Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Syria: the mixed blessing for Israel

Israel is a long standing ally of the West but does not escape the regional turmoil from the Syrian civil war. In early February, an alliance of the Syrian regime, Iran and Hezbollah launched a major military offensive against rebel groups in Syria's south, close to the cease fire line of Israel.

Israeli media report that Iran and Hezbollah strive to establish operational infrastructure near the Israel - Syrian cease fire line that can be used to stretch the Israeli Defense Force in future conflicts. This bears potential strategic consequences for Israel and the Syrian theater. Many feared that Hezbollah’s presence close to Israel might trigger new rounds of clashes between the two enemies. The Syrian conflict has implications for the regional stability, but it is a mixed blessing for Israel in regard to Hezbollah.

By siding with the Assad regime, Hezbollah placed itself at the epicenter of a sectarian conflict and violated the official Lebanese government’s policy of disassociation. Its engagement has great consequences for the fractured and deeply divided sectarian society that is Lebanon. Salafism has increased in Lebanon’s refugee camps and reports of ISIS sleeper cells within disenfranchised Sunni communities indicate latent ISIS capability deeper into Lebanon. In addition, ISIS and Jahbat al-Nusra Front, the biggest militant groups that Hezbollah is facing in the region, are gearing up for a major offensive deep into Lebanese territory.

The fighting in Syria diverts Hezbollah’s attention and resources. It has already lost as many as a thousand experienced fighters which is a significant loss for a group believed to have only about 5,000 full time, highly-trained fighters. It recently lowered the age for candidate fighters to make up for this loss. It cannot afford a full-scale battle with Israel in Southern Lebanon like in 2006, while committed to fighting Sunnis in Syria and increasingly forced to do the same at home in Lebanon.

The organisation faces more challenges within its own ranks. It has grown extensively since 2006 which resulted in a sprawling bureaucracy with looser internal control mechanisms and a reduced sense of personal security among the cadres. The emergence of corrupt practices and the evident difficulty the group’s leadership has in curbing the phenomenon represents the single gravest danger to Hezbollah.

The gravest danger Hezbollah is facing today is the possibility of losing its reputation and legitimacy. Hostility against Israel won friends across the political spectrum but critics accuse Hezbollah of acting as a sectarian militia of Iran’s bidding, putting Lebanon at risk of another unwanted war and harming the country’s authority and sovereignty. As a result, the group is by many seen as operating at the expense of fellow Muslims and not for the Lebanese people. Hezbollah realises that igniting another war with Israel would wreak havoc on Lebanon and further erode the group's legitimacy there. Nor does it want to take the chance of inviting the Israeli air force to respond in Syria.

On the other hand, Hezbollah is adopting a new strategy against Israel, born out of necessity rather than strength. The Hezbollah threat to Israel today is more acute overseas. It is expected that Hezbollah will be more actively targeting the soft underbelly: Israeli and Jewish high ranking diplomats or tourists outside Israel, in plots that can be carried out with reasonable deniability. These developments might increase Hezbollah's use of local proxies and terrorist operatives dispatched around the world.

The Syrian was has moved into its fifth year this March and is a mixed blessing for Israel. The likelihood of a large scale confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah is not very likely as the organization is currently involved in Syria, Iraq and even Yemen. However, nobody expected the Lebanon War in 2006 either and escalation in this region is always luring.  

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