BEIRUT—What started as a great week for Hezbollah now looks set to end in perilous ambiguity.
The results of Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Lebanon were favorable to the U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, giving it and its partners a de facto majority for the first time since 2005, further consolidating its grip on the country’s state institutions.
A dramatic outbreak of direct military hostilities Wednesday between their arch-foe Israel and their sponsor, Iran, however, adds a sudden new element of uncertainty to the Party of God’s position. Although they appear to have been largely spared in the “dozens” of Israeli attacks on alleged Iranian military assets in Syria—the heaviest Israeli offensive in the country since the 1973 October War—the possibility of further escalation dragging Hezbollah into the arena, and potentially Lebanon with them, is considerable.
“The chances of an escalation, miscalculation, [or] accident that could suck Lebanon into the conflict are worryingly high,” said Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and the author of Warriors of God, a military history of Hezbollah. “If Israel attacks Hezbollah in Lebanon, or if Hezbollah helps Iran by attacking Israel from Lebanon, then the large-scale war for which we have been bracing for 12 years will be on,” Blanford told The Daily Beast.
The prospect is a grim one for the Lebanese. Israel has long warned any future war in Lebanon would be even more devastating than the July 2006 conflict, which killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians and reduced much of the country’s infrastructure to dust. Hezbollah, too, is more powerful militarily today than it was in 2006, with between 5,000 and 8,000 fighters in Syria alone, and many more still in Lebanon, according to Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute, who has tracked the group’s military activities for years. In possession of over 100,000 rockets, according to the Israeli military, the party is not a force to be taken on lightly.
In part for these very reasons, Blanford says there are grounds to believe the Rubicon will not be crossed this time. “I think it’s in the interests of all parties to keep Lebanon out of any flare-up, even if Hezbollah is assisting Iran from Syria. If Hezbollah is activated to participate from Lebanon, the scale of conflict will increase dramatically and will prove enormously destructive for both Lebanon and Israel,” he wrote in an article published today.
It’s worth bearing in mind that in January 2015, Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers in a premeditated missile attack, following an Israeli helicopter assault on senior Iranian and Hezbollah personnel in Syria’s Quneitra, without wider hostilities breaking out thereafter (although subsequent Israeli shelling did kill a Spanish UN peacekeeper).
Indeed, Israeli officials have themselves tried to cool the temperature somewhat in the aftermath of the latest strikes, with a military spokesperson tweeting that Israel “does not seek to escalate the situation,” and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying, “I hope we finished this chapter and everyone got the message.” Even if that is the case, there is of course no telling what Tehran’s response, if any, will be. As Blanford put it to The Daily Beast, all indications remain that both sides are insistent on pursuing their fundamentally irreconcilable objectives:
“Iran is determined to entrench in Syria as a reward for having invested so heavily in President Bashar al-Assad’s survival. Israel is equally determined to prevent an Iranian military entrenchment. Neither side appears willing to compromise at this stage and there is no third party—including the Russians—that is willing to mediate a solution or has the leverage to do so.”
Hezbollah could have been excused for thinking things were looking up for them before all this. Strictly speaking, the party itself only gained one seat in Sunday’s elections, leaving it with a modest-sounding 14 out of 128. However, adding to this the seats taken by their manifold allies, friends, and parties on whose support they can count when it comes to key strategic issues, their loose coalition amounts to over 55 percent of seats overall, giving them decisive influence over a parliamentary majority for the first time since the so-called Cedar Revolution of 2005 propelled an anti-Hezbollah bloc into power.
This fact did not escape the attention of Israel, and may in itself have contributed to the latter’s resolve to cut Iran’s Syrian presence down to size. More than the Lebanese elections, however, it is President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) that fostered the political environment in which last night’s strikes were possible.
In pursuing the deal to begin with, President Barack Obama made little secret of his hopes it would facilitate a broader détente with the Iranian regime, leading over time to a region-wide modus vivendi accepting of Tehran’s spheres of influence. The message declared loud and clear from the White House on Tuesday was that that agenda has been tossed contemptuously into the trash.
Ultimately, how far Israel acts against Iran, and its proxies such as Hezbollah, will be determined in large part by the prevailing mood on Pennsylvania Avenue. With President Trump citing both Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and its “sinister activities in Syria” as among his reasons for leaving the JCPOA—and with renowned Iran hawks Mike Pompeo and John Bolton at the president’s ear—there seems little reason to expect the Israelis to be held back any time soon.