Everybody loses in an impending regional conflagration
The situation on Lebanon’s southern border already feels like a hot war, with a rapid escalation in two-way missile barrages. These clashes have caused the deaths of dozens of Lebanese civilians and well over 140 Hezbollah personnel. Lebanese Army positions have been repeatedly hit.
About 75,000 people have been displaced, schools have been closed and much of the south increasingly resembles a closed military zone. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said the latest exchanges were about “reinforcing the equilibrium of dissuasion,” but there can be no equilibrium in open conflict — only countless victims and escalatory cycles of vengeance.
More than at any previous juncture since this conflict erupted, Nasrallah’s latest sermon was defined by bellicose fighting talk. He bellowed about a “historic opportunity” to liberate lands occupied by Israel. “The war today,” he said, “is not only for Palestine but also for Lebanon and its south, in particular the region south of the Litani River.”
Some within Israel’s leadership have been advocating a decisive confrontation with Hezbollah since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 – to the horror of the US administration, which exerted all its diplomatic leverage to head off such an eventuality in the knowledge that America and its allies would be dragged into a widened conflict against Iran’s plethora of regionwide paramilitary assets. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi militants would be expected to join the battle, with Bashar Al-Assad having little say over a fierce new front opening up throughout Syria.
According to The Washington Post, the latest assessment by the US Defense Intelligence Agency is that Israel would struggle to prevail in a widened conflict with its forces heavily committed in Gaza. Israel’s latest partial withdrawal of forces from Gaza is to some degree calculated with the eventuality of a northern eruption in mind.
As tensions further soared in recent days, the US deployed a new fusillade of diplomatic activity, including another regional trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The State Department said it was “in no one’s interest — not Israel’s, not the region’s, not the world’s — for this conflict to spread beyond Gaza.” King Abdullah of Jordan warned Blinken of the “catastrophic repercussions” of the conflict.
Visiting Lebanon, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell echoed the sentiment that “nobody will win from a regional conflict.” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told her Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian that “the risk of regional conflagration has never been so significant. Iran and its associates must immediately stop their destabilizing actions.”
Maybe Israel and its Western allies can ultimately degrade the capabilities of Hezbollah, Hamas and their Iranian overlords — but not necessarily before they destroy sizable parts of Israel and the wider region.
Last week’s killing of Saleh Al-Arouri, Hamas’s main emissary to Hezbollah and Iran, in an Israeli drone strike in Beirut may in retrospect be regarded as the moment when provocation passed the point of no return. Hezbollah described subsequent rocket barrages as an “initial response” to Arouri’s death, which Nasrallah said was “a major, dangerous crime about which we cannot be silent, adding that Lebanon in its entirety could fall victim to Israeli aggression if the assassination went unpunished.
Only a few days before, an Israeli airstrike in Syria killed Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a senior Quds Force commander, and a US strike killed a commander of the Nujaba faction of the Hashd Al-Shaabi. While Nasrallah and his acolytes have a reputation for issuing empty threats in response to such assassinations, matters are rapidly accelerating beyond anybody’s ability to control them.
About 200,000 Israelis have already been moved out of sizable regions in the north and south. Israeli leaders are mooting the prospect of Israeli-controlled buffer zones, including a chunk of southern Lebanon and a several kilometer swaths of territory in Gaza, which itself is only a few kilometers wide. But these options, leaving aside that forced population transfers are illegal in international law, would be likely to worsen the conflict: Israel-occupied southern Lebanon from 1985 to 2000 was a casus belli for Hezbollah and a formative phase in giving it asymmetrical battle experience — not to mention an immense symbolic victory when Israel was eventually compelled to leave with a bloody nose.
Lebanon’s parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri has emphasized the importance of implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which commits both sides to a UN-monitored buffer zone and requires Hezbollah to withdraw beyond the Litani River. Nasrallah in his latest speech hinted that after the cessation of hostilities he could be open to border demarcation negotiations. This appears to be a focus of behind-the-scenes brinkmanship by Western interlocutors.
There is a comparable inflammatory situation of reciprocal retaliatory skirmishes between the US and Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi militias have already staged about 140 attacks against US targets since Oct. 7, drawing increasingly aggressive American retaliation. Western leaders are similarly bemused about how to halt Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping without further raising the temperature. More than 20 states have joined a coalition which, according to the Pentagon, will be a “highway patrol” assisting commercial vessels in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
As the missiles fly, hopes are fading that we can weather this conflict without a major regional conflagration, which would be a catastrophic failure of global diplomacy and mediocre leadership in allowing developments to advance to such a dire stage. But Nasrallah, Benjamin Netanyahu, Joe Biden and Ali Khamenei pay scant attention to the apocalyptic consequences of this scenario, despite long-visible glaring strategic threats posed by vast transnational paramilitary hordes and the stalled Middle East peace process.
We should take Netanyahu literally when he threatens to turn Lebanon and other states into Gaza, and do the math concerning the astronomic resulting death toll. The Middle East Institute estimated that Lebanese casualties could be in the range of 300,000 to 500,000, along with a massive evacuation of northern Israel.
Maybe Israel and its Western allies can ultimately degrade the capabilities of Hezbollah, Hamas and their Iranian overlords — but not necessarily before they destroy sizable parts of Israel and the wider region. Pity the millions of lives set to be torn apart by these oncoming horrors.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.