Last Updated: Mon Jul 23, 2012 17:57 pm (KSA) 14:57 pm (GMT)

Will the Conflict in Syria Stir Trouble along the Lebanese-Israeli Border?

Benedetta Berti

With violence spiraling out of control in Syria, observers from both sides of the Lebanese-Israeli border have been concerned about the possibility of a renewed conflict along the “Blue Line.” The six-year anniversary of the 2006 “July War” just passed and many political commentators fear that another war may erupt soon.

Hezbollah’s main regional allies, Syria and Iran, are currently in a weak position. Syria is in the midst of an internal conflict with no end in sight, while Iran is busy battling against crippling economic sanctions. Accordingly, many political observers—especially those in Israel—worry about Hezbollah attempting to initiate a violent exchange, as a way to divert attention from the Syrian crisis.

The possibility of an abrupt ending to the relatively long calm along the Lebanese-Israeli border is indeed disconcerting. It is especially disconcerting as both conflicting sides have made clear that the next round of confrontations will be far more destructive. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly asserted the next war will be ‘decisive’ for the group. He has also indicated that Hezbollah intends to extend the battlefield deep into Israel proper. Similarly, IDF officers have openly stated that the ‘next war’ will result in more extensive damage, with the aim of hitting Hezbollah wherever it operates.

Paradoxically, this mutual understanding about the lethality and extension of the next round of hostilities has led all parties in the conflict—Israel, Hezbollah, and the Lebanese government—to act in a relative, risk-adverse way. Mindful of the associated costs of a new war, all sides have attempted to minimize the chances of beginning another armed conflict.

So, are recent fears justified? Is it likely that Hezbollah will now choose to shift strategy, as a response to the changing regional environment?

Rapidly shifting facts on the ground prevent to conclusively determine the future. Still, minding Hezbollah’s current domestic and regional position, it seems unlikely that the group would deliberately start another war.

Simply, the group is now in a position of relative weakness, considering the Arab Spring’s powerful blow against Nasrallah’s organization.

Within Lebanon, Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime and his brutality has not been cost-free. As a result, the popularity and legitimacy of the group has suffered due to its inconsistent approach to the ‘Arab awakenings.’ After strongly endorsing the protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, Hezbollah changed it’s mind by taking Assad’s side in the context of Syria.

Hezbollah’s selective endorsement has also further contributed to the alienation of the Lebanese Sunni community, exacerbating existing sectarian and political divisions. It has also weakened the support among the local Christians, with only one-third of the community openly supporting Hezbollah. According to recent Pew Research Center polls, the overall national support for Hezbollah is now roughly 40 percent. The Shiite community continues to stand behind the group.

Within the political arena, Hezbollah’s relationship with some of its political allies has weakened in the past months. This is pronounced when reviewing the group’s relation with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Druze leader Walid Jumblat, and even Christian leader and core Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun.

Given this domestic crisis, it seems unlikely that the group would deliberately choose to begin a new war, even if Hezbollah thought of Syria’s situation as ‘hopeless.’ This perception could represent an incentive to act quickly, before the Syrian regime falls--threatening Hezbollah’s supply lines. However, the costs of initiating a new war should be a powerful deterrent against such “adventurism.”

Initiating another conflict would also alienate the majority of the Lebanese population and would strain Hezbollah’s relationship with the Shiite community. This would be an especially high price to pay, as the Lebanese Shiites is the backbone of the group.

So if the domestic context should deter Hezbollah from going to war, does the same apply to Israel?

Israel could now believe it has a window of opportunity to take down Hezbollah while the group is weak. However, this strategy would be ill-advised and likely backfire.

First, Israel should not mistake the ongoing political crisis as a sign of military weakness. Hezbollah remains Lebanon’s most sophisticated military organization and the ongoing decline in domestic support would not substantially impact its ability to wage war. Secondly, an unprovoked attack would likely reverse the current political decline of Hezbollah and rally the Lebanese people behind Nasrallah’s group.

The balance of power has not substantially changed. As such, the recent fears and alarmism over the imminence of a new war seem somewhat misguided.

However, to make sure the current relative calm continues to prevail, both parties need to continue to invest in preserving the quiet along the border.

History is full of unintended escalations and the 2006 July war should be a good reminder of this.

Benedetta Berti is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a Young Atlanticist at the Atlantic Council. Copyright © 2012 Global Experts, a project of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.)

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