington Post and Newsweek have revealed details of the allegedly close CIA role in supporting Mossad in the killing of Imad Mughniyeh. Former US officials defend the assassination, which could be viewed as a violation of American law. They say it was justified by Mughniyeh’s alleged history of involvement in terrorist acts against American targets and that he was actually plotting more at the time he was killed.

So Imad Mughniyeh’s son Jihad was not just Hizbollah and Revolutionary Guard royalty. IRGC luminary General Qassem Soleimani, who is said to have been a father figure to Jihad, visited his grave the day after his funeral in Beirut.

Mr Nasrallah described the attack as “more than vengeance, but less than war”. As Al Hayat’s Washington correspondent Joyce Karam subsequently pointed out, both Israel and Hizbollah have used the exchange of violence to rewrite their tacit rules of engagement and set new red lines based on Hizbollah’s increasing role in the war in Syria.

But Iran may not be satisfied with this. Israeli officials have been at pains to insist, off the record, that the air raid was aimed at what they thought was an ordinary Hizbollah combat unit that was coming too close to the Israeli-occupied areas of the Golan Heights. They claim that “we did not expect the outcome in terms of the stature of those killed – certainly not the Iranian general.”

But Iran may not care whether or not Israel knew that one of their generals was in the convoy. The bottom line is that Israel is trying to stop Hizbollah securing areas in the northern Golan Heights as a new base, while Iran seems determined that these areas must be secured to be used against Syrian rebel groups.

This could easily trigger another round of violence between Israel and Hizbollah.

Meanwhile, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is standing for reelection in March, has seen a bump in his poll numbers as a result of the confrontation. He may find further engagement politically appealing, even if the Israeli security establishment sees nothing to be gained.

Therefore, another full-scale conflict is still possible, even if neither Hizbollah nor Israel want one right now.

The stakes for both are huge. Hizbollah’s political standing with other Lebanese, and maybe even some of its own core Shiite constituency, could be badly damaged. And its commitment in Syria would be compromised.

For its part, Israel would be facing a stronger enemy than in 2006. The outgoing head of Israel’s military intelligence research division has even warned that the next time Hizbollah forces confront Israel, they may actually engage in “substantial operations to grab territory inside Israel”.

In the context of the Syrian war, Iran and Hizbollah are trying to deploy Hizbollah fighters in the northern Golan Heights. Israel violently rejects this because it sees it as a new front in which too it will have to face Hizbollah. This matter is by no means settled yet.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on ­Palestine

On Twitter: @ibishblog