By David Daoud
May 5, 2018
Tensions remain high between Israel and Iran. Tehran vows to avenge an Israeli strike killing its soldiers in Syria; Jerusalem intends to respond disproportionately to any Iranian retaliation. In the event of a direct clash leading to a larger conflagration, Hezbollah will join in and seize the opportunity to bring foreign Shi’ite fighters into Lebanon. Yet rather than using these reinforcements to defeat Israel’s army, it may be planning to entrench them in Lebanon, in effect conquering parts of the country, after a quick cease-fire ends its hostilities with Israel.
Hezbollah declared its goal of bringing Shi’ite militants to Lebanon in 2017. Hassan Nasrallah promised that “thousands, even hundreds of thousands of fighters from … Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” would battle Israel in Lebanon alongside his foot soldiers. Yemen’s Abdul-Malek al-Houthi was the first Shi’ite militia leader to pledge his fighters (and recently reiterated his promise). Others soon followed, including Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, whose Iraqi Shi’ite al-Nujaba militia formed a “Golan Liberation Brigade” in March 2017.
Nasrallah’s threat is neither a bluff nor far-fetched. On Iran’s orders, thousands of foreign Shi’ite fighters converged on Syria to prop up the regime. Iran’s proxy militias in Iraq are fighting as a unified force, and Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’ite fighters have deployed to Yemen to aid the Houthis. Hezbollah and Iran’s proxies could conceivably do this in Lebanon.
Nor will it be hard to bring in the fighters. Hezbollah smuggled Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Iraqi Shi’ite gunmen into south Lebanon during the 2006 war. It has spent the past few years turning Syria into a staging ground to bring in more. Hezbollah began uniting the Golan Heights and south Lebanon into a single front in early 2015. A year later it nearly completed arms smuggling tunnels linking Syria’s Zabadani to its Bekaa stronghold. Hezbollah could easily use these tunnels to move gunmen. If rumors of its training Houthi militants in the Bekaa are true, then it may already be doing so.
But Israel may not be the ultimate target. If Hezbollah’s goal remains merely surviving the next war to claim victory, these reinforcements are unnecessary. Nor could Hezbollah be planning to defeat Israel in the classic sense with these fighters. Mere numbers — even the combined forces of the Iran-led “Resistance Axis” — cannot balance the group’s military odds against Israel. Instead, Hezbollah may have a more vulnerable target in mind: war-battered Lebanon.
Israel has promised that its future conflict with Hezbollah will be a “war to end all wars,” and that it won’t spare Lebanon’s army or infrastructure. Hezbollah will likely focus on survival, leaving Lebanon and its civilians to bear the brunt of the Israeli onslaught. As Lebanon’s death toll and damages mount, without a commensurate impact on Hezbollah, international support for Israel will quickly erode. The world — particularly Saudi Arabia and France, which recently invested billions in Lebanon’s army and infrastructure — will move to bring the war to a hasty end with a UN Security Council cease-fire.
But once the dust settles, Lebanon won’t revert to the status quo ante bellum. Iran’s proxy militias won’t willingly leave, and judging by past performance the Lebanese army and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon will be unwilling, or unable, to eject them. Dislodging thousands of Shi’ite fighters from various parts of Lebanon may even prove too daunting a task for the Israelis, even if they think it worth violating the cease-fire to do so. And so these foreign fighters will entrench in Lebanon, as they have in Iraq and Syria, multiplying Hezbollah’s numerical strength and allowing it to solidify its control over whole parts of the country. This will make Israel’s northern border exponentially more dangerous after the war than it was at its outset.
Israel needs time to defeat Hezbollah. To buy time, it must fight a smart, surgical war that spares Lebanon’s institutions and civilians. It must also demonstrably damage Hezbollah and immediately cut the smuggling routes of its Shi’ite militia allies. If Israel delivers, the international community will delay a cease-fire, allowing its campaign to continue until it achieves decisive victory. Failure, however, will let Hezbollah not only live to fight another day but also lay the groundwork for one of Israel’s greatest fears: an Iranian base on its northern border, setting the stage for an even more costly “Fourth Lebanon War.”