BEIRUT—The tranquil winding roads of Lebanon’s mountainous interior are far from the tense waters of the Persian Gulf where President Donald Trump says America came within 10 minutes of war with Iran a few weeks ago. And where, he said on Thursday, the U.S. shot down an Iranian drone. But if fighting ever does begin, these hills and valleys near the border with Israel will quickly be on the front lines. And according to Hezbollah commanders, that moment could be coming soon.
When Trump talked of war, he meant a shooting war in the conventional sense. But for Iran and its allies, it’s Trump’s economic war with its suffocating sanctions that is bringing the region to the brink of armed conflict. The targets of Trump’s weaponized dollar increasingly see resorting to military engagements as the only response left.
Here in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s commanders are close allies and clients of Iran—and they are targeted by U.S. sanctions as well. They warn that if the pressure continues these rugged hills where the Party of God fought bloody guerrilla campaigns to end 15 years of Israeli occupation in 2000 and repel an Israeli invasion in 2006 could erupt once again.
And this time, they say, the combat will be far more devastating.
Hezbollah’s forces, battle-hardened in the Syrian civil war, have begun redeploying toward the Israeli border, not only in Lebanon, but in Syria opposite the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan Heights.
Hezbollah fighters who spoke to The Daily Beast say their organization is hurting from sanctions and ready to initiate hostilities—if and when Tehran deems that necessary.
“The sanctions now have us preparing for dealing with the Israeli front,” says “Commander Samir,” a Hezbollah officer in charge of 800 fighters on Lebanon’s border with Israel. He declines to use his real name because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “We will fire the first shot this time,” he says.
Hezbollah’s military wing has changed fundamentally since its 2012 entrance into the war in Syria to prop up the Assad regime, transforming into a regional fighting force the Shia organization inspired by the Iranian revolution that the U.S. lists as a terrorist group.
When Trump offers the reasons he pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran last year, precipitating the current crisis, he cites Iran’s support for militias that extend its power and influence across the region as something the U.S. intends to end—with Hezbollah the main target.
But the pressure may actually be consolidating and motivating Iran’s proxies.
Hezbollah is still fighting in Syria while training Iranian allied militias in Iraq and Yemen. The commander says his organization and Iran have moved past their split with Palestinian allies over Syria, where they were on opposite sides of the Syrian revolution as it turned into a bloody regional proxy war, and Iran is once again providing training and support for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
From a living room overlooking the valleys where he became a veteran, ambushing the Israeli army and melting away into the surrounding hills, Samir says the next war will be nothing like those that came before.
He underscores the importance of Hezbollah’s positions in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan, giving it the ability to open a second front there against Israel, and boasts about drone capabilities and new anti-aircraft and anti-naval weapons acquired in Syria alongside a more seasoned fighting force.
“Our wish before the war in Syria was to go and open a front in the Golan but [the Syrian Government] set a red line,” the commander says, describing the limits the pre-war Assad regime placed on Hezbollah activity in its territory. “Now there are no red lines,” he said.
The commander acknowledges a new war would bring vast devastation to Israel and Lebanon, but says the sanctions crippling the Iranian economy and forcing a large reduction in Iran’s financial support for Hezbollah could make this nightmare scenario real.
Already, salaries for Hezbollah fighters have been halved, according to the three fighters The Daily Beast spoke with. But while they are hurting economically, they insist their organization feels strong militarily.
“The Iranians have said either we all sell oil or no one does,” Commander Samir says definitively, describing Hezbollah’s interests in lockstep with Iran’s. Like the two other fighters that spoke to The Daily Beast, he describes Hezbollah’s concerns in more regional rather than domestic terms, responding to actions of U.S. allies around the Middle East rather than Israeli action on Lebanese soil.
“If any missile hits Iran, it will be treated like Israel did it,” says the commander,
In spite of the increasing destabilization of the region since the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and sanctions started taking hold, the Trump administration has argued that its policy of “maximum pressure” will force Iranian acquiescence.
However, according to Ahmad Moussalli, a political science professor and specialist in Islamic movements at the American University of Beirut, the financial constraints imposed by Washington are having the opposite effect.
“You find this axis sees itself as fighting for its existence,” says Moussalli referring to Iran and its regional allies and proxies. “So they are going to pull together and strengthen their axis,” he continues, pointing to the way Hezbollah has been increasing overt political influence in Lebanon while allies in Yemen and Iraq have been taking more aggressive action.
“Iran is not going to sit down, take it and destroy itself from within,” Moussalli says. “And the only way for them to react is militarily; they don’t have many other options.” He leaves no doubt that Iran is the power determining regional responses rather than Hezbollah or any other proxy acting on its own initiative.
The eruption of shelling between Israel and Gaza ahead of the Israeli election in May provided some instructive examples of changes in tactics. Commander Samir points to a threat—which was not carried out—by Islamic Jihad to fire missiles at the northern Israeli city of Haifa. The threat was a marked change from recent rhetoric by the Palestinian Islamist faction which had previously taken the public position of “quiet for quiet,” a term used by the Israeli army to describe its claimed intention not to initiate armed hostility. “It was a message from us and Iran,” he brags about the ability to fire at Israel from the south or the north while contending the choice to do so or not is up to Tehran. “Islamic Jihad never shoots before calling the Iranians.”
