In the Levant, the Balance of Terror is Falling Apart


This past Sunday, with great fanfare, Israeli politicians and military leaders finally announced to the Israeli public (and to the country’s enemies) that they had successfully layered the nation’s airspace with the most sophisticated anti-missile defense system ever developed.

Long-range Iranian or Syrian missiles, as it is anticipated, will mainly be handled by the US-backed Arrow system at high altitudes. Smaller, but nevertheless extremely accurate, missiles from Hezbollah in Lebanon or in Syria will be the domain of the US-backed David’s Sling, while drones, artillery and smaller rockets will continue to be dealt with by the (also US-backed) Iron Dome.

As chance would have it, just ahead of this historical, tripartite deployment, the Israeli military said in mid-March that the recently operational Arrow-3 had seen its first successful use, knocking out a Syrian surface to air (or possibly surface to surface) missile fired towards Israel in response to yet another Israeli Air Force attack within Syria, allegedly targeting Hezbollah positions.

These two events – an unprecedented ratcheting up of the recent military confrontation in the Levant together with the Great Dome of Israel – are raising significant concerns on all sides, and especially among some analysts, diplomats and
military observers, that a climactic war at least involving Hezbollah and Israel is increasingly likely eleven years after the last inconclusive round of hostilities left both sides licking their wounds and promising, perhaps even craving, a “final” engagement.

In fact, in my 13 years of watching these two bitter opponents fight each other, I have never seen such a high degree of fear (and resignation) among Lebanon’s political elite as well as the street side public that war is coming.

Likewise, one would be hard pressed to find another moment in the last 20 years where the anticipation of a full-scale conflict in the North was higher within the Israeli public discourse.

Of course, such sentiments and predictions have long been present. This time, however, a multitude of structural factors, coalescing at an incredibly unstable and violent moment in geo-politics, are undermining the central element that kept Israel and Hezbollah from overstepping each others’ redlines: Terror, or rather a balance of terror based on the firm belief that the next conflict will simply be devastating for all sides involved.

By operationalizing Israel’s full spectrum missile defense system this past weekend, Israeli politicians can now rest assured, in front of any national commission of inquiry or their own constituents for that matter, that they did all they could to protect the country in the event of a major conflict. More importantly, they can also reasonably claim that they risked war with what they believed to be a winning one-two punch: The Great Dome of Israel alongside the so-called Dahiye Doctrine.

As these politicians (and some military leaders) would have it, when the next war hits, Israel will not only be well positioned to defend against Hezbollah’s main weapon – voicehezbollahrockets launched against military and civilian targets – but it will also employ the unrestrained bombing of all Lebanese infrastructure and “supportive” civilian populations (the Doctrine is named after the somewhat more “restrained” bombing of mainly Shiite areas of Lebanon in the 2006 war), ensuring that Hezbollah’s depth is thoroughly flattened and that other Lebanese turn on Hezbollah as a result of the widespread destruction.

Unfortunately for the balance of terror, Hezbollah and their allies seem to believe, with some cause, that the Israelis are wrong in all this.

First, a vicious bombing of all Lebanon will likely produce greater solidarity among Lebanese, rather than lead to any combination of ill-equipped communities to somehow confront Hezbollah. As the Israelis should have learned a long time ago, Lebanese attitudes quickly harden against any external power that persists in spreading widespread violence, no matter what the original (and usually disputable) “provocation” might have been by any Lebanese party.

Second, the Party of God is not the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which was expelled from Lebanon after the devastating Israeli invasion in the summer of 1982. It is a deeply rooted Lebanese party that has significant support among other confessions. As the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, has long reminded the Israelis, party supporters and especially its base among the Shia of Lebanon are not going to get on a ship and move to Tunis as PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat once did. Most will stay and fight for their land and their countrymen.

Third, Hezbollah and its key partner Iran seem to believe that even the multi-layered anti-missile system can be penetrated by overwhelming “swarm” type tactics. Although the Israeli and American developers appear to have accounted for this, Nasrallah publicly argues that, in any case, Israeli nuclear and chemical facilities are extremely vulnerable – as are offshore gas platforms – and will yield disproportionate damage even if a single hit is scored.

Finally, just as Israeli leaders seem overly confident that other Lebanese communities will quickly turn on Hezbollah when their infrastructure, army and government is hit hard enough, Nasrallah and other key Hezbollah leaders I have met over the years seem equally entranced by the idea that the Israelis have become a soft people protected by a soft army that will not be able to collectively bear the economic and security dislocation resulting from Hezbollah’s land, sea and air strikes, including a ground surge into Northern Galilee and beyond. Lebanese, Nasrallah has joked, are used to living with destruction, a lack of electricity and inconsistent water delivery. In contrast, the Israeli state would be shaken to its core, possibly even leading to a mass exodus of Jews, should the full power of Hezbollah’s so-called Tel Aviv Doctrine be brought to bear against Israel for any sustained amount of time.

The core problem with all of these divergent – and mostly inaccurate – assumptions is that they are providing vital lubricant for the main casus belli that has now fully emerged in Southern Syria and the Occupied Golan.

