January 4, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

What are Hezbollah’s calculations, 90 days into war on Israel?

Hezbollah has dictated the tempo. It has been used to doing what it wants, creating provocations and escalation, and pushing again and again to see what is effective.
January 4, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

What are Hezbollah’s calculations, 90 days into war on Israel?

Hezbollah has dictated the tempo. It has been used to doing what it wants, creating provocations and escalation, and pushing again and again to see what is effective.

For the past 90 days of the war, Hezbollah got used to playing fiddle. After Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, Hezbollah began to carry out attacks on Israel, and while there were initial concerns in the region and Washington that this could escalate, Hezbollah appeared to prefer daily small attacks to a larger war; a US aircraft carrier parked in the Mediterranean may have made it think twice.

This aircraft carrier is now heading away, allowing Hezbollah to feel more empowered in its decisions; it has to fish or cut bait. The problem with Hezbollah is that it has become too big in recent years. Not only does it occupy a swath of Lebanon and hold Lebanese politics hostage, but it is so powerful that Iran fears “losing” it in a war, like an advanced piece on a chess board, where you keep sending more pieces to protect it, lest that piece end up being lost in some complex sacrifice. Iran doesn’t want to sacrifice Hezbollah, yet it also wants Hezbollah to be a threat to Israel.

So far, Hezbollah has succeeded in driving some 80,000 Israelis from their homes on the northern border; this is unprecedented – never in history did Israel evacuate the whole border. Hezbollah can pretend it has won, but it has also lost around 140 or more of its fighters. Hezbollah terrorists are not a rabble. It’s not like the poor Iranian recruits from Afghanistan – the Fetimiyoun – whom Iran sent as cannon fodder to Syria. Hezbollah, rather, is used to being the senior partner among all of Iran’s proxies.

The ‘small work’ of firing rockets

Hamas upstaged it on October 7, so it has been doing the “small work” of firing rockets and ATGMs at Israel, small work that causes damage but doesn’t win the war. Hezbollah uses drones as well, but those don’t win wars either.

So what is at its disposal now? It now faces a serious problem. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant joined IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi this week, as well as other officials, to discuss the northern border, including the “defense establishment’s requirement to facilitate the secure return of Israel’s northern communities to their homes in the region.”

Hezbollah knows that the tempo of the war is shifting. Israel is transitioning operations in Gaza to a more low-intensity conflict, which means that Israeli air power is not as active over Gaza. It also means that reservists are leaving Gaza and that, this last week, there were more comments by Israeli officials about the North. Hezbollah must wonder then, if the tempo is shifting, what does that mean for Hezbollah? It has been used to carry out attacks at a time and place of its choosing, to a proportionate response.

Over the last two decades, Hezbollah has gained a lot of power and was able to put its foot into Syria and expand its work with Iran’s proxies to threaten Israel from Syria. Iran even moved drones to Syria in 2018 and also tried to move air defenses. Hezbollah sought to improve its precision-guided munitions and had gotten used to testing Israel. For instance, after the maritime deal last year, brokered by the US, Israel and Lebanon were supposed to benefit from gas reserves off the coast. Hezbollah threatened Israel over that and also sought to create tension along the border last spring.

Hezbollah has dictated the tempo. It has been used to doing what it wants, creating provocations and escalation, and pushing again and again to see what is effective.

But a terrorist army like Hezbollah can only push so far. It has a lot to lose in Lebanon and it has become so large that it also has a lot of assets that are not easy to simply fold up and move.

On the other hand, it may try to feed stories to the media about being willing to withdraw from the border or pretend its elite units have withdrawn. For instance, the Radwan units may become a talking point.

Making its own decisions

But it will also have to make its own decisions. It has constantly put up its redlines and made demands and threats. Is it concerned that its threats will not be taken seriously? Or has Hassan Nasrallah become so used to making speeches that he feels the speeches are enough?

Iran must also be wondering, after reports of US airstrikes in Iraq on Thursday and the US mobilizing to stop the Houthis, whether it is now facing a multi-front conflict of its own making. In short, Iran sought to expand the number of “arenas” threatening Israel. But the more arenas it exploits, the more places it leaves open to setbacks.

In a sense, the more pawns it moves forward on the board, the more it has to defend those same pawns. And what happens when the “threat” of the pawns, becomes a series of losing gambits? Moreover, what happens when all that Iran has invested in Hezbollah becomes questionable as to how powerful an asset it is?

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Issues:

Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Israel Israel at War Lebanon