Everyman’s Strategic Survey (40): Israel’s Coming War With Hezbollah

There is a very useful article in Foreign Affairs by Professor Mara Karlin which is headlined: “Israel’s Coming War With Hezbollah ~ A New Conflict May Be Inevitable.” Professor Karin asserts that “Another war between Israel and Hezbollah is almost inevitable. Although neither side wants a conflict now, the shifting balance of power in the Levant and shrinking areas of contestation are indicators of a looming showdown. The real questions are how and where—not if—the impending conflagration will occur.

She explains,  by way of background, that “Tensions in the region are only going to get worse. The Syrian civil war has so far resulted in nearly half a million dead, six million internally displaced, and over five million refugees, an overwhelming percentage of whom have now spent years in neighboring countries such as 2000px-2006_Israel-Lebanon_crisis.svgLebanon and Jordan, which are eager for their swift departure. Yet as the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) winds down militarily, so too will the many marriages of convenience among its enemies. These impending divorces will return a number of issues to the foreground, including governance and reconciliation, the future of outside powers in Syria, and the shifting regional balance of power. The resulting tensions are likely to bring Israel to the brink of a regional war even bigger than the last one in 2006, when it invaded southern Lebanon … [and] … For Israel and Hezbollah, the defeat of ISIS and the resulting shifts in focus will clarify the increasingly complex and dangerous relations between them. Hezbollah has lost nearly 2,000 fighters in Syria, damaged its reputation through unfettered support for the regimes in Iran and Syria, and is rumored to face financial trouble. Despite all that, it remains popular with its core constituency, Lebanese Shiites. It has brokered political agreements with other confessions in Lebanon, and analysts expect that the Lebanese parliamentary elections this spring—the first under a new electoral law creating a proportional representation system—will result in big wins for Hezbollah.

She examines the strategic balance:

  • Hezbollah’s military capabilities have almost surely grown during the Syrian war,” she says “as evidenced by the 100 or so strikes that Israel has made on Hezbollah personnel or facilities in recent years. Perhaps most meaningful, Hezbollah has gained substantial operational experience in Syria, where it has effectively knit together a number of violent nonstate actors in support of its expeditionary mission to prop up President Bashar al-Assad;” but, she adds
  • For Israel, the strategic picture has shifted considerably as well. Its border with Syria, historically its quietest, is now unhinged. The Israeli leadership has made no secret of its concern about Hezbollah’s military maturation in the Syria conflict.

She notes that Israel’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme seem to be fading and Israel has, recently, tested its conventional defences in a large exercise, but, Professor Karlin says that, even tough “Hezbollah’s and Israel’s long-term strategic goals are thus entirely at odds …  neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants to trigger a war. Israel is facing the potential collapse of the Palestinian Authority, a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and profound instability on its northern border, to say nothing of the political crisis surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who may soon be indicted for corruption. Nevertheless, concerns about Hezbollah’s growing capabilities inside Lebanon—namely, its potential construction of weapons factories—may leave the Israeli leadership feeling that it has no choice but to act … [and] … Hezbollah, for its part, would also probably like time to recover from a long and hard conflict in Syria. Yet the group’s regional popularity has plummeted, and its anti-Israel credentials, which have been tarnished by years of killing Syrians, need burnishing.

She suggest that, while “A deliberate escalation by Israel or Hezbollah is unlikely to occur in the near term; an inadvertent one is possible, as is an escalation courtesy of other actors currently tearing up the Levant, such as Iran, the Assad regime, or Russia. All three could benefit in different ways from such a conflict. Iran and the Assad regime could use it to distract from the horrific state of affairs in Syria while rallying regional support against Israel. The Russians could use a conflict to solidify their regional leadership role by brokering a cessation of hostilities and to further demonstrate their entrenchment vis-à-vis the United States.

