Israel and Hezbollah’s military confrontation last Sunday was a limited sideshow. The real conflict is across the border in Syria.
Despite making international headlines, Sunday’s confrontation was limited in time and scope. Hezbollah reportedly targeted an Israeli armored vehicle with anti-tank guided missiles, allegedly injuring and killing its occupants. Israel denies any of its soldiers were wounded and said it responded by firing around 100 artillery shells into Lebanon. This brief exchange was over in two hours, having stayed within the rules of limited engagement and with seemingly no casualties on either side.
Hezbollah’s attack was somewhat expected. It came in retaliation to an Israeli air raid that targeted the Shiite organization's position in the Syrian town of Aqraba, killing a number of Iranian militia members including two Hezbollah operatives trained in drone technology.
Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah had previously warned Hezbollah would retaliate, but said that it would strike at the right place and time. Despite Nasrallah’s combative rhetoric that the conflict was entering a “new stage,” he made it clear that Hezbollah has no intention of turning this showdown into a full-scale war, with his deputy Sheikh Naim Kassem later stating “I rule out that the atmosphere is one of war – it is one of a response to an attack.”
The lack of appetite for full-scale war seems to be shared by Israel. The limited Israeli response to this attack and its insistence that there were no casualties suggests that engaging Hezbollah in a war in Lebanon is neither their priority nor intention.
Moreover, unconfirmed reports broke out that the Israeli side had used decoys and dummy soldiers in a vehicle to deceive Hezbollah, perhaps also aimed at giving the organization the chance to save face by publically avenging its fallen. Like Nasrallah, Netanyahu talks the language of war, summarized by his recent statement “If someone rises to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” But like Hezbollah, Israel’s actions suggest it does not want a war in Lebanon.
Both sides are reluctant to engage in Lebanon because the real conflict is being fought in Syria.
Domestic factors do influence Hezbollah: the organization lacks local support and Lebanon’s abysmal economic situation limits Hezbollah’s ability to launch any military adventures. Hezbollah’s economic struggles have been exacerbated by sanctions on its various financial outlets, which have made it difficult for the organization to move its funds around and to subsidize its wide network of social services. The organization cannot rely on ideology alone to survive an open-ended conflict.
Yet these domestic factors are exacerbated by the fact that Hezbollah is fully deployed across the region, particularly in Syria. Hezbollah has committed thousands of troops to fight alongside the al-Assad regime in Syria. In addition to its public engagement in Syria, Hezbollah is active in Iraq alongside other Iranian-backed militia, and in Yemen, where they have provided the Houthis with logistical and doctrinal support. Hezbollah’s regional deployment, particularly the draining war in Syria, means that it is spread thin and unprepared for a decisive clash with Israel in Lebanon.
Likewise, Israel’s restrained response is best understood by looking across the border into Syria, where both parties – and Hezbollah’s patron Iran – know the real war is taking place.
In the first years of the Syrian war, Israel regularly denied it was actively attacking Iranian assets across Syria. This cautionary attitude changed almost a year ago with the former Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenko openly acknowledging that his air force had attacked thousands of targets in Syria. This change reflects Israel’s fear of Iran’s growing influence in Syria. Russia, nominally an Iranian ally, has not used its air defense systems to block the Israeli strikes, suggesting it may tacitly approve of Israel’s increasing efforts to curb Iranian influence in Syria.
The recent cross-border skirmish should be seen in this light. Contrary to Hezbollah’s official narrative, its attack was as much an attempt to deter Israel from striking it in Syria as it was revenge for Israel’s drone attacks in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s attack party was named after its two combatants who were killed in Aqraba, a branding strategy which suggests that the attack was a limited response to events in Syria and not part of an escalation of events in Lebanon.
Israel’s involvement in Syria is part of a regional strategy, as it recognizes the implications of an uninterrupted highway linking Hezbollah to Iran through Syria and Iraq, which would permit Hezbollah to stock up on weapons and long range ballistic missiles. Consequently, Israel is no longer restricting its sorties to neighboring countries but was also allegedly behind the recent unclaimed missile strikes which hit training camps and commanders of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq.
The two parties are therefore involved in a regional struggle that far outweighs the importance of clashes on the Lebanese border. Yet this does not mean that a conflict in Lebanon will not happen - while Lebanon is currently a sideshow of a greater conflict, the country may later return to take center stage.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975. He tweets @makramrabah.