Going through dozens of articles over the past month on this issue has convinced me that the prospects for war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon in the next six months vary somewhere between 20 and 80%! Not very helpful, I know, which means that there is even a greater need to monitor communications and actions to avoid triggering a miscalculation leading to a conflict. As recently as this week, at least six articles have appeared in journals and media listing the tripwires.
Take Mara Karlin, of Johns Hopkins SAIS, writing in Foreign Affairs that “Another war between Israel and Hezbollah is almost inevitable. Although neither side wants a conflict now, the shifting balance of power in the Levant and shrinking areas of contestation are indicators of a looming showdown. The real questions are how and where—not if—the impending conflagration will occur.”
She goes on to enumerate the calamitous conditions in the region, from the casualties, displaced people, and refugees in Lebanon, the uncertainty surrounding next steps for those temporary allies aligned against ISIS, and the shifting regional balance of power that has a marginal role for the US and outsized Russian and Iranian influence. Karlin writes that “The resulting tensions are likely to bring Israel to the brink of a regional war even bigger than the last one in 2006, when it invaded southern Lebanon.”
With ISIS defeated and anti-regime foreign fighters dispersing throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond, she believes that “the resulting shifts in focus will clarify the increasingly complex and dangerous relations between [Israel and Hezbollah]. Hezbollah has lost nearly 2,000 fighters in Syria, damaged its reputation through unfettered support for the regimes in Iran and Syria, and is rumored to face financial trouble. Despite all that, it remains popular with its core constituency, Lebanese Shiites.” This bodes poorly for Lebanon as Hezbollah, which Karlin predicts will win big in the upcoming parliamentary elections, will have even a strong chokehold on government policies.
She concludes however, that “Hezbollah’s and Israel’s long-term strategic goals are thus entirely at odds. Nevertheless, as of today, neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants to trigger a war. A deliberate escalation by Israel or Hezbollah is unlikely to occur in the near term; an inadvertent one, however, is possible, as is an escalation courtesy of other actors currently tearing up the Levant, such as Iran, the Assad regime, or Russia.”
Commenting on Hezbollah’s overwhelming political power in Lebanon, a NY Books article argues that “There is real anxiety about Hezbollah’s domination in Lebanon, and about Iran’s not very subtle aim of expanding Shia power from Tehran to Beirut.”
This theme is echoed in a Washington Institute for Near East Policy article in which the presence of senior Iranian military officials along Lebanon’s southern border sends two messages, one, “so long as Lebanon is kept stable, the group will be left alone to continue its takeover there.” The other that “Hezbollah and Iran still needed to reaffirm that no one in Lebanon can stop the group from intervening wherever it likes.”
The article takes issue with the notion that the Lebanese official policy of dissociation, by which it commits to not be involved in external conflicts, has any impact on Hezbollah’s activities. “The cover provided by the dissociation policy may buy the group enough time to position itself for victory in the May 2018 parliamentary elections. With the new electoral law that Hariri's government passed this summer, Hezbollah will probably manage to bring its allies into parliament and consolidate its power democratically. This in turn would allow it to choose the next prime minister and president, make top military and security appointments, and even change the constitution as it sees fit.”
If Lebanon is to survive as an independent entity, the article concludes “The international community should therefore buttress its talk of stability with a focus on reforming state institutions in order to protect Lebanon's values of freedom and diversity. Perhaps more important, Hariri's dissociation policy needs to be accompanied by more aggressive measures against Hezbollah and its regional operations, though that seems unlikely given his recent moves.”
Similar pessimism is to be found in the International Crisis Group report on the Syrian conflict. It notes that “’Rules of the game’ that contained Israeli-Hezbollah clashes for over a decade have eroded. New rules can be established in Syria by mutual agreement or by a deadly cycle of attack and response in which everyone will lose. A broader war could be one miscalculation away.”
There is an emerging consensus that the US has relinquished any leadership role in reducing tensions in the area despite the recent pronouncements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his recent trip to the area and the presence of US forces in Syria. Although the seeds for this lack of engagement were the official policy of the Obama Administration, it continues. An article in Al Monitor put it this way, “But despite US President Donald Trump’s sharp criticism of everything his predecessor did to diminish American deterrence in the region, the impression for now is that Washington is stronger in words than in deeds. Yet soon it will have to decide which direction it is going to take.”
CNN focused on Russian perceptions that a war would be disastrous to its objectives in the region as being seen as the power broker. “Russia has no desire to undermine three years of investment in saving the Assad regime, only to see Israel become involved militarily in Syria, which could weaken the Syrian regime and strengthen the United States' hand against Iran. Iran isn't looking for war with Israel either, as it could jeopardize its own gains in Syria.”
Sadly the consensus around the marginal role of the US is echoed in the Israeli press, which noted the weak American hand in dealing with the tit-for-tat fighting two weeks ago when the Israelis shot down an alleged Iranian drone in its airspace, bombed a control center in Syria, lost a plane to a Syrian missile, then severely damaged Syrian air defense positions, almost leading to the feared escalation.
A Haaretz article said that It is clear that a call from President Putin to Prime Minister Netanyahu kept tempers in check. “The quiet after the Netanyahu-Putin call shows once again who’s the real boss in the Middle East. While the United States remains the region’s present absentee – searches are continuing for a coherent American foreign policy – Russia is dictating the way things are going.”
For now, the border remains much the same as before although there is concern that the Syrian regime may overstep its restraints and attack the de-escalation zone close to the Jordan-Syria-Lebanon-Israel border. Since not even the Russians are sure what the Assad government will do, as shown by its violations of the so-called 30 days cease-fire announced by Russia, there are far too many agendas and personalities in play to expect that a coherent set of rules of engagement will evolve any time soon.