Chances of Another Hezbollah-Israeli War Unlikely

March 3, 2015
Josh Lipowsky  —  CEP Research Analyst

A January 18 Israeli airstrike on a Hezbollah convoy in Syria left six dead, including a senior Iranian general who had been advising the Syrian military. The strike had been in response to Syrian rocket fire within the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Hezbollah responded 10 days later with a rocket attack on an Israeli patrol in the disputed Shebaa Farms area of the Golan Heights, killing two soldiers. Israel responded by shelling Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon.

It seemed like another war between Israel and Hezbollah was inevitable. Then on January 30, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said his group doesn’t want a war but is “not afraid of war.” He added that Hezbollah has thrown out its rules of engagement with Israel and will strike when and where it chooses.

To most observers, this sounded more like an attempt at deterrence than a ‘rally-the-troops’ address. Recent skirmishes may point toward a new conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, but Hezbollah’s military situation and Israel’s political situation make that scenario much less likely. Hezbollah and Israel were obligated to respond to January’s tit-for-tat attacks, but both refrained from the types of large-scale retaliation that would inevitably have led to a full scale conflict. Indeed, Hezbollah has reportedly told Israel through unofficial channels that it is uninterested in war.

Hezbollah might actually be at its weakest in years. The Shiite terror group has been stretched thin fighting on behalf of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, losing at least 1,000 men. It also faces threats from ISIS, the Nusra Front, and other Sunni rebel groups. A depleted Hezbollah and Syrian forces reportedly began a campaign in early February to push the Nusra Front out of southern Syria.

A sustained Israeli aerial assault would further weaken Hezbollah, allowing Syrian jihadist groups to take advantage on other fronts and perhaps even push into Lebanon. A war with Israel would also wreak havoc on Lebanon, further incensing a public already angry at Hezbollah for dragging Lebanon into the Syrian war and suspicious the Shiite group is putting Iran’s interests ahead of Lebanon’s.

Israeli strikes on Syrian government targets better serve Hezbollah’s interests. Israel has officially remained neutral in the Syrian civil war, but increased Israeli strikes against Syrian targets risk raising suspicions that jihadist rebel groups are collaborating with the Jewish state. Such suspicions could weaken rebel factions that do not want to be seen collaborating with Israel. Israel likely knows this and has limited its strikes in Syria to targets directly affecting its interests, avoiding overt interference in the Syrian conflict.

With Israeli elections scheduled for March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is looking to bolster his security credentials. Last summer’s conflict with Hamas is still fresh in the minds of many Israelis, as is Netanyahu’s inability to score a decisive victory against the terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip. Engaging in a war with Hezbollah ahead of elections would likely damage Netanyahu’s reelection chances if he could not score a quick and decisive victory, which is unlikely. Continued small pinpoint strikes against immediate Hezbollah threats demonstrate strength while pragmatically avoiding getting drawn into a wider conflict.

Israel will likely continue to respond to individual attacks on its northern frontier and concentrate its air power on stopping major weapons shipments from Iran. Hezbollah will continue to beat its chest in response. Full-fledged war, however, currently serves no one’s interests. 

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.

View Archive

CEP on Twitter