The Cipher Brief’s new Academic Incubator program publishes the work of undergraduate and graduate students, writing short briefs on national security issues.
This week’s briefer is Anthony D’Ambola, an M.A. candidate in Security Policy Studies at George Washington University. D’Ambola focuses on transnational security issues and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa.
Within the confines of the Syrian conflict, now inching toward its closing stages, Israel has conducted an ongoing shadow war aimed at curtailing the ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah, which seek to establish further regional influence, entrench militarily, and reap the economic benefits of reconstruction in Syria. The Israeli Defense Forces have, over the past few years, countered this security threat through hundreds of targeted missile strikes, along with covert operations, on Iranian and Hezbollah supply lines, weapons depots, and military installations.
Recently, both the scope and intensity of the conflict have been ratcheted up. Israel has expanded its military operations beyond Syria’s borders, stretching into Lebanon and Iraq, and targeted Hezbollah fighters in Syria, which it had largely refrained from doing in prior airstrikes. For the first time since beginning its Syria operations, Israel experienced pushback, as Hezbollah forces fired antitank missiles at an Israeli military base just across the Lebanese border.
Israel’s abrupt change in tactics is a somewhat perplexing decision. Its limited war in Syria had a clear strategic aim: alleviate Israel’s security concerns by thwarting Iran’s and Hezbollah’s efforts to establish positions near the Syria-Israel border. In contrast, the underlying strategy of expanding its area of operations is unclear—and far riskier.
Israel’s initial, circumscribed military foray to Syria was likely underwritten, in part, by the assumption that neither Iran nor Hezbollah would muster the political will to retaliate. Domestic economic conditions and political precariousness inside Iran and Lebanon were likely responsible for steering Israel’s decision-making. Iran has been facing acute economic strain as a result of U.S. sanctions; Hezbollah has been feeling the reverberations. When combined with internal political conditions and current military and geopolitical entanglements, considerable risks have averted Iran and Hezbollah from retaliating and intensifying the conflict. Neither could risk the potential erosion (a further erosion in Iran’s case) of public opinion that would result from a costly—and unwinnable—war with Israel.
The Iranian economy has been in freefall: inflation and GDP growth for 2019 are projected to be a dismal 37% and -6%, respectively. These economic conditions have coincided with political unrest. Nationwide protests in 2018 caught the attention of Iran’s leaders. While Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is certainly not sympathetic to the grievances and plight of everyday Iranians and feels secure with his grip on power, he acutely understands that a restive population is a threat. Large-scale protests garner worldwide attention and support, particularly from Iran’s biggest rival—the United States. Iran’s 2019 defense budget helps illuminate its concerns over domestic stability. Iran’s overall military budget decreased by 28 percent, including a 17 percent cut to the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps. Conversely, the Ministry of Intelligence, tasked with monitoring and suppressing dissenters, saw its budget increase by 32 percent.
Hezbollah also has its own domestic economic and political considerations to take into account. It receives the majority of its funding from Iran (to the tune of $700 million annually), and is sensitive to the biting effects of the sanctions placed on its ally. Indeed, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, recently appealed for economic support from the group’s supporters abroad. Hezbollah, along with its political allies, holds a parliamentary majority and, thus, is forced to weigh the potential political costs of war. Significantly, a poll taken in December 2018 indicated that just one third of Lebanese Shia want Hezbollah forces to start “actively confronting Israel.” Thus, a war, if the public feels it is unjustified, could erode the group’s popularity and lead to parliamentary losses.
Militarily, the Syrian war has garnered considerable investment from Iran in order to prop up the Assad regime and ensure that it retains power. Its costs, both in human lives and wealth, have been particularly steep. Tehran sent an estimated 10,000 combat troops and operatives to Syria between 2011 and 2014, and acknowledged that, by 2017, at least 2,100 had been killed. Iran’s financial outlays have also been substantial, at roughly $15 billion. For perspective, its total defense outlays over the past ten years has been approximately $140 billion. A swath of the Iranian people almost assuredly seethes with resentment at Iranian leadership for spending such a considerable amount of funds abroad instead of on dire economic issues at home.
These economic and political complications have likely served as a bulwark for Israel against potential retaliation from Iran or Hezbollah, which had not previously judged Israel’s delineated airstrikes in Syria to be crossing a red line. Israel’s assumption concerning political will on the part of Iran and Hezbollah appears to have remained static even as its military campaign has become more dynamic.
Hezbollah’s calculations now appear to have shifted, however. Iran’s level of involvement in any broader conflict is difficult to discern, though, at a minimum, it will supplement Hezbollah militarily. Politically, a larger proportion of Iranians and Lebanese Shia are more likely to support military escalation, along with the hardships that accompany it, if they perceive aggression from an external actor.
An additional factor likely influencing Israel’s military decision-making is its domestic politics. Security is consistently the top political issue for Israelis, and Prime Minister—his position within government at the time of this writing—Benjamin Netanyahu has a reputation that is indelibly tethered to his perceived toughness in staring down and overcoming Israel’s security threats. He, in turn, is not timid about capitalizing on Israel’s security situation and molding it to fit his overall objectives. Netanyahu is adept at shaping public opinion to his advantage. His most recent gambit, in which he took the highly unusual step of announcing to the media a high-level security briefing for his main rival in this past week’s election, Benny Gantz, illustrates his inconspicuous melding of politics and security issues. Netanyahu was likely stoking the prospect of war with Israel’s archenemies to serve as a boon to his party’s reelection prospects.
The dynamics of the political-military-public opinion triad, whether connected to tectonic global conflicts or disruptive regional squabbles, is omnipresent throughout history. As conflict of any scale becomes politically palatable on the domestic front, the odds of it occurring increase markedly. Israel has expanded the theater of war and loosened its target selection criteria, eliciting a response from Hezbollah. If sustained or escalated further, a broader war may engulf the region.
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