THE BLOG
01/21/2015 12:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Israel-Hezbollah War Unlikely ... for Now

2015-01-19-640pxFlickr__Israel_Defense_Forces__Apache_Helicopters_Overlooking_Greece.jpg

"Flickr - Israel Defense Forces - Apache Helicopters Overlooking Greece" by Israel Defense Forces from Israel - Apache Helicopters Overlooking Greece. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday's Israeli helicopter strike on a three-car Hezbollah convoy in Quneitra, southern Syria, was surprising given the seniority of the victims. Six Hezbollah members were killed in the attack, including Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of the slain iconic Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, as well as field commander Mohammad Issa. An Iranian news site, cited by Reuters, also confirmed Monday that Iranian general Mohammad Allahdadi was also killed in the attack.

Israeli strikes on Hezbollah convoys in Syria have become a regular feature of the country's protracted civil war, but rarely have they deliberately taken out high-profile targets. An Israeli source claimed that they were unaware of the presence of the Iranian general, which is highly unusual given the Israeli intelligence activity in the area adjacent to its occupied zone in the Golan Heights. The previous Iranian general to be reportedly killed in an Israeli strike in Syria was Hassan Shateri on January 30, 2013, but the intended target of that attack was a weapons convoy heading to Hezbollah.

The Israeli attack is undoubtedly a backhand to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, three days after he warned the Israelis against making a "stupid move" in Syria. Nasrallah's widely reported three-hour interview with Al-Mayadeen was an attempt to deter Israeli attacks through threats of entering the Galilee, and by - uncharacteristically for Nasrallah - revealing information about Hezbollah's advanced missile arsenal. The attacks demonstrated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's disregard for Nasrallah's attempts to rewrite the terms of engagement.

Nasrallah has over the decades built a reputation for being a man who acts upon what he says, which is why the Israeli strike is intended to embarrass Nasrallah and dent his image in the eyes of his supporters. Nasrallah's threats to enter the Galilee and strike Israel should it carry out a "stupid move" will appear hollow in the aftermath of this major attack, as it is highly unlikely Hezbollah will respond in a manner that could ignite an open war with Israel.

The Israelis carried out the attack with full confidence that Hezbollah would refrain from responding immediately, as it perhaps would have prior to the Syrian civil war. It seems their calculations were right, as the initial Hezbollah response has been to promise retaliation at a later date, but not with the intent of drawing Israel into a war.

The Israeli attack exposes Hezbollah's constraints and vulnerability as a result of the Syrian war, which has left it with little room to manoeuvre vis-à-vis its frontline with Israel.

But it would be a mistake to characterise Hezbollah's restraint as a sign of weakness. Rather, it is testimony to the changing dynamics the current regional turmoil has brought, which might indeed empower Hezbollah should the Syrian government triumph and Iran's power in the region grow through a nuclear deal with the United States. Indeed, these two factors have expanded Hezbollah's regional responsibilities, which in turn have affected its relationship with Israel.

Hezbollah has outgrown its previous narrow role of a grassroots guerrilla outfit resisting an occupier, or even acting as a deterrent against a full-scale Israeli assault on Lebanon, which many would argue was established after the 2006 war. Hezbollah is no longer confined to merely being an irritant to Israel, but to fighting - what it sees - a greater existential war to determine the future of the Middle East. Specifically, it has other priorities, and must act in tandem with its allies, taking into consideration the interests and needs of Damascus and Tehran.

The year 2015 will be the year the Syrian government, along with its allies, attempts to completely secure Damascus by taking the rebel bastions of Jobar and Douma. The Syrian army and Hezbollah will also work, with much difficulty given the rugged terrain, to completely secure the Syrian-Lebanese border, right through to the Homs-Damascus international highway beyond the anti-Lebanon mountains. There is also Aleppo, which many expect the Syrian army to completely besiege in a repeat of the crippling regime siege of Homs that saw rebels surrender in a ceasefire deal in May 2014. To put it frankly, the Golan and Israel are not an immediate priority for Hezbollah and the Syrian government, so long as the rebels in the south - who are reported to be assisted by Israel - don't push further north into Damascus, or cause Hezbollah trouble in south Lebanon.

Then there is Hezbollah's obligation to its main patron, Iran. While an Israeli helicopter was firing at the Hezbollah convoy in Quneitra, US and Iranian diplomats were tirelessly scurrying to advance the nuclear talks in Geneva. This is the major prize that Iran is eyeing, and will avoid all external attempts to derail the talks. It refrained from responding to Israel when it killed General Shateri in 2013, and will do so again.

Iran, Hezbollah and the Syrian government are in no position to venture into a full-scale war with Israel, a fact that the top brass in Israel is clearly aware of and exploiting with its regular attacks in Syria, and its flirtation with Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria's south.

But Netanyahu must also be aware that an open war with Hezbollah would result in significant damage to Israel, unseen in any of its previous encounters with the Lebanese movement, and perhaps unseen in any of its previous wars in the seven-decade Arab-Israeli conflict, if the suspicions of Hezbollah's advanced missile arsenal prove true.

The fear for Israel is that such repeated attacks may only invite Hezbollah - backed by Iran and the Syrian government - to ignite the Golan front at a later stage, when it is in a suitable position to do so. Nasrallah has previously indicated that his forces are prepared to extend the line of confrontation with Israel to the Golan Heights, and it is unlikely that Sunday's attack will deter Hezbollah from pursuing this objective.

Nevertheless, with Hezbollah and its patrons preoccupied with more pressing concerns, the confrontation with Israel will be limited to a tit-for-tat short of a full-scale war. Although the rules of engagement might blur occasionally, as seen with the latest Israeli strike that hit senior targets, the clear understanding of avoiding an open war remains on both sides ... for now.