Indeed, both Hezbollah and Iran are very likely continuing to pursue the sort of underground military infrastructure in Southern Syria that they successfully pioneered against the Israelis in South Lebanon and more recently in other parts of Lebanon and Syria – a buried military Lebensraum that is seen as vital for the primary struggle against Israel.

Both also appear to be continuing down the path of acquiring ever more sophisticated armaments and ever more expansive training in Lebanon and in Syria where they were key to President Bashar al-Assad’s persistence (along with, of course, massive Russian support).

Not surprisingly, the pace and scope of Israeli strikes has expanded in recent weeks and months. Public warnings have also become more shrill from Israeli leaders that their enemys’ attempts to change the so-called “qualitative military edge” while building a vast military infrastructure in Southern Syria (and in Lebanon) will only lead to wider military action, despite any Russian displeasure.

At the same time, the Syrian government, Hezbollah and Iran have now also made it clear that pushing thecarte blanche that Israel claims in the skies above Lebanon and Syria will lead to greater counter-force, including in the Occupied Golan area, with all of the attendant risks of either miscalculation, error or a deliberate escalation by a narrow subset of actors that will be exceedingly difficult for anyone to restrain.

As these dynamics gather pace, both Hezbollah and Israel can also – unfortunately – rest assured that each will be able to claim that they were acting defensively if a major conflict starts in Syria or in Lebanon. On the one hand, Israel will argue that it was forced to pre-empt a growing terror threat on its border while Hezbollah and its allies will argue that they were illegally attacked and responded proportionately in order to maintain the balance of terror. Both positions, of course, have serious holes but chicken-and-egg arguments will matter little once the destruction accelerates.

As if all this wasn’t enough, a number of external factors are also militating towards a new war.

Ironically, just as Iran and Hezbollah find themselves at the height of their regional power – having maintained Assad in the face of a powerful coalition of enemies – they are also arguably at their most stretched and isolated i.e. particularly vulnerable to opportunistic attack in the Levant. Virtually all of the Sunni led states and monarchies in the Middle East and North Africa are concerned about Iranian (and Shia) influence and most are actively working to undermine Tehran’s influence. At the same time, some of these states are evidently forging ever deeper alliances with Israel itself, ensuring that in the next war Hezbollah will find little strategic depth in its immediate surroundings.

Perhaps even more problematic, Iran and Hezbollah have some reason to fear that the Trump Administration, Russia and Assad might find a suitable deal in the coming period that essentially deals out the Shiite duo which has far less to offer either of the great powers when it comes to core, national interests.

Any attempt to sideline Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, however, especially after so many years of intense sacrifice, would probably provoke a strong counter-reaction that could lead to a wider war. It would certainly leave both actors looking particularly vulnerable to an attempted knock-out blow by the Israelis in the area, perhaps even with the quiet blessing of almost all the other parties to the six-year-old Syrian War.

At the very least, the new Trump administration holds Iran as the main strategic enemy in the region and has signaled that it will pursue a more aggressive and confrontational policy, in sharp contrast to the previous Obama administration. As such, the White House and the US Congress are starting to take apart the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran and probe various pressure points, all while essentially assuring that there will be an unprecedented American support for Israel in the event of any conflict, no matter who is seen as “starting” it or how such a war is conducted.

On this score alone – the likely removal of American limitations on Israel – the balance of terror has been dramatically weakened.

Of course, rational decision-making is not the only prerequisite for a major conflagration. In the end, the increasing prospect of error and miscalculation might also get everyone to the same, terrible endpoint.

Two years ago, a Hezbollah missile strike in the disputed Shebaa Farms area between Lebanon and the Occupied Golan killed two Israeli soldiers and wounded seven others. The attack was in retaliation for an earlier Israeli attack that killed an Iranian commander and six Hezbollah fighters in Southern Syria. According to several people familiar with the mechanics of the Hezbollah strike, the two missiles narrowly missed hitting a school bus transporting dozens of Israeli children.

Had the bus been hit instead of the military vehicle, the “Third Lebanon War” would very likely have started on that day, two years ago.

More recently, a major conflict could have kicked off just last month if the Arrow 3 missile had failed to destroy the Syrian missile before it reached civilian populated areas of Israel.

In the face of all of these quite depressing dynamics, can anything be done?

Sadly, it does not seem that any of the great powers – and especially the US – might intervene expeditiously and intelligently to address the various root causes of conflict in this part of the world, much less the immediate triggers of a new Levantine war.

For the Lebanese who have resigned themselves to fate, however, the time has come to demand of their politicians that the state at least undertakes the same kind of disaster planning that the Israelis regularly engage in and which will save lives.

Perhaps the increased awareness and openness about the risks the country now faces will even help pressure Hezbollah to circumscribe its actions beyond the borders, thereby lessening the prospects of a major confrontation?

For the Israelis, and especially Israeli military leaders, there must be a frank recognition that the Great Dome of Israel and the Dahiye Doctrine are merely refinements of an old illusion that will only create new and more powerful enemies when put into practice.

Short of these actions on both sides of the border – actions which admittedly may have little impact in the end – one can only wait and hope that all sides recognize the Middle East simply cannot bear any more destruction and bloodshed.

Nicholas Noe is co-founder of the Beirut-based Mideastwire.com, where this article originally appeared, and editor of Voice of Hezbollah: The Statements of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.

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