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Israel raises alarm over advances by Hizbullah and Iran

08 February 2018 Jane's Editorial Staff

This is an extract from an article from Jane’s Intelligence Review. Although an Israel-Hizbullah conflict triggered by developments in southern Lebanon remains probable in the longer term, a potential new front is also opening in southwestern Syria as Iran and its proxies move closer. Nicholas Blanford and Jonathan Spyer assess whether a wider regional conflict is in the making.

Key points

  • A conflict between Israel and Hizbullah in southern Lebanon remains conceivable because of the possibility of miscalculation by either side, but southwestern Syria has become a greater area for friction and possible escalation.
  • Hizbullah has greatly expanded its military capabilities since the 2006 conflict, with rockets deployed in ready-to-fire mode, although it remains aware that any war could devastate Lebanon.
  • Israel’s 2 December airstrike on an alleged Iranian military base at Al-Kiswah demonstrated its intent to deter Iran from encroaching on its territory, most particularly through establishing a presence in the Golan Heights.

The war in Syria is entering a less intensive phase. This has placed a spotlight on Iran’s apparent ambition to establish a long-term military presence in Syria that would include operating bases, commanding pro-Tehran militias, and establishing a foothold in the Golan Heights opposite Israeli forces – a ‘red line’ for Israel. Anticipating Iran’s military consolidation in Syria, Israel has increased and expanded its airstrikes against suspected Hizbullah targets in Syria to include facilities allegedly connected to Iran.

Furthermore, the administration of US President Donald Trump has begun to implement a new strategy against Iran and its regional proxies. Measures include Washington’s potential unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement; further sanctions on Iranian individuals and entities; and attempts to curb Iran’s ballistic missile programme. In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be in concert with the White House in seeking to block Iranian ambitions: in November, Riyadh precipitated a political crisis in Lebanon in a bid to force the Beirut government to adopt a stronger line against Hizbullah.

The drawing down of the Syria war and escalating anti-Hizbullah measures across the region have raised concerns in Lebanon that another war between Hizbullah and Israel could be imminent. In October, sources close to Hizbullah told Jane’s that it had begun to withdraw some of its fighters from Syria, including its special forces units, partly due to the reduction in active fronts but also to shore up the front against Israel in case of a sudden deterioration. The sources said that the level of expectation among Hizbullah cadres that another war was imminent had not been higher since the last conflict in July–August 2006.

Despite the unsettling dynamics, however, the balance of deterrence between Israel and Hizbullah remains strong. This weighs against either side deliberately launching a war. The month-long but inconclusive war in 2006 set the stage for a potential further round of conflict, but since then the Lebanon-Israel border area has remained calm for the longest continuous period since the 1960s – even as both sides make preparations for a future clash. Moreover, the risk of miscalculation upsetting the delicate balance has grown as various actors in Syria seek to consolidate influence.

This is an extract from an article that appeared in Jane’s Intelligence Review. Learn more.


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