An Israeli helicopter fired rockets on a convoy in the Golan Heights on January 18, killing six members of Hezbollah and an Iranian general. MEI’s Randa Slim explains the context surrounding the attack and the likely repercussions.
Why did Israel choose this time to attack Hezbollah and Iranian targets in the Golan Heights?
Israel saw an opportunity and decided to take it. How Israel got the information that enabled it to carry out the strike is debatable. Publicly, Israeli official sources are saying that this group was plotting an operation against Israel, so they attacked preemptively in order to stop them. Another interpretation is that Israel was looking for an opportunity to send a message to Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria that activities by these groups in the Golan Heights cross a red line.
There were five other Iranian soldiers in the convoy, and Israel's intelligence and security agencies know that they would not be present unless they were escorting a senior Iranian official. So it's hard to believe the claims of an unnamed Israeli source that they did not know the status of the person in the convoy. It is more likely that they had been tracking this operation for some time, waiting for an opportunity to strike and send a strong message to Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards leadership.
How will Hezbollah respond?
On January 15, Hezbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, gave an interview to Al Mayadeen television in which he threatened to retaliate against Israel for strikes on Syria targeting Hezbollah and/or Syrian military assets. Such repeated strikes, he said, would no longer be tolerated by the "Resistance Axis," which includes Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria. Three days later Israel targeted the Iranian-Hezbollah convoy, and now everyone is awaiting Hezbollah's promised retaliation.
It is clear that the stakes are too high for Hezbollah not to retaliate in some form, but the question is what kind of balancing act they need to do in order not to provoke a large-scale escalation with Israel.
There has been a war of tit-for-tat between Israel and Hezbollah since the end of the 2006 war on the Israeli-Lebanese border, stabilized by a pattern of mutual deterrence. Neither side desires an escalation, so they rely on proportional responses in order not to upend the status quo. The few times in the past two years that Israel attacked Hezbollah's material and personnel inside Lebanon, Hezbollah retaliated against Israeli military assets, typically within a month, and in a form commensurate with the scale of the Israeli attack.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, numerous Israeli airstrikes in Syria have targeted convoys and/or warehouses presumed to be carrying or storing weapons for Hezbollah. Until now, Hezbollah has decided not to retaliate, and the Syrian regime has also chosen not to respond to these attacks.
What are Hezbollah's options?
Hezbollah has a toolbox of options to choose from when it decides to retaliate against an Israeli attack. Direct attacks against Israeli convoys in areas like the contested Shebaa Farms are one. Another is kidnapping Israeli soldiers, which sparked the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. A third method is to use proxy groups that are known to be affiliated with Hezbollah but that can carry out attacks against Israel while giving Hezbollah room for deniability. A fourth method involves attacks by Hezbollah agents outside of the Middle East at locations in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia targeting Israeli diplomatic missions, officials, tourists, or religious sites. There have been such attacks attributed to Hezbollah in Bulgaria, Thailand, and Argentina, among other places.
In choosing how to retaliate, Hezbollah will not be denying responsibility. It will be looking to send a message to Israel that what Israel has done is no longer tolerable and that there is a price to be paid. Yet in whatever way Hezbollah chooses to react, I don’t expect it to be so as to warrant Israeli escalation.
What issues must Hezbollah consider as it weighs these options?
Hezbollah has to think about the implications of its actions on at least three fronts. First is the Syrian front, in which the group's involvement in propping up the Assad regime was quite decisive in turning the tide of war in favor of Assad when he was about to lose.
Second is the Lebanese front with Israel, which continues to operate according to the rules of mutual deterrence. Hezbollah leaders have always maintained that they are engaged in a defensive posture against Israel, but that they will not tolerate Israeli attacks that challenge the tacit arrangement of mutual deterrence.
The third front is the domestic front, which is deeply polarized because of Hezbollah's intervention in Syria. At least half of the Lebanese are not supportive of Hezbollah's involvement and believe that it has created security, economic, and political problems for Lebanon regionally and internationally. At the same time, Hezbollah’s core constituency among Lebanon’s Shi‘a is demanding retaliation. Hashtags are circulating on Twitter like #JeSuisJihadMughniyeh, expressing support for the son of Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in the Golan strike. Imad Mughniyeh was the former head of Hezbollah’s Jihadi Council who was assassinated by a car bomb in 2008 in Damascus in an act attributed to Israeli agents.
At the same time, Hezbollah's decision on how to retaliate will be affected by how much their organizational, military, and personnel resources and capacities have been drained by their involvement in these three fronts. If you look at Hezbollah's available pool of supporters, fighters, and resources, we are not talking about China. We are talking about a community of less than a million Shi‘a, the majority of whom are Hezbollah supporters though not willing to die fighting for the Syrian regime. At some point, because of its multifaceted agenda and military involvement in many conflicts, Hezbollah will reach a point at which its deterrence capacity against Israel and its capacity to provide a forward defense for Iran against Israel will be threatened. This is when Hezbollah will rethink its position in Syria. But they are far from that point.
What would be the implications if there were a serious escalation of tensions?
It is hard to predict given the number of players and moving parts that are involved. The risk of escalation remains small, but if it happens due to a major miscalculation by either or both sides, or due to the parties’ misreading of the other’s intentions, all bets are off. It would impact the war in Syria and in Iraq, and would introduce yet more instability in an already volatile environment.
It would also be hard to carry on the P5+1 Iran nuclear negotiations as if nothing else was happening. Communications between the United States and Iran will be needed to put brakes on their respective allies' adventuresome behavior, and to maintain the status quo that has existed since 2006. I suspect that the risk of escalation between Israel and Hezbollah is less than it would be if there were no ongoing negotiations between Iran and the United States.