How does the Israeli escalation in Syria impact Lebanon?

The intensified Israeli airstrikes targeting Iran's military presence in Syria has been accompanied by a surge in Israeli aerial activity over Lebanon. However, the likelihood of a full blown war, although possible, remains low, according to analysts.

A calm border area ... for now, in southern Lebanon. Joseph Eid / AFP archives

With the curfew imposed to help combat coronavirus, it is difficult not to hear, in the silence of the night, the buzzing of Israeli drones and planes, flying over Lebanese territory or using its airspace to carry out strikes in neighboring Syria against targets linked to Iran and its proxies, in particular Hezbollah. Last Wednesday, an Israeli reconnaissance drone flew over southern Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. Firing flares, incursions into Lebanese territory, and massive overflights of Israeli fighter jets and drones, especially over Beirut, have been commonplace in recent weeks.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted this escalation on Wednesday evening during his briefing on Lebanon to the Security Council. What does this renewed activity mean? Is Israel planning something against south Lebanon? Is it trying to change the status-quo to its advantage amid talk of downsizing the United Nations Interim Force (UNIFIL) in the south due to the global crisis, or is it merely attempting to test Hezbollah's intentions vis-à-vis its escalation in Syria?

Israeli strikes have increased in the neighboring country - no less than five in two weeks - with the aim of intensifying pressure on Iran. In addition to the frequency of the raids, Israel has widened the geographical radius of hostilities, now targeting distant provinces, such as Aleppo and Deir Ezzor. The attacks are usually carried out against military bases but also against convoys, which, according to the Israelis, are transporting arms. On April 15, a civilian vehicle belonging to Hezbollah combatants was destroyed by a drone at the Syrian crossing point of Jdeidet Yabous, on the border with Lebanon, after its passengers barely escaped.

Hezbollah's “growing” role

Mohanad Hage Ali, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center, links tensions in south Lebanon, the issue of renewing UNIFIL's mandate and the Israeli strikes in Syria to "the growing role of Hezbollah in Syria and the region, especially in Iraq." The researcher believes this growing role stems from the assassination of General Kassem Soleimani, Iran's strongman in the region, in a US strike last January. His successor at the head of Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, Esmaïl Qaani, is an expert on Afghanistan more than on the Middle East.

"This emergency succession has given Hezbollah, which is more involved in the region than the new Iranian official, a growing role," Hage Ali said. "Immediately after the funeral of Soleimani, the deputy secretary-general of the party, Naïm Kassem, said Hezbollah will now face new responsibilities. This change has been felt in Syria: the party’s presence has expanded. We have seen (Hezbollah fighters) involved in the battle for Idlib, which would have been met with Iranian refusal before." According to Hage Ali, Hezbollah is now seeking to "establish a lasting and continuous presence in Syria by building a stable infrastructure, and the Israelis, through their airstrikes, are trying to prevent it."

For his part, Mohammad Obeid, an analyst close to the Shiite party, said Israel "plays a well-established game" with Hezbollah, but this game has limitations. "I think Israel fears the strategic military power of Hezbollah, Iran, and the Syrian regime," Obeid said. "The regime, which has defeated terrorist groups with the help of its allies, keeps the strategic option of liberating the Golan in mind and, to this end, it has succeeded in forming a central military force which worries the Israelis."

Stressing that he was basing his views on information and not mere analysis, Obeid said the three allies largely succeeded in sheltering their facilities from Israeli strikes. "The bombings often target convoys considered to be carrying weapons to the Syrian regime," he said. But Hezbollah knows well the Israeli tactics, and the bombing is only reaching 10% of its targets at best. Airstrikes target military bases and centers, which the Israelis often claim that these are factories for the production of precision missiles, which is not the case. Anyway, Israel's success in weakening the Syrian and allied military force has been limited. "

Attack or let go?

But is there a need to worry about another round of violence on the southern Lebanese front? "This is the big question," said Hage Ali. "There are a number of indicators to keep in mind. On the one hand, there is this escalation in Syria. On the other hand, one cannot ignore the developments inside Israel. After lengthy negotiations, we are witnessing the formation of a national unity government following an agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ex-political opponent Benny Gantz." History, he said, has shown that national unity governments in Israel are more likely to go to war, perhaps because consensus is easier to achieve in this case." He noted that this configuration resembles the one that preceded the aggressions of July 2006.

Hage Ali, however, said "one indicator is by no means formal proof" and that "there is another scenario, just as plausible." The Israelis, he argued, may not go on the offensive but quietly watch Lebanon fall apart. "After all, the country is struggling with multiple crises: economic, financial and social, due to a popular uprising and now coronavirus ... A few years ago, an Israeli analyst wrote, referring to the Arab countries, they should 'let them commit suicide'. This option may seem all the more attractive to the new Israeli government as its priority is the internal economic recovery, particularly curbing the pandemic's fallout. "

He wondered, however, whether the temptation to embark on a warlike adventure would manifest itself on the Lebanese side, in other words, if Hezbollah itself would provoke a conflict in order to break an internal deadlock. "However, this option would be very risky for the party, which would be accused of throwing a country in crisis into war, and it would then have to shoulder the responsibility of the ensuing collapse."

The expert, therefore, believes that the risk of an escalation in south Lebanon exists, but it remains limited. "We notice in particular that the Israeli strikes in Syria have so far focused on destroying infrastructure built by Hezbollah, rather than targeting combatants, which would have forced the party to respond," he said. "It’s as if these strikes aim to prevent the party from settling in Syria permanently, rather than anything else."

As James Jeffrey, the United States Special Representative for Syria engagement, recently noted: Iran and its allies are less powerful in Syria than in Lebanon and Iraq. This is perhaps due to Russia's influence or the nature of the Syrian regime, which has the tools to limit interference in its internal affairs, or maybe because the Shiite constituency is less present in Syria than in the two other countries.

Breaching the border fence

Mohammad Obeid believes that despite the intensification of Israeli strikes, there is nothing new in the conflict between the two sides. Referring to Israel's "political instability," he said "Netanyahu is taking advantage of the lost time and the distraction created by the global coronavirus crisis to conduct his operations," he said.

However, he added that "the only novelty, in this case, is that of Hezbollah's action," which followed the targeting of its militants' vehicle in Syria on April 15. "The media have noted that Hezbollah has breached the borderline, but in truth, the party breached the fence in three locations. On the one hand, this action is a message to the enemy, which shows that Hezbollah can change the rules of the game at any time, and, on the other hand, that the party has clearly linked the Syrian front to south Lebanon."

Doesn't this put Lebanon in danger of an escalation along the southern front? "I don't think a war, or even a limited battle, is an option," said Obeid. "Israel cannot embark on an adventure that neither the United States nor anyone can cover under the current circumstances, especially since Hezbollah has the means to fight back. "

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 15th of May)

With the curfew imposed to help combat coronavirus, it is difficult not to hear, in the silence of the night, the buzzing of Israeli drones and planes, flying over Lebanese territory or using its airspace to carry out strikes in neighboring Syria against targets linked to Iran and its proxies, in particular Hezbollah. Last Wednesday, an Israeli reconnaissance drone flew over southern Lebanon and...