February 2, 2015 | Business Insider

Iran’s Push Into Syria Means Another War Between Hezbollah and Israel is All but Inevitable

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah finally delivered his long-postponed speech on Friday, after his group claimed responsibility for the attack against an Israeli patrol in the Shebaa area two days earlier. Once again, Nasrallah brought Lebanon to the brink of disaster. While the country escaped ruin this time, Iran and Hezbollah’s determination to activate the Golan front — the essential takeaway from Nasrallah’s speech — makes a major conflagration all but inevitable. Israel cannot accept a new front with Hezbollah’s preferred rules of engagement in the Golan, which means that its measured response this time is unlikely to be tenable down the road.

Hezbollah's gamble in Shebaa was arguably a calculated risk. The group banked on Israel accepting the attack as a limited response, thereby refraining from further escalation. In addition, the Iranians and Hezbollah would not have failed to notice the US position following their first reprisal against Israel, firing rockets from the Golan on Tuesday, which caused no deaths. Tehran and its Lebanese asset likely read Washington’s position discouraging escalation following that attack as a clear sign that the US would not support a massive Israeli response that would risk war. Likewise, Israel’s response to the Golan attack Tuesday night, which hit Assad regime posts in the area, may have been read by Hezbollah as a sign that Israel might keep its response limited. That, needless to say, was Hezbollah’s primary concern. And so, once Israel began responding to Wednesday’s attack, which killed two of its soldiers, Hezbollah quickly sent a message to the Israelis via UNIFIL informing them that it wasn’t interested in further escalation. 

The Israelis also decided not to push further at this point, despite exhibiting readiness to climb the escalation ladder. On the one hand, despite suffering two dead soldiers and seven other wounded, there was no real symmetry between Israel’s 18 January strike and Hezbollah’s response. Hezbollah’s operation didn’t match the blow it received in Israel’s strike in Quneitra. Israel took out senior Iranian and Hezbollah commanders, and possibly set back their plans to set up a Golan front. In return, Hezbollah lobbed a couple of rockets from the area and then staged a small attack from its stronghold in south Lebanon. What’s more, the Shiite group’s eagerness to send word of its desire not to escalate only underscored the difficulty of its situation.  

These tactical observations, however, miss a more important dynamic. As Nasrallah made clear in his address on Friday, he and his Iranian overlords are hell-bent on expanding into the Golan Heights. Nasrallah, echoing the comments of Mohamad Ali Jafari, head of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), not only blurred the lines between the Lebanese and Syrian fronts, but also fused the Iranian element into both of them. In addition, Nasrallah, again echoing IRGC talking points, sought to establish an umbrella of deterrence over Hezbollah and Iranian activity in the Golan by threatening to respond “anywhere” to any Israeli assassination of his or Iran’s cadres operating there.

This is precisely why a large conflict will be harder to avoid down the road. As Iran, in a race toward nuclear power status, pushes the envelope in the Golan, Israel will need to establish clear red lines and reassert a policy of deterrence. As such, the limited retaliation it held itself to this time around could well become a liability going forward. For example, Israel hitting whatever remains of the Assad regime’s brigades in the south is unlikely to deter Iran from expanding into the Golan. Iran will absorb strikes against Assad that don’t threaten his position in Damascus and western Syria, and that don’t fundamentally alter the balance of power against the rebels. Similarly, a tolerable limited retaliation against Hezbollah in south Lebanon, following a future operation in the Shebaa Farms, will likely reinforce Iran’s and Hezbollah’s sense that Israel is unwilling to start a major war, and has therefore itself been effectively deterred.

Of course, Israel did show its readiness to escalate, and Prime Minister Netanyahu warned that such Hezbollah attacks would invite a strong response, similar to what was inflicted on Hamas in Gaza. Still, Israel’s decision not to go all the way this time around carries risks. From Israel’s standpoint, what transpired this month cannot become the new normal. By contrast, it’s certain that Iran and Hezbollah will continue to probe the Golan front. 

The Iranians know they have two years left to press their advantage and maximize their gains, not only without any pushback from the US, but with its de facto consent. And the White House’s open hostility toward Netanyahu will only encourage the Iranians to take shots at Israel. Which is why, over time, a limited tit-for-tat Israeli approach would work to Tehran’s advantage, failing to deter it, and making the Golan front a fact. With Iran racing toward the nuclear bomb, its operational presence in the Golan, integrating the Lebanese and south Syrian fronts, is untenable for Israel. It is a matter of upholding Israeli deterrence and containing the Iranian expansion taking place with the seeming acquiescence of the Obama administration.

For now, the Israeli government has chosen to contain the situation. But unless it is willing to effectively recognize Iran as a reality on the Golan — which is highly unlikely — Israel will continue to deny the Iranians and their Hezbollah arm the ability to establish a front there. This means that another confrontation is just a matter of time, at which point Israel could well decide to prove — both to Tehran and Washington — its willingness to escalate with a massive display of force in order to enforce its red lines. Put differently, Iran’s expansionist push into southern Syria has put Lebanon on the path toward certain ruin.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

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