Is an Israel-Hezbollah war inevitable?

Is an Israel-Hezbollah war inevitable?

All eyes are on Israel after President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. But the most immediate risks have deeper origins. Despite heavy losses in the Syrian Civil War, Hezbollah still stands as a formidable military force equipped with an impressive arsenal and hardened by years of fighting. Now that its militants are returning to Southern Lebanon, the probability of a military confrontation with Israel will escalate.

From the ruins of the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah has emerged a victor. The Shia militia’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War dates back to its start, though its involvement escalated sharply after 2013. As a member of the Axis of Resistance along with Iran and Syria, Hezbollah intervened not only to aid its Syrian ally but also – and perhaps more importantly – to secure its interests. Syria is one of Hezbollah’s main suppliers of weapons, funds, and safe havens. The fall of Assad and subsequent rise of a Sunni-dominated regime in Damascus would have seriously threatened Hezbollah’s regional operations.

A Costly Victory?

The six years long war has been quite costly for the Party of God. The war in Syria has claimed between 1700 and 1800 Hezbollah fighters according to an estimate – more than the organization lost in the 18 year-long Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Many of those killed were seasoned fighters and veterans of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict. This level of loss is unprecedented for Hezbollah. The organization has historically been successful in avoiding loss of life, in large part due to the level of specialization of its fighters. The survival of its soldiers has always been a cornerstone of its operations.

Still, the benefits that Hezbollah has gained from the conflict outweigh the losses. Hezbollah’s recruiting machinery has not “run out” of recruits, as a study of the Institute for the Study of War highlighted. Moreover, the frequent rotations have ensured that a large number of fighters, up to 20,000, have gained considerable fighting experience. Though a generation of fighters was lost, younger, experienced recruits may have already replaced those killed in action.

Regardless of casualties, the intervention’s overall success has significantly boosted the group’s morale. In addition, Hezbollah and the Syrian army have become quite proficient in joint operations, as well as in operational planning and training, making it capable of carrying out sophisticated ground operations alongside allies. This coordination would definitely prove useful in the event of a new regional conflict.

Hezbollah gets an upgrade

Over time, Hezbollah’s alliance with Iran and Syria has given it a steady flow of sophisticated weaponry and technology. Most likely, there is no other non-state actor that is currently able to match the Party of God in this regard. Throughout the Syrian Civil War, Hezbollah has further increased its capabilities despite Israel’s frequent strikes on its supply chain. On top of the hundreds of thousands of missiles that Hezbollah owns, the acquisition of the anti-ship Yakhont missiles and the Russian anti-aircraft system SA-17 has been game-changing. These weapon systems give Hezbollah the capability to challenge Israel air and naval superiority, which is something that – with the exception of the attack on the INS Hanit in 2006 – Hezbollah has never been able to do. Being able to compete with Israel in these domains represents a shift in the balance of power with Tel Aviv.

Additionally, the Party of God has been experimenting with new tactics in Syria, such as drone strikes. Weaponizing drones represents a further technological leap for Hezbollah, whose use of drones in the past was confined to reconnaissance.

Hezbollah’s homecoming

The return of Hezbollah fighters en masse will coincide with a strengthened presence of Iran along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Iranian presence among Hezbollah is nothing new, but Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has only  reinforced Iran’s influence in the organization.

For Israel’s part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already warned that he will not allow Tehran to establish a military presence on Israel’s borders. As such, any potential conflict between Israel and Hezbollah should be seen as an Israeli attempt to counter Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East. Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister is a clear indication that Israel is preparing for war, as some analysts believe. In addition, the Trump administration’s hostile stance towards Iran could embolden Israel to embark on an offensive sooner rather than later, as it would likely enjoy unconditional support from the United States.

What would a conflict look like?

Yet, a military confrontation envisaging a ground invasion of Southern Lebanon would be far more complicated than the  2006 July War. Israel would face a barrage of missiles aimed at urban centers. Despite their efficacy, Israel’s missile defense systems ‘Iron Dome’, ‘David’s Sling’ and ‘Arrow’ would most likely be unable to withstand the number of rockets that Hezbollah would launch. The economic, political and humanitarian loss Israel would suffer would be immense.

Tel Aviv has stated it will deploy all of its strength from the very beginning if war was to break out on Israel’s northern border. The likely objective of such an offensive would be to wipe out Hezbollah’s missile capabilities before they could be fully deployed. Alternatively, Israel might be tempted to launch a preventive strike in Southern Lebanon. As Major General Amir Eshel claimed, Israel certainly does not lack the capability to do so.

The likelihood of a military confrontation between Tel Aviv and the Shia militia has not been this high since 2006. Whether or not a conflict will break out, 2018 will see tensions rise between Israel on one side, and Hezbollah and Iran on the other. This regional instability is largely due to the growing influence of Iran. Tehran’s desire to emerge as a regional leading power of the Middle East has placed it in a direct confrontation with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The worries about Iran’s regional influence have led to a paradoxical Tel Aviv-Riyadh alliance, which is supported by the new US administration. With the region being pulled into the fold, any potential military confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah could have greater repercussions, depending on Iran and Saudi Arabia’s level of involvement.

About Author

Mauro Lubrano

Mauro Lubrano is an Analyst at Global Risk Insights, where he focuses mainly on emerging technologies, terrorism and Jihadism. Previously, he worked for the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. He holds a Master in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, a M.A. in Peace and Conflict Research from the University of Frankfurt am Main (Germany) and a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Perugia (Italy). He is fluent in German and a native speaker of Italian.