“Assir,” a seasoned Hezbollah fighter in Syria is back in Lebanon after years of bloody tours in what’s been an unending war. He takes up a nom-de-guerre because Hezbollah fighters are generally not authorized to speak to media. When we meet in Beirut, he says that like the many fighters coming back to Lebanon as Assad consolidates control over much of Syria, he is not being demobilized but rather redeployed south to the Israeli border.
“People who finish their mission in Syria go to the south,” Assir says, describing how his comrades and he have been given new posts since tensions started rising in the Gulf. “There are some units in Syria but a lot go back to Lebanon or to the Golan. Thousands have come back.”
Military success in Syria has reinforced Assir’s confidence and he points to the tensions in the Strait of Hormuz as the source of the next conflict with Israel. “The commanders talk about if there is a spark in Hormuz, there could be a spark in Lebanon,” recalls Assir.
However, Moussalli sees the prospect for war with Israel, while it looms, probably is not imminent. He doubts that Hezbollah is eager for a war at the moment. He says currently Iran is primarily focused on responding in the Gulf area and Iraq.
“Syria and Lebanon will be engaged in war once Europe or Iran completely pull out of the nuclear agreement,” says Moussalli, arguing war with Israel is still a ways off. “The issue with Israel is a rather big one,” he continues, referring to the costs of the 2006 war. “So yes there is pressure, there is the possibility of war but I don’t think it is near,” he says, believing that if sanctions are relieved the tension will be as well. But, “are they ready [for war]?” he adds referring to Hezbollah. “Yes they are.”
The second Lebanon War ignited in the wake of Hezbollah seizing two Isralei soldiers and killing three others in a cross border raid in July 2006 and Israel retaliating with a massive artillery and aerial bombardment of Lebanon. Hezbollah in turn fired rockets at northern Israeli cities and Israel launched a ground invasion. The result was the demolition of large swaths of Lebanon, pulverized by Israeli jets, while Israeli soldiers found themselves in an unwinnable quagmire and forced to withdraw from a country for the second time in less than a decade. By the time the shooting ended 1,200 Lebanese – mostly civilians, 45 Israeli civilians and 120 soldiers had been killed. More than a million people in Lebanon, a quarter of the population at the time, were displaced and while there are no official numbers of Hezbollah casualties, the UN estimated that 500 of the Lebanese casualties were Hezbollah fighters.
Moussalli’s assessment of a slower march toward the carnage of an Israeli-Lebanese conflict more devastating than past ones is echoed by “Commander Ayman,” a Hezbollah officer currently based in Beirut who also oversees units fighting in Syria.
“The Americans know the kind of fighters we have, so Hezbollah and Iran have been reminding the world how bad [a war] could be,” notes Ayman. While confirming there is a strict red line around any attack on Iran, he maintains there is a strong desire to avoid war, suggesting the blusterous talk of imminent conflict with Israel is designed to convince the U.S. to abandon its current strategy.
Israel also doesn’t seem very interested in conflict over Lebanon at the moment. While Netanyahu has pursued a policy of striking Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, he has avoided another war in Lebanon. Even when Hezbollah tunnels into Israel were unmasked in January, there was no action over Lebanon.
Unlike Israeli wars in Gaza, which have carried low costs to Israeli soldiers and civilians and have pushed the electorate toward Netanyahu, wars in Lebanon have had large military and civilian costs for Israel, often turning the electorate against the government.
When asked if Netanyahu thought that the U.S. sanctions he has actively encouraged could ignite conflict with Hezbollah, the Prime Minister’s Office officially declined to comment. The Israeli military also declined to comment on how it sees the current level of tension on its Lebanese border or if its alert level had changed since Iran started reacting to sanctions, claiming it “is too complex an issue to explain on the phone or in a statement.”
Meanwhile sanctions and rhetoric continue to escalate.
Following the U.S. Treasury Department’s announcement last Tuesday of fresh sanctions targeting Hezbollah members of the Lebanese parliament, threats of annihilation have been hurled back and forth between Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who, not coincidentally, is fighting for reelection).
In a speech last Friday marking the 13th anniversary of the 2006 war with Israel, Nasrallah gloated about expanded military capabilities and threatened that another war would “bring Israel to the brink of extinction.” Netanyahu responded on Sunday by threatening to deal Lebanon and Hezbollah “a crushing military blow” if Hezbollah attacks.
On Monday, European signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, gathered in Brussels to try to salvage the agreement that the US pulled out of in 2018. The Europeans hope to find enticements that will encourage Iran to stay in the deal.
During his address, Nasrallah claimed that he didn’t intend to start a war with Israel. Those sentiments were reiterated by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an interview with CNN in New York on Wednesday where Zarif stated that Iran will not start a war but will defend itself.
The sheer destruction a new conflict between Hezbollah and Israel would unleash on Lebanon leads Moussalli to call it a “madness war.” While Hezbollah’s exact intentions are unclear, the border between Israel and Lebanon was much quieter before U.S. sanctions put Iran and its allies on this collision course.
Even if Hezbollah and Israel don’t want to start shooting now, it increasingly seems like a decision determined by Washington’s policies and how Tehran reacts. After all, according to Trump, a few weeks ago it looked like a war—one likely to stretch from the Gulf to the Mediterranean—was only 10 minutes away.