Some catastrophes are simply a matter of time. This is almost certainly the case with a likely Israel-Hezbollah conflict. In their rhetoric, military posturing and strategic goals, both sides are committed to neutralizing the other. It could be six months or two years, but a confrontation is brewing. The region must be ready for its devastating ramifications.
In the context of intensified fighting next to Israel’s borders, there have been unnerving indicators of escalation. After missiles were fired into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights last week, Israel fired back. It has a record of hitting military convoys and assassinating Hezbollah personnel in Syria.
With more than 2,000 of its fighters slain on the battlefield, Hezbollah so far has shown little readiness to retaliate, except for empty threats we have heard thousands of times. Is this restraint or weakness?
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently threatened that “hundreds of thousands of fighters” from Shiite paramilitary groups from Syria and Iraq could be mobilized against Israel. Massive banners of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei provocatively appeared on Israel’s borders warning: “We are coming.”
While Nasrallah boasts that Hezbollah’s much-expanded rocket arsenal can hit anywhere in Israel, the latter’s military claims it has “four to five times” the bombing power of 2006. “What we could do in 34 days during the second Lebanon war, we can now do in 48 hours,” warned Air Force Commander Amir Eshel.
The Syrian regime claims that Israel facilitates Islamist rebels near its borders. There have indeed been strange patterns of coordination between Israel and jihadists, some of whom quietly received medical care in Israel. Such is the odd nature of this relationship that former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said after a recent skirmish with the Israeli army in the Golan, Daesh apologized to Israel.
Striking Israel is a central tenet of Iranian propaganda. Yet Tehran fears that a major onslaught by Israel could set back its designs in Syria and Iraq, tying up thousands of fighters and consuming much of Hezbollah’s firepower. Iran cares nothing for the Palestinians and has little to gain from an actual confrontation with Israel, which would constitute a distraction from its strategy of hegemony over the Arab world.
But these belligerent opponents may simply provoke war via escalating skirmishes and unguarded rhetoric. Some Arab commentators imply that such a confrontation would be a dream scenario: Their two most dangerous enemies destroying each other.
Iran cares nothing for the Palestinians and has little to gain from an actual confrontation with Israel.
But it could leave both sides even stronger. Tehran would emerge unscathed from this proxy conflict, using oil revenues to replenish Hezbollah and its allies within days. Its Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani and Lebanese cannon-fodder are expendable, with plenty more brainwashed youths vying to take their places.
According to Iran’s narrative, such a conflict would justify tighter control over Syria and Lebanon, spun by Tehran’s media apologists as its rightful role leading the “Islamic resistance.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration would not hesitate to compensate Israel tenfold for losses incurred, putting Tel Aviv on an even mightier military footing.
The losers would be Arab citizens caught in the crossfire. In just a few days in 2006, more than 1,000 Lebanese citizens were killed. Parts of Beirut and southern Lebanon were obliterated, with 16 villages totally destroyed. Children continue to be maimed by cluster bombs.
We should take seriously Israeli threats that a coming war could be five times as destructive, with civilian areas targeted again. Israel could annex land in southern Syria and Lebanon as a “buffer zone” on the pretext of protecting citizens from rocket fire. Hezbollah is proud of pushing Israel out of Lebanon in 2000. It should accept the blame if its actions provoke Israel into illegally retaking these territories and more.
Inviting Iraqi and multinational Shiite militants into Lebanon is a flagrant breach of what remains of Lebanese sovereignty, putting the tiny country once again at the center of an internationalized conflict. Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said allowing entry to these fighters would “import the Syrian conflict,” adding that Nasrallah had ignored Lebanon’s government in making such threats.
Would these combatants ever leave? With similar demographics already being resettled in southeast Syria, this could be the start of permanent ethnic and sectarian transformations.
War is always inconceivable until it happens. Many Lebanese complacently claim Israel would not dare attack again. I wish this was not just wishful thinking. In 2006, Lebanon could depend on unstinting solidarity from the Arab world; Nasrallah’s popularity soared. Today, Arab states regard Hezbollah as terrorist and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has disengaged from financial commitments in Lebanon.
In accepting Tehran’s embrace, Lebanon regrettably will not be able to look to its Arab kin for aid (maybe not even Qatar). Though humanity may weep at Lebanon’s plight, it will search in vain for allies, other than those that got it into this mess in the first place.
Hezbollah has always justified itself as a force for confronting Israel. After years of killing Syrian civilians, it needs to refurbish its legitimacy by fighting Israel, even if this has disastrous consequences for Lebanon. Israeli political hawks are itching for the opportunity to cut Hezbollah down to size. Such a war would empower militants and radicals on both sides, and put the region on a semi-permanent war footing.
Now that Iran is consolidating its hold over multiple Arab states, we are seeing a fundamental regional rebalancing of power. This will not go unchallenged from Israel and others in order to reestablish the pecking order. If we thought things were bad over the last five years, they may be about to get a lot worse.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.