October 7, 2015 | The Huffington Post

Can Obama Counter Hezbollah After The Nuclear Deal?

Washington, for all of its assurances that it has blocked every path to a nuclear Iran, has done little to block the pathway to a devastating regional conflict.

As senior Israeli officials have told me in private conversations repeatedly since 2013, the winds of war are blowing in Lebanon. As one told me this summer, Israel's military and defense establishment knows that the next conflict with Hezbollah “could get ugly.” The Lebanese terrorist group now has 100,000 rockets — mostly supplied by Iran and many of them with advanced capabilities — pointing south at Israel. Hassan Nasrallah, the group's leader, boasted earlier this year that Hezbollah is not afraid of the next skirmish. He's likely feeling even more confident now that sanctions relief granted to Iran through July's nuclear deal is almost certainly going to trickle down to Hezbollah, enabling arms purchases that will make the group that much more formidable.

The new Israeli defense doctrine, released this summer, warns of a brutal conflict that could depopulate Southern Lebanon. Hezbollah dismissed it as psychological warfare, but the Lebanese public is understandably concerned. They have warned Hezbollah against darkening Israel's skies with its rockets. They remember too well the Israeli reprisals in 2006, which caused billions of dollars in damage. But what the Lebanese public may not realize is that it's too late. A great many of Hezbollah's launchers are now strategically placed in high-density population areas to ensure that an Israeli response causes unspeakable civilian casualties, but valuable public relations victories for Hezbollah.

Some analysts say Hezbollah can't afford another battle because it is drowning in its own blood in Syria. Indeed, up to 8,000 Hezbollah fighters are defending the Bashar al-Assad regime against Sunni militants, and an estimated 1,000 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in action.

But their sacrifice is not only for the sake of Assad. Quietly, Hezbollah has been cloning itself in Syria, establishing fighting forces there to target Israel. So, if Hezbollah wishes to wage war against Israel from Syria, it may do so from this new front, while dragging Israel into an unwanted conflict with a range of other actors fighting there, including the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and a seemingly endless list of other jihadi factions.

In recent weeks, the White House has handed down financial sanctions against a number of Hezbollah targets. These measures were likely meant to placate an angry Congress, which never had a chance to debate the deal, let alone influence its terms. But these designations will do little to constrain Hezbollah's financial flows. At best, they are name and shame operations. It's not as if the Lebanese terror groups were about to open bank accounts in Manhattan.

While Netanyahu refused to discuss the question of Israeli military needs during the Congressional debate over the nuclear deal (for fear of losing what little leverage he had to alter the outcome of the vote) those discussions will soon resume. Israel will request more Iron Dome batteries, which can knock hurtling Hezbollah rockets from the sky. Other advanced weaponry will undoubtedly be part of the equation.

But as history will attest, arming Israel is no deterrent to Hezbollah or any of Iran's other proxies. True deterrence can only be established by instilling a healthy fear of future conflict.

There is no better deterrent than the use of overpowering military force. But this is something that Israel would like to avoid, given the devastation that is all but guaranteed in the next conflict. While Israel is likely to defeat Hezbollah, it would come at a terrible price. The group's 100,000 rockets will yield devastation not seen since the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Some argue that Israel could benefit from a public agreement with the United States that offers it maximum flexibility and virtually unlimited rearmament in response to a Hezbollah provocation. But it will be difficult for the Obama Administration to honor one. When push comes to shove, in its desperation to defend the president's legacy and maintain détente with Tehran, the White House is likely to play down even Iran's most egregious proxy provocations. Indeed, it is in the interest of the president to not threaten any of Iran's core interests if the tradeoff is keeping Iran's nuclear ambitions in check. This, of course, was the very logic of the nuclear negotiators, and among the reasons the deal was so objectionable to its critics.

With little left to offer the Israelis in his waning presidency, Mr. Obama may have one interesting if controversial play: the United Nations. Of course, the UN has a terrible track record of preventing hostilities in South Lebanon. But it does have in the books a Security Council resolution that calls for Hezbollah to be disarmed. UNSCR 1701 predictably went unheeded, and its prospects for future implementation are laughable. But with the right players pushing for 1701's implementation, global pressure on Hezbollah could make the terrorist group more cautious. Moreover, should Hezbollah maintain its aggressive posture amidst renewed calls to disarm, Israel would arguably have the legal predicate it needs to respond to any provocations out of Lebanon, or even Syria.

But even this multilateral effort might be seen as too risky for the White House as it seeks to keep the Iran deal in place. A president that is so fearful of upsetting the delicate balance with Iran may, in fact, be among the more worrying aspects of the nuclear deal.

News reports indicate that increased financial flows to Hezbollah are already underway, and the group's military buildup continues. Without a plan to hinder Hezbollah, Mr. Obama's legacy could be a temporary halt to Iran's nuclear program but also a preventable war that brought devastation to both Lebanon and Israel, adding instability to an already-volatile Middle East.

Jonathan Schanzer is the Vice President for Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer


Hezbollah Iran Lebanon Syria