The war of words between Israel and its neighbors has hit a new high along with escalating military action. Recently, Israel attacked Syrian anti-aircraft facilities, the first time Israeli jets had been targeted by Syria since its civil war began. Within days after the first attack, Israel struck again reacting to threats in the Golan Heights. PM Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel will continue to respond forcefully to any attacks. Iran’s military chief, during a recent visit to Syria, said it was unacceptable to allow Israel to threaten Syrian assets. Such hostilities could very easily spill over to Lebanon, with Iran the only winner if Israel becomes further embroiled in Lebanon.
Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, has to decide where its loyalties lie. Is it with Lebanon or with Iran and Syria? If Hezbollah amasses missiles on the border with Israel, Israel said it will unleash much more widespread damage to the country than in 2006. That war, which lasted 34 days, killed 1,200 Lebanese and displaced nearly one million more of its citizens. Lebanon’s economy suffered more than $7 billion in direct and indirect losses. If Hezbollah again threatens Israel’s borders, Israel could strike, creating greater economic turmoil and the flow of more refugees.
History has taught us that threats by Israel can also further destabilize its own security and increase regional tensions. In 2006, instead of blaming Hezbollah, Israel’s military attack alienated it in the region, as many Lebanese looked to Hezbollah as their protector. The war in 2006 did not weaken Hezbollah, and it even looked stronger in the face of a much better-armed adversary. According toIsraeli pundits, Israeli military leaders erred in believing that pressure on the Lebanese government would force the Lebanese government and its people to weaken Hezbollah’s influence and alternatively strengthening the Lebanese army. The opposite happened. One Israeli commander, Gen. Udi Adam, said following that war, “There is nothing that can be solved just by the military … There is a need for a diplomatic solution,” adding, “I do not believe that anyone wants to go back into Lebanon.”
Yet, now once again, the threat of war looms.
It’s a frustrating situation for Israel and its allies, but also for Lebanon, and the worst thing would be to allow conditions that lead to another war in the Middle East, with no long-term solution, while devastating a country that has little control over its own situation in the first place.
Lebanon’s Armed Forces (LAF) has proven to be credible and independent from outside interference, as it protects Lebanon’s borders against threats from the Islamic State and al Qaeda. The U.S. supports an LAF strong enough to eventually disarm all groups in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, in accordance with U.N. resolution 1701. But a war now, between the LAF and Hezbollah, will only lead to another civil war, and like the last one, will weaken Lebanon for decades to come. It is in no one’s interest to have Lebanon fall into the hands of Iran and its proxies, but it’s not Lebanon’s alone to fix.
Iran is trying to create an axis of resistance from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon via Hezbollah, sitting on the doorstep of Israel. Do the U.S. and Israel really think that Lebanon can fix this problem, when the U.S. and Russia themselves can’t find some kind of accommodation, and when the U.S. has been bungling its chances to put a stop to Syrian hostilities since 2011? And who in their right mind thinks that Israeli bombing of Lebanon (and even Iran) will bring a final resolution to this problem?
It is not in the U.S. interest to tolerate senseless talk about bombing Lebanon into taking actions it has little control over, and which will leave Lebanon in ruins. It may give comfort to those who see Iran as an existential threat, but will do nothing to fix the longer term problems in the region. Sensible policymakers know they must be deft in their thinking and make sure they don’t make a difficult situation worse. The U.S. has to work with its allies — Israel, the European Union, and Arab countries — to bring about a common strategy in the region which only U.S. leadership can provide for these disparate groups, whose interests are now aligned.
Such a strategy must integrate U.S. goals in the broader Middle East, Turkey, and even Eastern Europe into a cohesive and comprehensive strategy for dealing with Russia, Iran and its proxies while continuing to address three immediate objectives: strengthening the LAF, in spite of Iran and Hezbollah’s effort to discredit it; improving Lebanon’s economy by working closely with its Central Bank; and weeding out specific terrorists in the country that threaten the workings of these two institutions and the very stability of Lebanon.
Edward M. Gabriel is a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and current president of the American Task Force for Lebanon, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.