by Tony Badran
This month marks the 10-year anniversary of the end of the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. The strategic changes that have taken place in the Levant over the past decade have been enormous. A critical change has been the disintegration of Syria — Hezbollah’s strategic depth and logistical bridge to Iran. But most importantly, the 8-year tenure of president Obama has seen a radical shift in the US position in the region, realigning it closely with Iran and Russia. These major shifts now loom over a future conflict between Israel and Hezbollah — a conflict widely seen as a matter of when, not if.
What is the likelihood of a new war? Ironically, while the changes in Israel’s and Hezbollah’s strategic environment raise the prospects for renewed conflict, they also, for the time being, impose constraints.
The war in Syria has been very costly for Hezbollah. The cost is not restricted to the substantial casualty rate, but also includes the loss of the group’s strategic depth. This has left the group exposed. Israel has been able to strike their weapons depots and convoys, as well as their cadres in Syria at will. Hezbollah’s has had little choice other than to swallow it.
In addition, as a result of its participation in the war against the Syrian people, Hezbollah has now run a blood debt with Syria’s Sunnis. This has implications for a future war with Israel, as Lebanese Shiite refugees in that future conflict will not be able to find safe haven in Syria like they did in 2006. It also has long term implications, as Hezbollah is now at war with its only two neighbors. The enmity with the Sunnis extends beyond Syria, and has resulted in the Gulf Arab states taking measures against Hezbollah. This hurts their base’s ability to work and make money there, and could impact Hezbollah’s criminal financial activities. Finally, whereas Gulf Arab money helped rebuild Hezbollah areas destroyed in 2006, this reconstruction money may not be readily available in a future war, now that Hezbollah has been declared a terrorist entity by the Gulf Cooperation Council.
At the same time, however, Hezbollah has managed to salvage core interests in Syria. Most critically, it has maintained territorial contiguity with regime areas adjacent to Lebanon. Also, despite Israeli strikes, it has been able to upgrade its capabilities, successfully smuggling in advanced weapons systems. Despite its high cost, the Syrian war has also offered new opportunities for expansion in Syria, namely in the south, that were not available before. This opportunities have not all come to fruition yet, but it is assumed that a new war with Israel will extend to the Syrian theater as well.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon is completely unchallenged. The group controls the state. It has a partnership with the Army and almost all the security agencies. With US blessing and support, the Lebanese Army, in fact, has been acting as Hezbollah’s auxiliary force in Lebanon. The US Congress has passed a sanctions law targeting the group. This has stung Hezbollah in Lebanon and has the potential of hurting it more. At the same time, however, Obama is unshackling Hezbollah’s patron in Iran, lifting sanctions and bans and unfreezing of tens of billions of dollars to Iran.
Hezbollah has benefited from Obama’s effective realignment with Iran in the region. Things would have been much worse for the group in Syria had the US worked with its regional allies to defeat the Assad regime. Instead, Obama openly recognized Iran’s “equities” in Syria — which, in reality, means their ability to continue to have a land bridge to Hezbollah. He has also made Iran a legitimate stakeholder in Syria. In directly helping Iran improve its strategic position, Obama has undermined Israel. This policy and the nuclear deal, which will leave Iran with an industrial scale nuclear program, have a direct impact on the prospect for a new war.
For now, Hezbollah is preoccupied with the fighting in Syria. And, given Assad’s manpower problems, it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Longer term, should Iran, with Russian help, stabilize its position in Syria, the security challenge to Israel will increase, and with it, the probability of a war between Israel and Hezbollah will also rise. Israel will not accept an enhanced Iranian presence on its border, potentially operating under a nuclear umbrella down the road.
Consequently, when this war finally erupts, Israel will bring to bear the full force of its military in order to achieve a decisive outcome.