Given that Professor Karlin is persuaded that another Israel-Hezbollah was is likely, the next issue is “the location of a future war. Historically, conflicts between Israel and Hezbollah have largely—though not entirely—been confined to Lebanese territory. Since 1978, Israel’s invasions of and sporadic attacks on Lebanon have targeted violent nonstate actors who destabilized its northern border, including the Palestine Liberation Organization and Hezbollah. Hezbollah, however, has occasionally sought to take the conflict to Israel’s citizens overseas (and Jewish communities more broadly). A few notable examples include the 1992 Israeli beirut.650embassy bombing in Buenos Aires, the 2012 bus attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, and a foiled 2015 attack on Jewish and Israeli sites in Cyprus … [thus, she says] … The next conflict will also probably be fought within Lebanon, although it will likely go beyond southern Lebanon into Beirut. It will also, given the Dahiya Doctrine, involve the destruction of much more than just alleged Hezbollah military targets—the IDF could easily destroy Lebanese state infrastructure and military sites as well. And it is difficult to imagine how an Israeli effort to bring ruin to Hezbollah inside Lebanon would not similarly bring it to scores of Lebanese civilians. For its part, Hezbollah is no doubt counting on the international condemnation of Israel that will invariably arise in such a situation.

Mara Karlin concludes that “Although the next Israeli-Hezbollah war remains on the horizon for now, it is almost certain to occur eventually, given both the risks of accidental escalation and the two sides’ long-term strategic goals. When it does happen, it will be ugly and will almost surely drag in external actors, willingly or not. Levantine security may then reach a new nadir, and the Lebanese and Syrian people will lose even more as their countries are further turned into playgrounds for others’ agendas.

About six months ago The Economist also worried about the potential for an Israel-Hezbollah conflict. Isreal the author said “has long been carrying out air strikes against Hizbullah targets in Syria. But most of them have been around Damascus and near the Syria-Lebanon border. This time the target was nearly 300km (200 miles) from Israel’s border and close to Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries. The strike was not just designed to set back Syria’s and Hizbullah’s missile programme. It was a message to all concerned: if Russia does not restrain Iran and Hizbullah, Israel will act.” It’s important to remember that Israeli political leaders and generals are fond of the notion of pre-emptive strikes, just think of the Six Day war.

The immediate threat to Israel’s security remains Hizbullah,” according to The Economist , and “The last war between the two sides, in 2006, ended in a draw of sorts.” But, the article notes, as did Professor Karlin, in September 2017, “in its largest military exercise for nearly two decades, Israel deployed an entire army corps to simulate a response to an incursion by Hizbullah. Israeli officers say that the exercise had been scheduled for over a year and had no connection to the recent tension.”  The Economist said that “Israeli intelligence believes that another war in the near future is unlikely,” but it also noted, as did Mara Karlin, that “The Syrian civil war has seen Hizbullah evolve from a militia into something resembling a professional army, capable of fighting brigade-scale battles. But it has also lost nearly 2,000 of its fighters and is suffering from severely depleted resources. It does not need or want a second front.

Let us assume that, despite what Israel and Hezbollah both don’t want, a war will happen. My guess is that Israel will “win,” which is to say not lose (or draw) again, but, as in 2006, it will be international pressure, caused by heavy damage to Lebanon and civilian casualties in both Israel and Lebanon, not decisive military action, that brings about a cessation of hostilities. If Hezbollah is, indeed, militarily stronger than it was a decade ago, as a result having learned from its experiences in Syria, then Israel, despite having tested its response in the large scale 2017 exercises may get a bloody nose, too. I expect that yet Printanother United National Peacekeeping effort will be  called for. There is, still, a United Nations force in Lebanon ~ UNIFIL ~ Canada was a short term charter member of that force back in 1978. Both Israel and Hezbollah have been critical of UNIFIL, each claiming the force is biased in favour of the other. The UN is likely to want to expand UNIFIL’s area of operations from just South Lebanon to include Norther Israel, also. Given that each UN mission must be approved by each “host nation” some of the 30± current members of UNIFIL* are unlikely to be allowed to deploy into Israel and other countries, almost certainly including Canada, are probably going to be asked to contribute.

A request to participate in a UN peacekeeping mission in Israel/Lebanon would be difficult for Canada to turn down on policy grounds, but also might be, equally, difficult to manage in domestic political terms.

imageWhat could Canada contribute to a force that already has elements from several first world counties? lav-25_ldsgkj2Aviation ~ helicopters, for a start; Reconnaissance, both tactical and electronic ~ our new Long Range Surveillance System (the successor to the Army very successful Coyote armoured reconnaissance vehicle) would likely be very useful in a tricky, high tech mission; and Engineering ~ there is likely to have been a lot of damage. Instead of sending penny-packets of soldiers to several different African hotspots Canada could make a meaningful contribution that a mission that might not be doomed to fail.


* The list includes e.g. Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Finland, France, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Nepal, Serbia, South Korea,Spain, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Turkey.



Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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