The Lebanese people breathed a sigh of relief when Hezbollah officials announced that Lebanon was not a part of the confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria. The announcement was made in the wake of escalating threats exchanged after Israel attacked the T-4 military base, killing at least two Iranian soldiers.
Hezbollah’s decision to stay out of the conflict is based upon domestic political considerations, especially the fact that Lebanon is on the verge of parliamentary elections and the party does not want to drag the country into a war with Israel. This would worry the Lebanese people and have a negative effect on the election campaign of Hezbollah and its allies as they attempt to gain a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Such a majority would tighten the party’s grip on political institutions, just as it has been controlling the military and security institutions in Lebanon for years. Hezbollah’s position towards Israel’s preparations to face any Iranian retaliation reflected on these preparations, and it seems that the Israeli officials have temporarily excluded Lebanon from the confrontation with Iran.
The Israelis are taking Iran’s retaliation threats seriously and have started to develop possible defensive scenarios. The debate reflects the shift in Israel’s engagement in this context; it now speaks openly about military operations in Syria, for example, whereas before it would simply refuse to admit responsibility. This was demonstrated recently by an Israeli official who spoke to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times about an operation launched against a military base near Homs.
Furthermore, Israeli officials have recently intensified their use of the media to intimidate Tehran and make it back down from retaliatory action by explaining how Israel would then use destructive force against Iran. Israel is thus involved in a fierce psychological war, boasting that it has comprehensive intelligence on Iran’s military presence in Syria; suggesting that the Iranians are completely exposed; claiming that it has a long list of targets; and insisting that its response to a retaliatory blow will destroy Iran’s military capabilities in Syria.
Despite Israel’s intimidating rhetoric and the great confidence that it is ready to face all threats, the current Israeli-Iranian stand-off is more complex, dangerous and risky for everyone, not just Iran and Israel.
The escalation and intensification of threats against Iran has put Israel in a dilemma, something Israeli commentators and analysts admit. If Iran’s retaliation is inevitable, as the two sides claim, this will force Israel to carry out its threats to respond; at that point, it will be on a downward spiral towards a full-on war. According to military officials, this is not something that Israel wants at the moment.The question now is what would happen if the Iranian retaliation is limited and does not cause any real losses. Will Israel make good on its threats and strike Iranian targets in Syria, igniting a war it does not want? Or will it absorb the blow, as it did in 2015, when Hezbollah responded to Israel’s assassination of its military commander, Jihad Mughniyeh, other members of the party and Iranian officers, by attacking an Israeli patrol in the Shebaa Farms zone, killing an officer and a soldier? Israel decided not to respond then, and the matter went no further.
The Israelis have fallen into a trap that they laid themselves when they escalated their threats against Iran. They cannot back down in case it is taken as a sign of weakness. At the same time, they do not seem able to do back up the threats with action for fear of igniting another war in Syria that may spread to Lebanon.
It is, therefore, possible to say that the real target of Israel’s threats are the Russians, in an effort to get them to rein-in the Iranians and prevent them from carrying out any military action against Israel that could start a war. Such a confrontation could undermine all of Russia’s efforts to strengthen Bashar Al-Assad and his regime and prevent Russia from reaping the benefits of its intervention in Syria.
However, this may be a risky move by Israel, as Moscow’s interests currently intersect with Tehran’s; hence, the strong Russian condemnation of Israel’s attack on the T-4 base. This does not suggest that Russia is sympathetic towards Israel’s case against Iran. Instead, there are fears of tension rising between Israel and Russia given the former’s threats against Iran. In the end, President Vladimir Putin cannot agree to work as a contractor for Israel in order to curb Iran.
If the Israeli threats are aimed at putting pressure on the US to intervene, this is not guaranteed. There is no doubt that the Trump administration will support Israel politically and economically, but it is by no means certain that it would intervene militarily if a confrontation between Israel and Iran escalates into war. This is especially the case since Trump announced his withdrawal of US troops from Syria.
Israel created this deadlock and so it must find a way out of it without causing another war in Syria. That is something that Lebanon might not survive.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 24 April 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.