The Lebanese Shia Are not Ready for War

Despite Hassan Nasrallah’s Fiery Rhetoric, Hezbollah’s Response will be Very Limited

The possibility for a Hezbollah-Israel war has grown immensely after two Israeli drones exploded in Lebanon’s southern suburbs – Hezbollah’s stronghold – earlier this month. As tension builds up on both sides of the Lebanese-Israeli borders, Lebanese people, mainly the Shia community, anticipate Hezbollah’s next move with fear and concern.

Hezbollah’s official statements and media said that the first drone fell on a building housing the group’s media office in the Moawwad neighborhood in Dahiyeh. The second drone exploded in the air and crashed in an empty plot nearby, shattering windows in surrounding buildings. According to Hezbollah’s initial investigation, the two drones were both armed with 5.5 kilos of C4 explosives.

However, The Times reported that the attack targeted crates believed to contain machinery to mix of high-grade propellant for precision-guided missiles and that the strike on an Iranian position in Damascus has prevented an imminent armed drone attack on Israel being planned by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Israel did not comment on Lebanon’s drone incident, but it did take responsibility for striking an Iranian position south of the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing two Hezbollah militants and one Iranian planning to attack northern Israel with armed drones.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah promised a firm response to what he said was “the first clear, big, dangerous, breach of the rules of engagement drawn up in 2006” after the end of a devastating conflict between the two sides. “If we keep quiet on this violation, this will lay a dangerous path for Lebanon,” he said, adding that Hezbollah would attempt to down any Israeli drones that violate Lebanese airspace from now on. 

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Convinced that Hezbollah has strong control over Lebanon's state institutions, Israel’s potential wider attack on Hezbollah might also target Lebanon's infrastructure, institutions, and army, while the group is still expanding its facilities in Lebanon.

There is no doubt that Hezbollah’s build-up of precision weapons presents a serious threat to Israel. If that threat is not dealt with via diplomatic means, the next war between Israel and Hezbollah may well be inevitable.

For Hezbollah, its priorities in the region have changed, and although the Syrian crisis has not yet been resolved, Hezbollah -- and Iran -- continue to achieve gains in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Hezbollah wouldn’t want to risk its regional achievements in a new war with Israel. Although Hezbollah has gained more power in the region, it has cost the party significant losses and sacrifices.  Hezbollah has lost many of its high-ranking commanders and trained fighters. As such, they will certainly need time to redeploy and organize themselves before entering a new war.

In addition, Hezbollah knows that funding for reconstruction is not going to flow to Lebanon this time around as was the case post the July war of 2006. Back then, Lebanon’s government was a majority March 14 government that had good relations with both the West and Saudi Arabia. The international community was very keen at helping Lebanon recover from the war. This time around, the line between the Lebanese government and Hezbollah is very blurry. The international community will probably refrain from funding any reconstruction in Lebanon that is controlled by a Hezbollah-affiliated government.

Last but not least, right after the 2006 war, Iran sent Hezbollah more US Dollars that it needs, leading to rapid wealth and corruption within Hezbollah ranks. Today, Iran is suffering from a financial crisis because of the US sanctions, which is heavily reflected in Hezbollah’s financial system. Hezbollah is going through a serious financial crisis predicament that leads the party to fire many of its employees and fighters, and also put its social services on hold. Hezbollah cannot afford to go into a war that it cannot fund.

Therefore, despite Hassan Nasrallah’s fiery rhetoric, Hezbollah’s response is going to be very limited and calculated.

While Israel might be more ready than Hezbollah for this war, Israeli officials also know that a possible war could be costly, given that Hezbollah’s military capabilities have increased and developed, including a few precision missiles that they have already acquired.  Hezbollah’s arsenal is estimated to have grown from 33,000 rockets and missiles before 2006 to 150,000. These are more advanced weapons that would cause serious damage to Israel.

Given that Hezbollah now controls more ground in Syria, Israel might find itself fighting two or more fronts in the next war and involved in a confrontation with all the Shiite militias in Syria, not just Hezbollah. Under the command of Iran's Quds Force, Hezbollah is today leading tens of thousands of Shiite fighters from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Hassan Nasrallah had warned that during a future Israeli war against Lebanon would draw thousands of fighters from these militias.

 



A picture taken from the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila on December 9, 2018, near the border with Israel shows United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) vehicles patrolling next to the concrete border wall separating the two countries. (Getty)

THE SHIA COMMUNITY’S PERSPECTIVE ON WAR

Hezbollah has been fighting in Syria since 2012, and has shifted its strategy from “resisting Israel” to “protecting Iran’s regional interests.” This shift has signaled another shift for many Lebanese Shia who on the one hand, are disappointed in Hezbollah’s abandonment of the “resistance,” but on the other hand, feel relieved that they do not have to suffer the consequences of another war.

Because of Hezbollah’s new regional role and financial crisis, many Shiites have been increasingly critical of the "party of God." The long war in Syria has taken a toll on the Shiite community in particular, which lost many of its young men -- with no "divine victory" in return. In addition, Hezbollah’s budget shifts have led to serious cuts in social services, a sacrifice that has left many poor families struggling.

Hezbollah is now seen as a sectarian militia fighting for Iran's regional agenda. While some do not mind the sectarian power this new mission is bringing to the community, many Shia dislike the isolation of the community and the financial and security risks that it faces.

During the past thirteen years of relative peace – or mutual deterrence – between Israel and Lebanon, many Shia have started to think about the future, and have invested in their towns and villages in the south of Lebanon. The place is now booming with small businesses, restaurants, and hotels, something that the south of Lebanon has not witnessed for decades. This means that the Shia community has developed a business mentality, and this mentality is usually against war.

In any case, Hezbollah is doomed. If they respond and Israel decides to strike back with a wider attack, Hezbollah will have to face internal challenges within its constituency, financial challenges, and significant military losses. If they do not respond, Hezbollah’s credibility and respect – mainly Nasrallah’s – will be lost.

Even if the response will be limited, there’s no telling how this will escalate, and whether Israel will take this as an invitation to go after Hezbollah’s precision missile facilities, which are all over Lebanon.

Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

 


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