This past Sunday, with great fanfare, Israeli politicians and military leaders finally announced to the Israeli public – and to the country’s enemies – that they had successfully layered the nation’s airspace with the most sophisticated anti-missile defence system ever developed.
Long-range Iranian or Syrian missiles, as it is anticipated, would mainly be handled by the US-backed Arrow system at high altitudes; smaller, but nevertheless extremely accurate, missiles from Hezbollah in Lebanon or Syria would be the domain of the US-backed David’s Sling, while drones, artillery and smaller rockets will continue to be dealt with by the (also US-backed) Iron Dome.
In mid-March, the new Arrow-3 missile system had seen its first successful use, knocking out a Syrian missile fired towards Israel in response to yet another Israeli Air Force attack within Syria, allegedly targeting Hezbollah positions.
This unprecedented ratcheting up of military confrontation in the Levant is raising significant concerns that a climactic war at least involving Hezbollah and Israel is increasingly likely, just 11 years after the last inconclusive round of hostilities left both sides licking their wounds and promising a “final” engagement.
In 13 years of watching these two bitter opponents, I have never seen such a high degree of anxiety among Lebanon’s political elite that war is coming.
This incredibly unstable and violent moment in geopolitics is undermining the central element that kept Israel and Hezbollah from overstepping each other’s red lines: fear, or rather a balance of fear based on the belief that the next conflict will be devastating for all sides.
When the next war hits, Israel will not only be well positioned to defend against Hezbollah’s main weapon – rockets launched against military and civilian targets – but it will also employ the unrestrained bombing of all Lebanese infrastructure and “supportive” civilian populations, ensuring that other Lebanese citizens turn on Hezbollah as a result.
Unfortunately for the balance of terror, Hezbollah and their allies seem to believe, with some cause, that the Israelis are wrong. First, a vicious bombing of all Lebanon will likely produce greater solidarity among Lebanese, rather than lead to any combination of ill-equipped communities to somehow confront Hezbollah.
Second, Hezbollah is not the same as the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which was expelled from Lebanon after the devastating Israeli invasion in the summer of 1982. It is a deeply rooted Lebanese political grouping that has significant support in the country. As the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, has long reminded the Israelis, party supporters and especially his base among the Shia people of Lebanon are not going to get on a ship and move to Tunis as PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat once did. Most will stay and fight for their country.
Third, Hezbollah and its key partner Iran seem to believe that Israel’s nuclear and chemical facilities, and even its new missile system, are vulnerable and could be easily overcome.
Finally, just as Israeli leaders seem overly confident that other Lebanese communities will quickly turn on Hezbollah if hit hard enough, Nasrallah and other key Hezbollah leaders I have met over the years seem equally entranced by the idea that the Israelis have become a soft people protected by a soft army that will not be able to collectively bear the dislocation resulting from Hezbollah’s land, sea and air strikes.
The core problem with all of these – mostly inaccurate – assumptions is that they are providing vital lubricant for the main casus belli that has now fully emerged in Southern Syria and the Occupied Golan. Indeed, both Hezbollah and Iran are very likely continuing to pursue the sort of underground military infrastructure in Southern Syria that they successfully pioneered against the Israelis in South Lebanon and more recently in other parts of Lebanon and Syria. For the Israelis, this activity is now being characterised in no uncertain terms as an existential red line.
Not surprisingly, the pace and scope of Israeli strikes has expanded in recent weeks and months. At the same time, the Syrian government, Hezbollah and Iran have now also made it clear that pushing the carte blanche that Israel claims in the skies above Lebanon and Syria will lead to greater counter-force.
As these dynamics gather pace, both Hezbollah and Israel can also claim that they were acting defensively if a major conflict starts in Syria or in Lebanon. On the one hand, Israel will argue that it was forced to pre-empt a growing terror threat on its border, while on the other Hezbollah and its allies will argue that they were illegally attacked and responded proportionately in order to maintain the balance of terror.
Perhaps even more problematic, Iran and Hezbollah have some reason to fear that the Trump administration, Russia and Syria’s al-Assad might find a suitable deal in the coming period that essentially deals out the Shia duo. Any attempt to sideline Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, however, would probably provoke a strong counter-reaction that could lead to a wider war. It would certainly leave both actors looking particularly vulnerable to an attempted knock-out blow by the Israelis.
At the very least, the new Trump administration considers Iran the main strategic enemy in the region. It has already signalled that it will pursue a more aggressive and confrontational policy, in sharp contrast to the previous Obama administration. As such, the White House and the US Congress are starting to take apart the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran while essentially assuring that there will be an unprecedented American support for Israel in the event of any conflict, no matter who is seen as “starting” it or how such a war is conducted.
On this score alone – the likely removal of American limitations on Israel – the balance of terror has been dramatically weakened.
Can anything be done to prevent the escalation of tensions? Sadly, it does not seem that any of the great powers, and especially the US, might intervene expeditiously and intelligently to address the root causes of conflict in this part of the world, much less the immediate triggers of a new Levantine war. One can only wait and hope that all sides recognise the Middle East simply cannot bear any more destruction and bloodshed.
Nicholas Noe is co-founder of the Beirut-based Mideastwire.com and editor of 'Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah'
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