Israeli strike in Syria: A move in an unfinished game

The strike against Hezbollah on the Syrian Golan was a warning to the Iranian proxy not to prepare another front against Israel.

January 25, 2015 02:10
Lebanese Hezbollah supporters march during a religious procession

Lebanese Hezbollah supporters march during a religious procession in Nabatieh. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In analyzing the significance and likely fallout from what foreign reports called the Israeli killing of a number of senior Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) personnel close to the Golan border this week in the Quneitra region, a number of points should be considered.

Firstly, the killings were a response to a clear attempt by the Iranians/Hezbollah to violate the very fragile status quo that pertains between these elements and Israel in Lebanon and Syria.

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Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, in his interview with the Al-Mayadeen network three days before the attack, explicitly claimed that his organization was not engaged in “resistance work” on the Golan.

The alleged Israeli strike showed that this statement was a lie.

Some analysis of the strike has suggested that the mission of the men killed in the attack involved preparation for placing sophisticated Iranian missile systems on the Syrian part of the Golan. Other accounts suggested that the mission was part of readying this area for the launch of ground attacks across the border against Israeli targets, perhaps using proxies.

In either case, the mission was a clear attempt to change the arrangement of forces in the north, in such a way that could be expected to ensure an Israeli response.

Secondly, in the past, Hezbollah has reacted differently to Israeli strikes on it within Syria, or its allies there, compared to strikes on Lebanese soil.

The difference again relates to the unstated but clear “rules of the game” between the organization and the Jewish state. Israeli strikes on materials making their way to Hezbollah from Syrian soil have elicited no response from the movement.

By contrast, an Israeli attack on a weapons convoy just across the border on Lebanese soil near the village of Janta on February 24, 2014, provoked a Hezbollah response. On March 18, an improvised explosive device was exploded just south of the security barrier in the Majdal Shams area on the Golan Heights, wounding four IDF soldiers.

The rules of the game in question do not indicate a lessening of warlike intentions or a growing affection on the part of Hezbollah toward Israel. Rather, they reflect the acute need on the part of the organization and its Iranian masters to avoid being drawn into conflict with Israel unless it becomes unavoidable.

Hezbollah is overstretched at the moment. It has between 5,000 to 10,000 men engaged in Syria; it is engaged in a determined and fraying attempt to prevent Sunni jihadist incursions across the border into Lebanon from Syria, and bomb attacks by the Sunni groups further into Lebanon.

Hezbollah is also an integral part of the Iranian outreach effort in Iraq, where members are training Shi’ite fighters.

Even as far afield as Yemen, where the Iran-backed Houthi militia is involved in a push for power, the movement’s fingerprints have been found.

All this reflects Hezbollah’s role as Iran’s primary agent in the Arab world. Given all this activity, the last thing the IRGC and Hezbollah need is to be drawn into a premature conflagration with Israel.

The urgency of averting a collision with the Jewish state is compounded by a shortage of Iranian cash, resulting from the collapse of oil prices.

The Iran/Hezbollah/Assad side has long threatened to develop the Golan as a front for possible “jihad duties” against Israel. Both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Nasrallah, in the course of 2014, made unambiguous public statements threatening the opening of military activity against Israel in this area. Israel in turn has been very keen to make clear that such a move would constitute a violation of the status quo.

The strike on Sunday constituted a very kinetic further Israeli message intended to drive home this point.

What this means is that despite the death of a senior IRGC commander in the Israeli strike, the action by Israel should not be seen as a general casting aside of the rules of engagement by Jerusalem on the northern border – but rather an insistence on maintaining these rules, and a warning of the consequences to the other side of continued violation of them.

The thing which might be pointed to in differentiating this action from previous events is, of course, the death of IRGC Gen. Muhammad Ali Allahdadi.

Allahdadi may not be the first senior IRGC figure to lose his life in Syria at Israeli hands in the last three years of war there. That distinction arguably belongs to Brig.-Gen. Hassan Shateri, assassinated on February 13, 2013, either by the Syrian rebels or persons working for Israel, depending on which version one chooses to believe.

But certainly the high visibility of Allahdadi’s demise, taking place unambiguously at Israeli hands, represents something new. From this point of view, the quoting by Reuters of an Israeli “security source” to the effect that Jerusalem did not know who was in the car at the time it was destroyed, may be seen as an attempt to recast the action within the realms of the recognized rules of engagement – whether or not one chooses to accept the veracity of the statement by this unnamed source. (The writer of this article does not.) Responses by Lebanese political leaders and media to the event have been characterized by a sort of nervous, veiled request to Hezbollah not to bring down Israel’s wrath on Lebanon. Beirut’s Daily Star captured this tone in an editorial titled “Don’t take the bait.”

After a series of unflattering remarks about Israel, the paper’s editors noted, “While some naturally feel a desire for retaliation against Israel, Hezbollah must be vigilant against designs for it to be drawn into a larger confrontation.

Lebanon has enough concerns of its own without falling prey to a plot against it.”

Of course, Iran and Hezbollah are strong enough to ignore such voices. But given the tense internal situation in Lebanon at present, it is likely that the lack of enthusiasm of non-Shi’ite Lebanese for Hezbollah’s war in Syria and in particular, their lack of willingness to pay any price accruing from it, will factor into the decision-making of the Shi’ite Islamist movement and its masters. Hezbollah needs a quiet and quiescent Lebanese political scene, so it may conduct its war against Sunni jihadists coming in from Syria under the guise of unified Lebanese action, rather than sectarian account-settling.

Lastly, as has been noted in previous analyses, Tehran has armed and trained Hezbollah so that it may be used to deter an Israeli response against Iranian nuclear facilities, or be activated as part of a response to such a strike. It is unlikely to wish to place this investment prematurely at risk.

Thus, the strike on Sunday was a restating by Israel of previously clarified ground rules relating to what will be permitted in Syria, and what will not. A response of some kind in the weeks, months or years ahead is likely. But the Israeli action was not a disregarding by Israel of previously existing rules of engagement in the north.

It is therefore unlikely to result in a similar upturning of the tables by Iran and Hezbollah at this time.

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