In seeking to deter Israel and the US, Hezbollah may be risking regional war

With latest speech, Nasrallah lays down Lebanese terror group’s guidelines, threatening to strike if US attacks Iran or Israel keeps preventing it from getting precision missiles

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Supporters of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group listen to a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah via a video link in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, March 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Supporters of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group listen to a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah via a video link in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, March 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

The rockets fired at Mount Hermon on Saturday are an indication as to what Iran is trying to push Syria to become: a testing ground for experiments in the battle against Israel and the United States, with the help of the pro-Iranian militias it has established there.

Israel is following with great concern the latest developments in Iran’s continued attempts to entrench itself militarily in Syria. Israel isn’t alone — Moscow shares this concern, and is also worried that Syrian President Bashar Assad is letting the Iranians do as they wish in his own territory.

The Israel Defense Forces thwarts much of the Iranian effort, at least according to foreign reports. Tehran’s intended construction of factories for precision missiles was prevented for now, as were many of the shipments of precise weapons. Proof of that could be found on Saturday, as non-precise rockets were fired toward Israel from deep in Syrian territory and one of them landed inside Syria.

This is the good news. But the bad news is the Iran is trying hard to establish a rocket force in Syria that will be operated by Shiite emissaries — Iraqi and Afghan militias and even the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah — all under the supervision of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

That force is aimed at hurting Israel both in wartime and during calm periods, with the goal of creating a new type of war of attrition for Israel.

An IDF airstrike hits Syrian military targets, June 1, 2019. (IDF spokesperson’s unit)

The critical question at this time is whether the strongest terror organization in the region — Hezbollah — will commit itself to this effort. The answer to that question isn’t clear, as was evident by its leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on Friday.

Which brings us to that speech, which came after Nasrallah disappeared for several weeks and didn’t make addresses to the nation, prompting a wave of rumors regarding his health in Lebanese media and on social media.

But since then, Nasrallah has returned and cannot stop talking. At any event, the Hezbollah chief is prone to make fiery speeches — sometimes aimed at the Shiite community in Lebanon, sometime at the entire Lebanese people, and on occasions also at Israel.

Nasrallah’s recent speech wasn’t different in essence from previous ones, containing a laundry list of threats against Israel and the US. But he also laid down clear guidelines that the organization will likely try to follow in the near future in the case of an escalation with Iran.

First, he warned that if the US starts a war with Iran, the fighting will not end there but will spread to the entire region, with Israel and Saudi Arabia paying the price.

Israeli soldiers unpack rockets seized by Israeli authorities on a ship near Cyprus that defense officials said was carrying hundreds of tons of weapons from Iran bound for Hezbollah, November 4, 2009. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov )

That threat is of course supposed to create deterrence, but it also provides clarification as to Hezbollah’s intentions: It isn’t a purely Lebanese group, but is still first and foremost an Iranian extension operating in Lebanon. While Hezbollah doesn’t solely act on orders from Tehran, in emergency situations like a war with the US, it will stand at the Iranians’ side in any way possible.

Still, notably, Nasrallah did not mention a new battlefront with Israel in Syria.

Secondly, Nasrallah explained in his address that while Hezbollah doesn’t have precision missile factories in Lebanon, the Lebanese have the “right” to possess any weapon. He added that Washington was now trying to include the precision missile issue in the Israel-Lebanon negotiations regarding their maritime border. “The issue is not up for discussion,” he said.

Perhaps most worrying is Nasrallah’s direct statement that his group would react “immediately and strongly” to any Israeli strike on a precision missile factory in Lebanon.

The question is how this catch-22 can be solved. If the terror group continues to try and build factories for precision missiles in Lebanon, that will lead to an Israeli operation and a Hezbollah reaction — which could quickly lead to war. At the moment there are thought to be no such factories in Lebanon, but Hezbollah has recently tried to build several.

Hezbollah supporters take part in a rally to mark al-Quds day in Beirut, Lebanon, May 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

The international media reports about the Israeli information on the factories’ locations led to their evacuation by Hezbollah. The Shiite group’s intention may now change. While it understands the necessity for precise missiles, it also understands the price of building such a facility.

The attempts over the years to transfer precision missiles from Iran to Lebanon via Syria have been met with hundreds of operations attributed to Israel that likely prevented their delivery on a mass scale. Still, returning to the old method of importing precision missiles may be better than the second option — war with Israel.

Tehran and Hezbollah understand that the old route via the Damascus international airport is too exposed to Israeli eyes, so they are trying to land the aircraft carrying the weapons in other Syrian airports, intending to then transfer some of them to Hezbollah.

And a final note on the purported financial crisis suffered by Hezbollah. While this is definitely a difficult time for the group in light of recent US sanctions, Washington could be overestimating their effect. While the sanctions, including those on Tehran, will affect Hezbollah’s budget, it is doubtful that the group is already going through a real crisis. They will have an effect in months and years to come, probably not days or weeks.

While Hezbollah is cutting salaries, saving on fuel and canceling shifts for its staff, remarks voiced by many in the US and the Trump administration that it is “broke” are exaggerated, Tony Badran, a senior researcher on Lebanon, wrote Friday in Tablet Magazine.

Staff members are still getting their salaries — albeit decreased — and the reduced operations of its Al-Manar TV station and its public appeal for financial donations are not necessarily indicators that the organization is reaching its end. Charity is a known religious duty in Islam, specifically during the month of Ramadan, and Hezbollah is known to rely on Iranian and Lebanese donations. According to Badran, Hezbollah’s appeal may indicate financial hardship — but not necessarily desperation.

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