As the Israel-Hamas conflict unfolds, tensions along the Lebanese-Israeli border reveal Hezbollah's cautious approach. Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, appears reluctant to fully engage at this point, seeking to maintain its strategic position within Lebanon while still benefiting from the ongoing conflict. The group's calculated involvement leaves open the possibility of escalation or a major conflict depending on changing circumstances or the assessments of Hezbollah and Iranian leadership.
Recent clashes have intensified, with Hezbollah firing guided missiles at Israeli military posts and targeting the town of Shtula near Shebaa Farms, a disputed area claimed by both Lebanon and Israel. Simultaneously, Hamas's al-Qassam Brigades launched rockets from Lebanon into northern Israel. In response, the Israeli military conducted airstrikes in southern Lebanon, even hitting the headquarters of local U.N. peacekeepers.
In response to this escalation, Hezbollah swiftly issued a statement through its spokesperson, Rana Sahili, emphasizing that these actions represent "skirmishes" and serve as a "warning" to Israel rather than a declaration of full-scale involvement in the conflict.
Hezbollah is using the conflict to push its own agenda. - Israel's Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid.
This immediate response underscores that Hezbollah's strategy remains consistent: they engage in limited border clashes, all while keeping Israel guessing about the potential for a broader conflict. The group continues to target Israeli military positions, radar installations, and telecommunications infrastructure, effectively preparing for escalation if the need arises.
Meanwhile, Iran has leveraged its regional influence, sending its Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to issue a stern warning to Israel. Amir-Abdollahian has cautioned of a "great earthquake" emanating from Beirut, echoing threats of an open war involving "all resistance axis forces" if Israel continues its actions in Gaza. Notably, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has remained conspicuously absent from the public eye, allowing Iranian officials to take center stage.
The absence of Nasrallah is in stark contrast to the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict when he played a prominent role in announcing operations, targets, and victories. His current low profile suggests ongoing deliberations in Tehran about the appropriate course of action.
Hezbollah's current strategy involves a high-stakes game along the border, demanding discipline, readiness, and meticulous planning from its forces. Unlike Hamas, which displayed indiscipline in its October 7th attack, Hezbollah cannot afford to tarnish its image, both among its constituents and on the world stage. The risk of miscalculation looms large, potentially leading to an all-out war, which is why Hezbollah has refrained from mobilizing its reserve forces thus far.
Furthermore, Hezbollah has initiated evacuations in many villages and towns near the border, indicating preparations for possible escalation, although coastal towns like Tyre, Sarafand, and Dahiyeh have not seen similar measures.
Since 2006, Hezbollah's strategy has revolved around maintaining deterrence, expanding regional influence, and amassing a substantial stockpile of precision-guided missiles. Out of an estimated 130,000 missiles in Hezbollah's possession, only a few dozen are precision-guided. However, the mere threat of these missiles has been more potent than their actual use. Deployment would result in their depletion, requiring years and significant resources for replenishment, which Hezbollah would prefer to avoid.
Hezbollah also faces a leadership predicament, as past victories were often attributed to individuals like Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a joint U.S.-Israeli operation in 2008, or Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the IRGC Quds Force, who was assassinated in 2020. Their absence has left Hezbollah with organizational and budgetary challenges.
Engaging in a full-scale war would not only be a domestic setback for Hezbollah but would also expose its inability to protect and relocate Lebanon's already disgruntled Shiite community. The conflict would test the group's precarious political dynamics within a country grappling with economic and political crises. In contrast to the 2006 war, where Persian Gulf states and Iran aided Lebanon's reconstruction and Hezbollah's recovery, the absence of guarantees for similar support this time poses significant risks for Hezbollah.
Yet, a full-scale Hezbollah-Israel war could carry its own set of uncertainties. While Hezbollah might seek to open another front to overwhelm Israel, success would be far from guaranteed. The pivotal question is whether Iran is willing to jeopardize Hezbollah's standing and military power in Lebanon, a step unlikely unless the conflict takes on an existential dimension for the Iranian regime.
The intricate links between Hezbollah and Iran, both militarily and ideologically, make it challenging for Hezbollah's leadership to defy Tehran should Iran choose to launch a war from Lebanon or the Golan Heights. Hezbollah has transformed from a Lebanese armed resistance group to Iran's principal regional military force, training and leading many of the IRGC's militias across the region, from Syria and Iraq to Yemen.
Since a joint operations room was established in Beirut involving Hezbollah, the Quds Force, Hamas, and other Palestinian factions in April 2023, both Hezbollah and Hamas have incrementally escalated along the Lebanese-Israeli border. Their actions have aimed to test Israel's preparedness, gauge international responses, and bolster the notion of a "united front" against Israel.
However, this united front has not been fully activated against Israel, largely because Iran has yet to see a compelling reason for escalated involvement. The recent attack by Hamas has already yielded significant benefits for the Iranian regime.
First, the Saudi-Israeli deal has been shelved indefinitely, while Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi held direct talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman concerning the Israel-Hamas war. Second, Iran can argue that it has finally responded to Israeli attacks on its facilities in Syria and covert operations within Iran. Third, the Hamas attack exposed vulnerabilities within the Israeli military and intelligence, which Iran's media continue to exploit. Fourth, Iran has successfully energized resistance rhetoric across the Middle East, enhancing its standing among the Arab public.
For Iran, the ongoing conflict has already bolstered its regional influence, and involving Hezbollah could jeopardize these gains. Using the Hezbollah card now might not yield added advantages, potentially eroding Iran's bargaining power in a protracted, multi-actor conflict.
The U.S. stance and warnings have also conveyed a strong message to Iran and Hezbollah. The arrival of the USS Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group in the Mediterranean, along with the USS Eisenhower carrier and additional U.S. Air Force fighter jets in the region, represents a clear deterrent. Iran, alongside Hezbollah and Hamas, may have miscalculated the response of the Biden administration, assuming that Israeli hostages in Gaza and strained diplomacy between the U.S. and Israeli governments would constrain both the U.S. and Israel.
Today, Tehran acknowledges the risks associated with U.S. involvement and recognizes that losses could overshadow gains in the event of a multifront war. However, if Hezbollah's current strategy spirals out of control, Iran may see escalation as a means to project its power, resulting in an all-encompassing war. Such a scenario could become an existential conflict for both Israel and Iran, inevitably drawing the United States into the fray.
Consequently, U.S. deterrence against Iran and Hezbollah remains critical, necessitating both a military presence and diplomatic messaging. Augmenting presence near the borders and coastlines of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel could help reinforce deterrence. Most importantly, Iran and the IRGC must be made acutely aware of the risks to their own political and military infrastructure if Hezbollah's calculations change and they decide to intervene.
Looking forward, the article underscores the persistent risk that Hezbollah poses on both the Lebanese and Golan Heights borders, even if the group refrains from direct involvement in the current conflict. Hezbollah stands to benefit from the current atmosphere of resistance, enabling them to solidify their influence in Lebanon and further enhance their military capabilities. The potential for a Hezbollah attack on Israel, and its implications for U.S. interests in the region, continues to grow, warranting vigilant attention and robust deterrence measures.