On August 15, Israel’s Channel 2 news revealed satellite photos of an Iranian missile production facility near the town of Baniyas in northwestern Syria, capable of producing long-range rockets. Iran’s formidable military presence in Syria is nothing new, but the revelation of this production facility underlines how deeply the war in Syria has changed the balance of military power in the eastern Mediterranean.
Faced with the possible collapse of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime, Iran and its regional proxies have poured millions of dollars and thousands of soldiers into its Syrian ally. Now, with Russian help, that investment has paid off, and the regime has reestablished control over much of central Syria, and is stabilizing the front along “de-confliction zones” guaranteed by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
This is a problem for Israel. As the battle lines in Syria begin to stabilize, Iran and its allies will be able to focus more energy and attention on the Jewish state. Nowhere is this threat clearer than in Lebanon, where the Iran-allied and financed group of Hezbollah boasts thousands of soldiers, deep political influence in the Lebanese government, and an arsenal of up to 150,000 rockets. At the moment, Hezbollah deploys roughly 5,000 fighters in Syria – about one quarter of its standing forces. If and when those fighters return to Lebanon, Hezbollah leaders may feel emboldened to step up attacks on Israeli soil. The question for Israeli leaders is not only how to face this threat when it appears, but whether to strike now while its enemies are still distracted in Syria.
Tensions along the border between Lebanon and Israel have already provoked violence. Following an Israeli airstrike on a Hezbollah arms convoy in 2015, the group responded with rocket and artillery fire against Israeli military positions, which killed two soldiers. However, the incident did not escalate further. This restraint is partially the result of memories from the last major conflict between Israel and Lebanon in 2006, which exacted a high toll on both sides and effectively resulted in stalemate.
Looking back on the lessons of 2006, the problem for Israel is that Hezbollah is even stronger and better prepared today than it was then. The group’s involvement in Syria has cost roughly 1,300 dead over the past five years but, says Tony Badran, Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, “in exchange for that tradeoff, Hezbollah was gaining military experience on the battlefield and via cooperation with Russia.” Now the group’s roughly 20,000-strong standing army is battle hardened by rotation through Syria, its 25,000 reservists receive more advanced training, and the land bridge to Iran through Iranian proxy forces in Iraq and the Assad regime in Syria is swiftly becoming a reliable supply pipeline for advanced military hardware.
At the same time, the explosion in Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal since 2006 – now larger than the supply of most NATO countries – means that the group can launch salvoes of roughly 1,000 missiles per day, anywhere within Israel, during a future conflict. The group’s anti-ship missile capabilities – as demonstrated in the crippling 2006 strike on the Israeli corvette INS Hanit – might also allow Hezbollah to establish an effective naval blockade of Israel. Finally, most experts assume that Hezbollah maintains a vast network of tunnels under the border, allowing it to disgorge fighters into Israeli territory for raids behind the lines. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, boasted of these new capabilities in May, saying that “Israel is afraid of any confrontation… [and that] there will be no place that is out of reach of the rockets of the resistance or the boots of the resistance fighters.”
Nevertheless, says Badran, “Hezbollah is probably not in a position where they’d want to initiate a conflict.” The Syrian war is still hot, and “Iran and its proxies especially need time to connect its Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebanese assets. Hezbollah will then use that territory for, among other things, striking Israel, transforming its presence in Syria from a constraint to an enormous advantage.”
This is the strategic dilemma that Israel faces. Despite Hezbollah’s increased strength, Israel still holds decisive military advantage over the sub-state actor. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has roughly 175,000 active personnel with 445,000 reserves, some of the most advanced military hardware in the world, and air supremacy over Lebanon. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system can also be relied upon to blunt at least some of the threat posed by Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal. As of 2014, the system has successfully intercepted over 1,400 rockets.
At a time when a quarter of Hezbollah forces are still wrapped up in Syria and the overland supply pipeline to Iran is still incomplete, Israeli policymakers might be tempted to use this military superiority to strike now while their enemies are distracted. As Badran points out, “the clock is ticking for Israel.”
However, at the end of the day, a true war with Hezbollah will cost Israel dearly. Even if the Iron Dome works as expected, many missiles will likely break through to both military and civilian targets, while an assault on southern Lebanon could potentially claim the lives of hundreds of IDF soldiers and thousands of Lebanese civilians. In order to effectively subdue Hezbollah, Israel would need to launch a sustained ground invasion against an enemy that is well-trained and well-prepared to defend its territory in depth. In addition, such a war would almost certainly include far more strikes against Hezbollah targets in Syria, potentially dragging the Syrian government, Iran, and possibly even Russia, into direct conflict with Israel.
David Schenker, Director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute, notes that “while many people [in Israel] might support whacking Hezbollah, there is the basic fact that the last time this happened [in 2006], it took 34 days… this could drag on for some time and, like last time, it could not only cripple the economy throughout the north of Israel, it could cripple the economy of the whole state.” In addition to the human toll of war, Israeli leaders may not be willing to risk the political consequences of a major conflict. Meanwhile, says Schenker, “Hezbollah doesn’t want another full-scale war with Israel in Lebanon,” which means that the general status quo of mutual military deterrence between Hezbollah and Israel could endure in the near future.
Still, as U.S. policy in Syria continues to focus almost solely on combatting ISIS, the basic calculus between Hezbollah and Israel along the Lebanese border and the Syrian border near the Golan Heights is unlikely to change. War is not inevitable, but the threat is growing.
Fritz Lodge is a Middle East and international economics analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @FritzLodge.