Israel and Hizballah: The Battle Before the Battle

During the 2006 war between  Israel and Hizballah, Israeli military actions were limited by the broader diplomatic situation.  The expulsion of Syria from Lebanon had taken place a year earlier.  The government of then prime minister Fuad Siniora in Beirut was considered one of the few successes of the US democracy promotion project in the region.  As a result, pressure was placed on Israel to restrict its operations to targets directly related to Hizballah activity alone.

Ten years is a long time.  Today, the view in Israel is that the distinction between Hizballah and the institutions and authorities of the Lebanese state has disappeared.

But while the government of Lebanon is no longer a particular protégé of the US and the west, the position taken in western capitals regarding the Lebanese state and, notably, its armed forces remains markedly different to that taken in Jerusalem.  The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) continues to be a major beneficiary of US aid.  This gap in perceptions reflects different primary security concerns.  For Israel, altering this perception in the west before the next conflict with Hizballah is a primary strategic task.

So what are the facts of the case?

One of the basic expectations of a functioning state is that it exercises a monopoly of the use of violence within its borders.  From this point of view, the Lebanese state ceased to function some time ago.  As the 2006 war and subsequent events graphically demonstrated,  Hizballah and its patrons could operate an independent foreign and military policy without seeking the permission of the official authorities in Beirut.

What has happened in the intervening decade, however, is that Hizballah and its allies, rather than simply ignoring the wishes of the state,  have progressively absorbed its institutions.

The events of May/June 2008 in Beirut finally demonstrated the impotence of ‘official’ Lebanon in opposing the will of Hizballah and its allies.

Then, on the official political level, Hizballah and its allies prevented the appointment of a Lebanese president for two years, before ensuring the ascendance of their own allied candidate, General Michel Aoun in October 2016.  For good measure, the March 8 bloc of which Hizballah is a part ensured for itself 8 portfolios in the 17 persons Lebanese Cabinet. Of these, two are directly in the hands of Hizballah.

So at the level of political leadership, it is no longer possible to identify where the Lebanese state begins and Hizballah ends.  And the organization has long enjoyed a de facto, physical dominance, both within Lebanon and in terms of its actions across and beyond its borders (against Israel,  in its intervention in the Syrian civil war, and in its involvement with other pro-Iranian militia groups in Iraq and Yemen).

What if the issue of security cooperation between Hizballah and the Lebanese Armed Forces?

No serious observer of Lebanon disputes that open cooperation between the two forces has increased over the last half decade.  The background to this is the threat of Salafi jihadi terrorism from Syrian Salafi groups engaged in the Syrian civil war.  A series of bombings in Shia south Beirut and in border communities triggered the joint effort by Hizballah and the LAF.

Of course, the bombings were taking place as retaliation by Syrian Salafis for Hizballah’s own involvement in the war in Syria on the regime side.   The LAF and Hizballah cooperated on the level of intelligence cooperation, and scored a number of successes in locating and apprehending Salafi cells on Lebanese soil.

As a result of the increasingly overt cooperation between the LAF and Hizballah, Saudi Arabia ended its military assistance to the LAF, canceling a $3 billion pledge in February 2016.  The cancellation was a tacit admission of defeat by the Saudis, an acknowledgment that their project of exerting influence and power in Lebanon through their clients had failed.

The US, however, has continued its relationship with the LAF, which was the recipient of $200 million in assistance from Washington last year.  Last December, the US dismissed Israeli assertions that M113 armored vehicles displayed by Hizballah in a triumphant parade in the town of Qasayr in Syria came from LAF stocks.  The LAF, according to a statement by John Kirby, the State Department Spokesman, has an ‘exemplary record’ in complying with US end-use guidelines and restrictions.

A statement by Lebanese President Michel Aoun in February appeared to confirm the situation of cooperation between the forces.  Aoun told the Egyptian CBC channel that Hizballah’s arms ‘do not contradict the state…and are an essential part of defending Lebanon.  As long as the Lebanese army lacks sufficient power to face Israel, we feel the need for ‘Hizballah’s arsenal, because it complements the army’s role.’

The difference of opinion between the US and Israel in this regard is of growing importance because of the emergent evidence of hitherto unreported Hizballah activities. In particular, there is deep disquiet in Israel regarding revelations of an Iranian-supported, homegrown Hizballah arms industry.  This, combined with what may be the beginnings of a slow winding down of the Syrian war raises the possibility of renewed tensions with Hizballah.

This does not mean that war is imminent. But from an Israeli point of view, the gap in understanding and perception between Washington and Jerusalem on the LAF, and by definition on the current nature of the Lebanese state, is a matter requiring urgent attention.  It is currently one of the missing pieces in the diplomatic structure which alone can make possible the kind of war that Israel will be wanting to fight next time round, should Hizballah attack or provocation come.

This is intended to be a war on a quite different scale and dimension to 2006.

The intention will be to dismiss any distinction between Hizballah and the Lebanese state, and to wage a state to state war against Lebanon, on the basis that the distinction has become a fiction.  This will involve an all out use of military force that will be intended to force a relatively quick decision.

For this to be conceivable,  a diplomatic battle has to first be won.  This is the battle to convince the west, or at least the US, that an Iranian proxy militia has today effectively swallowed the Lebanese state, making war against the former by its very nature involve war against the latter.  This battle before the battle has not yet been won.  It is part of a larger Israeli hope to focus the US and the west on Iran and Shia political Islam, in place of the current western focus on the Sunni variety.  Only thus will Israel be able to establish the strategic depth in the diplomatic arena that will enable, if necessary, its plans in the event of war with Hizballah to be carried out.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Jonathan Spyer

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