With Iran and Israel at the Brink, Where Does Hezbollah Stand?

On April 29, 2018, Israel carried out airstrikes against a number of Iranian positions in Syria, including a weapons storage site that housed a large cache of Iranian surface-to-surface missiles. This is only the latest strike in Israel’s increased attacks against Iran in Syria in 2018. Previously, Israel struck the T4 (Tiyas) airbase on April 9, 2018 in a strike that served a dual purpose: to retaliate against the base from where an armed Iranian drone shot down over Israeli airspace in February was launched, and to produce a crippling strike against Iran’s UAV capabilities in Syria. Both sides have exchanged a war of threats in recent weeks, and many are wondering how, and more significantly, when Iran will respond. Many analysts are concerned that a direct Iranian attack on Israel will spark a regional war.

Escalating Tensions

This is certainly the hottest the conflict between Israel and Iran has been since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. According to Israeli intelligence, Iran has set up at least five independent bases in Syrian territory, and is allegedly seeking to establish its own air defense network in Syria. Iran has also reportedly moved advanced surface-to-surface guided missiles into Syria that were intended for transfer to Hezbollah, but remain in IRGC-QF hands.

Should Iran attempt to significantly punish Israel beyond the assets that Iran has in Syria, it would turn to its partner in Lebanon: Hezbollah. It is doubtful that Hezbollah is interested in engaging in a full-scale war across the Blue Line separating Israel and Lebanon at this time, but a significant conflict breaking out between Israel and Iran could change that calculus. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah pointed out in an April 14 speech that the T4 airbase attack put Israel “in direct conflict with Iran.” Nasrallah’s words are particularly revealing, as he refrained from saying that Israel was in direct conflict with “the axis of resistance,” a term he often uses to describe the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance against Israel. This could suggest that Nasrallah views Iran’s actions, and their consequences, as unrelated to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah Has Been Historically Disinclined to Retaliate Against Attacks on Its Interests in Syria

Since the end of the 2006 war, Hezbollah has rearmed and significantly increased its stocks of strategic missiles and rockets, so much so that it has achieved a deterrence against Israel that has prevented a conflict from developing across the Blue Line. Should Iran and Israel enter into a conflict in Syria, an overwhelming Hezbollah response would reduce Hezbollah’s strategic missile and rocket forces at a time when resupply via Syria has become costlier to the group. In the years following the 2006 war, Israel seemed reluctant to strike Hezbollah convoys in Syria because of the prospect of escalation. Israel primarily focused on striking convoys that would deliver advanced weapons systems to Hezbollah.

Israeli strikes against Hezbollah targets have increased since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, with Israel having carried out over one hundred strikes. After each strike, Hezbollah has either not responded or has launched a limited reprisal. For instance, the January 18, 2015 killing of Jihad Mughniya, son of Hezbollah master terrorist Imad Mughniya, along with five other Hezbollah commanders, by Israel near the Golan Heights in Syria saw a limited Hezbollah response.  On January 28, 2018, Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) convoy in the Sheba Farms area, killing two IDF soldiers. However, Hezbollah seems to absorb blows to its weapons convoys and storage sites in Syria without reprisal. 

Not the Right Time to Risk War in Lebanon

Further, Lebanon held its first general elections since 2009 on May 6. Attention now turns to the selection of a prime minister and the formation of a government, which can be quite a lengthy process. After the 2009 general elections, it took Lebanon’s fractious political parties six months to form a government and win a vote of confidence in parliament. It is not in Hezbollah’s interest to subject the country to a significant conflict so soon after a government is formed, especially since the new government’s first act will be to produce a ministerial statement outlining its policies. Previous ministerial statements included language about Lebanon’s defense policy, the status and role of the resistance, and the status of Hezbollah’s weapons. A conflict with Israel would only bring these issues to the forefront, creating a domestic political problem for the group that they do not need.

If a conflict between Israel and Iran remains confined to Syria, Iran’s bases in the country, and the Shia proxies that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF) direct, it is doubtful that Iran would seek to escalate the conflict by involving Hezbollah. Similarly, Israel has no interest in opening up a wider war along its northern border by engaging Hezbollah over Iranian misdeeds. However, it is not known what level of pressure Tehran would leverage on Nasrallah should an Israeli-Iranian conflict erupt, especially if the conflict does not go Iran’s way. If Iran suffers a humiliating defeat by Israel, Hezbollah could be called upon to act.

John Duchak is a former Intelligence Analyst at the National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency, where he focused on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter: @xthisisawar.

Image: A Hezbollah flag in Baalbek, Lebanon (Wikimedia Commons)