Heading into 2019, the fevered hope must be to see an end to, or at least a reduction in, the myriad wars and conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. The heart may crave this, but the head fears that the situation is also ripe for additional flare-ups.
One such frontline is between Israel and its northern neighbours. Israel has confronted Iranian attempts to spread its influence in Lebanon and more recently in Syria.
Since 2016, Israel has escalated its efforts by launching over 200 aerial strikes on what it states are Iranian military targets in Syria. Israeli officials are at pains to emphasise that all this activity is consistent with the red lines as repeatedly stated by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Broadly these include the transfer of high-tech weapons to Hezbollah, the establishment of any Hezbollah presence close to Israel and the creation of any permanent Iranian presence in Syria. This now includes, for example, preventing the construction of an Iranian naval base.
But Israeli tensions with Iran’s key ally, Hezbollah, also escalated last year with the announcement that Israel had discovered a total of five “attack” tunnels under the border, with the aim of allowing Hezbollah fighters to enter Israel and mount an assault.
All this gave rise to fears of a two-front war, with Israel fighting Iranian forces and Hezbollah both in Lebanon and in Syria. In the past as in 1996 and 2006, Israel had taken on Hezbollah solely in Lebanon, and it was here that Israeli-Syrian tensions were always played out.
Yet a two-front war would undoubtedly be costlier for all sides. Hezbollah is now considerably better armed than in 2006, with an estimated 150,000 rockets, ten times more than it had then. They are more potent and more accurate so could threaten key Israeli infrastructure. Israel says many are located in and around highly populated areas of Beirut, as Netanyahu claimed in his speech to the UN General Assembly last September. Hezbollah fighters are battle hardened after fighting in Syria for the last six years, and the Israeli military sees it as a formidable foe, as an army not a militia. Hezbollah has over the years killed more Israelis than any of Israel’s other foes. Back in 2006, 1,200 Lebanese and 165 Israelis died, so one can imagine the fatalities in any fresh war would be far higher.
So why has this not all flared up and why did the back end of 2018 see this increase in tensions? Israel has known about Hezbollah tunnels for many years, according to several sources. The question is why Netanyahu decided to bring this into the public light right now.
One view is that the answer lies in Netanyahu’s domestic dilemmas and Gaza. Netanyahu did not want a conflict in Gaza and was desperate to reset the status quo with Hamas after a flare up in November, hence the ceasefire deal. The issue of the northern tunnels was a useful and timely deflection away from the southern front at a time when Netanyahu could not look weak when he was on the verge of announcing the April 9th elections.
Iran has its reasons for avoiding conflict, not least that it would not wish to lose Hezbollah as a first response option and a deterrent in the event of any war with Israel. Yet there is an argument for Israeli military action now on the basis that crushing Hezbollah in 2019 could be less painful than in a few years’ time. Moreover, Israel expects that the Trump administration with its hostile attitude to Iran would be extremely supportive. Then again, President Trump’s decision to pull US forces from Syria, without having limited Iran’s ambitions there one jot, will not have impressed Israeli leaders. Questions will be asked, not just in Israel, as to how reliable a partner Donald Trump is.
The probability is that war by design is unlikely, as no side or party wants this. A war by accident is another matter, however. With such escalation and close proximity of forces, even innocent signals and acts can be easily misread. Although Israel was not directly responsible for the shooting down of the Russian aircraft in September, Vladimir Putin was clearly not happy and has acted to restrict Israel’s freedom of action in Syria.
Russia has to play a key role, in brokering and maintaining de-escalation agreements. Recently it promised to keep Iranian forces at least 80 kilometres from the Israeli lines on the Golan Heights. That promise has not been kept. Moreover, Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Damascus on December 27th indicate that Iran is still flying in weaponry to Hezbollah. Israel claims it had alerted the Russians beforehand. All of this can hardly increase trust between the Syrian regime and Russia, with the former joining Iran in accusing Moscow of greenlighting Israeli attacks.
The risk of war will remain as long as Israel, Iran and Hezbollah are at loggerheads, and in particular as long as Syria remains unstable. Responsible international actors must exert every effort to calm the situation and rule out any chances of this highly destructive accident ever happening.
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