An Overstretched Hezbollah Facing an Israeli Preemptive Strike?

06/17/2015 02:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah says his group is currently involved in an "existential battle" against insurgents inside Syria. While reports maintain that Hezbollah is currently winning the decisive battle in Qalamoun, on the Lebanese eastern border, analysts believe they are showing signs of being stretched thin. This situation can only worsen, as the group plans to expand and intensify its operations deep inside Syria, from the Lebanon-Syria border as far as Aleppo.

Against this backdrop, there are several indications that Israel may take the opportunity to conduct a preemptive surprise attack on an overstretched Hezbollah in the Syrian war, hoping to destroy its military capability.

After more than four years, the situation on the ground in Syria is tilting against the Syrian government. In recent weeks, Bashar Assad's forces have suffered serious setbacks in three provinces -- Idlib, Homs and Deraa -- at the hands of three different insurgent groups.

As a result of these new developments, some observers view the Assad regime's prospects dimly. However, other analysts argue that the Syrian defeats may have been caused by the Assad government's decision to hold its western strongholds rather than overstretching its forces outside this area.

An Assad downfall could prove fatal to Hezbollah. The Syrian border with Lebanon is Iran's supply line to Hezbollah. The fall of Assad would dramatically complicate this decisive route.
Nasrallah has not exaggerated the significance of the fierce battle now taking place in Qalamoun. Hezbollah needs control of the border area to secure supply routes in and out of Syria. More importantly, if the area is controlled by jihadi groups, such groups can infiltrate Lebanon and conduct deadly bombings and insurgency strikes against both Lebanon and Hezbollah, in particular their stronghold in Bekaa.

In his fiery May 23 speech, Nasrallah said that his group had no choice but to defeat what he called the "takfiri" groups -- those who declare apostasy against all other Muslims, in addition to non-Muslims -= or else face slaughter, enslavement and rape.

He added:

I say that we might fight everywhere [in Syria]. We will not remain silent with anyone anymore. ... If we keep working with this momentum, like we did in Qalamoun ... the divine promise of victory is certainly guaranteed.

In the last three weeks, Hezbollah has captured 40 percent of the 780 square kilometers of Qalamoun land that was previously controlled by extremists.

As this situation unfolded, in the first week of June Israel held a week-long war drill. According to Israel Today:

...on the surface [the drill] appeared to focus on how to protect the local population from the increasing capabilities of Israel's foes." According to senior military officials, however, the "offensive exercises" were held "to hash out the complex situation wherein Israel's most dangerous enemies make widespread use of human shields.

"If we have no choice, we have to evacuate 1 million, 1.5 million residents in Lebanon, and act," IDF sources told the Jerusalem Post.

According to a May 12 report in the New York Times:

As Israel prepares for what it sees as an almost inevitable next battle with Hezbollah ... [they] are blunt about the implications: They will not hesitate to strike at [Shiite villages] ... so southern Lebanon will most likely be the scene of widespread destruction.

Dore Gold, who in May 2015 was appointed by Benjamin Netanyahu as Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, writes:

UNIFIL, the UN force in Lebanon, was supposed to oversee the implementation of Resolution 1701. But do any of you think UNIFIL is going to enter a Shiite village and remove rockets stored in houses?

The UN is thus leaving Israel with a horrible choice if war breaks out again: Either the IDF will have to destroy the weapons now being stored in southern Lebanon, or let Hezbollah fire thousands of rockets into Israel.

The alleged Hezbollah ordnance hidden in crowded areas in the southern villages of Lebanon, then, is clearly what the Israelis are focusing on and are hoping to destroy. Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post reports, an Israeli senior military source discussing the IDF assessment believes that "Hezbollah is 'in distress' in Syria and is in strategic trouble despite attempts by its leader Hassan Nasrallah to deliver morale-boosting speeches recently."

Even if one ignores this assessment, given Hezbollah's entanglement in Syria logic dictates that the group would not even consider provoking a war with Israel. Hezbollah cannot fight two immense wars simultaneously.

Adding up the facts, one can conclude that Israel may see an auspicious opportunity to make a preemptive attack to destroy Hezbollah's massive ordnance in southern Lebanon, stockpiled since the 33-day Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006.

However, according to the Israeli news outlet, Ynet, Israel has sent messages to Iran and Hezbollah "that the drills being conducted ... are for purely defensive purposes, and are not a 'cover story' that disguises Israel's true intentions for an attack."

While this could be seen as a calming piece of news, historical evidence requires greeting Israel's messages with skepticism.

In May 1967, three weeks before Israel's surprise attacks on Arab countries, Israel's Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said, "Israel wants to make it clear to the government of Egypt that it has no aggressive intentions whatsoever against any Arab state at all."

In that instance, Israelis argued that their shift was motivated by the Egyptian provocation of sending troops to Sinai. But the reality is that Israel knew that the number of Egyptian troops were not sufficient to mount an offensive.

In 1968, Yitzhak Rabin gave an interview to Eric Rouleau at Le Monde, stating:

I do not believe that [Egyptian President] Nasser wanted war... . The two divisions he sent into Sinai on May 14 would not have been enough to unleash an offensive against Israel. He knew it and we knew it.