All quiet on Israel's northern front

By
June 3, 2017 04:45

The likelihood of a war in Lebanon and Syria is low as the Jewish state marks 69 years of independence.




Hezbollah

A Hezbollah commander briefs press members on April 20 about Israeli military positions along the border with Lebanon. (photo credit:AFP PHOTO)

ON APRIL 20, Hezbollah took Lebanese journalists on a tour of the Israeli border led by a commander of the Shi’ite militia in full combat uniform. According to the 2006 cease-fire agreement between Israel and Lebanon under the terms of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, Hezbollah personnel are prohibited from wearing military fatigues or carrying weapons along the border. Only the Lebanese army is entitled to do so.

Israeli military commanders and the government took the televised tour lightly.

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They know that it was aimed for domestic consumption, rather than as a threat against Israel. The tour was an exercise in public relations to demonstrate that Hezbollah has not abandoned its commitment to the struggle against Israel.

To see the Israeli positions, there is no need for Hezbollah’s guided tours. Anyone traveling along the border region on the Lebanese side can see the Israeli fortified military posts with their bunkers and antennae, border obstacles and army patrols.

What the tour shows, above all, is the troubled situation of the Shi’ite movement.



Hezbollah is in distress because of the civil war in Syria, which, on March 15, entered its seventh year. The movement has become Iranian cannon fodder in Syria, making enormous sacrifices to defend the regime of Bashar Assad. Some 8,000 of its foot soldiers and commanders – one-third of its entire fighting force ‒ are stationed in the Syrian killing fields. Around 1,800 of its fighters, many from its elite units, and some of its best-trained troops and most talented commanders have been killed in battle in Syria and approximately 6,000 wounded. It is a heavy toll for any military force, and most certainly for a small organization such as Hezbollah.

The price exacted on Hezbollah by the war is not only in blood. It faces a deep economic crisis because Iranian subsidies and its own smuggling operations of drugs and cigarettes, as well as money laundering and taxes levied on its members are not sufficient to cover its expanding budget. Thus, Hezbollah is struggling to provide allowances and benefits to the families of its fallen and wounded soldiers.

Many in Lebanon, including in the Shi’ite community that makes up nearly half of Lebanon’s population of 6.5 million are now challenging Hezbollah’s leadership with tough questions such as: What are we doing in Syria? Why are we there? For whom are we fighting? In a sense, Syria is for Hezbollah what Vietnam was in the ’60s for the US – a foreign country with no real justification to fight for it. Hezbollah’s military structure is also in trouble, functioning without a supreme military commander after losing two commanders in assassination operations. Imad Mughniyeh was killed in February 2008 in a joint American-Israeli (CIA-Mossad) operation in Damascus, when a car bomb was parked next to his automobile and detonated by a remote-control device from the Mossad’s war room in Tel Aviv. His successor, cousin and brother-in-law Mustafa Badreddine was killed mysteriously at Damascus International Airport in May 2016. His death, at first, was blamed on rebel shelling, but reports later surfaced that he had been killed by one of his own men. Incidentally, both Badreddine and Mughniyeh were assassinated after meetings with their “boss” and controller, General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian special Al-Quds force.

While it is easy to understand why Mughniyeh was killed by his Israeli and US enemies who had many accounts to settle with him for his terrorist attacks against Israelis, Jews and Americans, the Badreddine killing is less clear.

A senior Israeli military officer explained that he was assassinated on the orders of Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah because he had shown a tendency for independence and disobedience. His murder most probably was approved by Suleimani.

According to the same officer, the absence of a supreme military commander has not affected Hezbollah’s decision-making and the organization is not suffering from a power vacuum at the strategic level. Nasrallah is calling the shots together with Iran.

Nevertheless, the source added, “Nasrallah is a good strategist, but he is not a military tactician” so, without a supreme military leader, Hezbollah’s battle capabilities are undermined.

On the other hand, the Israeli Defense Forces recognize that, by fighting in Syria, Hezbollah is gaining a great deal of military experience that would improve its capabilities in a future war.

Not that such an eventuality has a high probability; on the contrary.

As Israel marks its 69th Independence Day in early May and enters its 11th year of quiet on the Lebanese border (since the 2006 war), the likelihood of another round with Hezbollah is very slim. Actually, this is the longest peaceful period ever enjoyed by the citizens on Israel’s northern border. In this sense, the much maligned Second Lebanese War has, in fact, proved to be a major Israeli success as Hezbollah has remained deterred for so long.

IT WAS Nasrallah’s deputy, Sheikh Naim Qassem who said as much himself on the same day Hezbollah took journalists on the border tour. Qassem said his movement has no intention of starting a war with Israel but would fight back if attacked. His words echo those of Israeli leaders and military commanders, who say they have no intention of launching a military attack against Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, according to a senior military source, Israel is in much better shape militarily than it was 11 years ago and is ready for any future scenario. It continues to fortify its border; prepare evacuation plans, if necessary, in the event of heavy shelling of the civilian population along the border; and gather intelligence to prepare potential targets for its air, sea and land forces.

“Our intelligence infiltration inside Hezbollah is deep. Our understanding of its capabilities is good,” the source says.

With a little help from Michel Aoun, the president of Lebanon since October, Israel has dramatically changed its strategy visà- vis the Land of the Cedars. The former general, a Maronite Christian who once was a sworn enemy of Syria, is now an ally of Hezbollah and Assad. Aoun declared a few weeks ago that his Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) would fight shoulder to shoulder with Hezbollah in a future war with Israel.

“This statement,” says another senior Israeli military officer, “is a game changer.”

In the 2006 war, the Israeli government made a distinction between Hezbollah and the LAF. The IDF fought and targeted Hezbollah while trying to avoid confrontation with the LAF and spare Lebanese civilian infrastructure. In a future conflict, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself has declared, Israel would perceive Hezbollah and the LAF as one integral, unified and complementary force and fight it with no constraints.

But, regardless of Aoun’s bellicosity, war with Hezbollah and Lebanon is not on the horizon. Neither is it in Syria.

Israel religiously maintains its declared policy on the Golan Heights, which is one of non-intervention in the Syrian civil war, aiming to keep peace and quiet along the 100-km border with Syria from Mount Hermon in the northwest to the triangular border with Jordan-Israel-Syria in the southeast.

To achieve that, Israel has developed a variety of tactical means. It provides humanitarian aid to the moderate rebel villagers along the border and has treated more than 3,000 people who were wounded in the war in its hospitals. It also is sending strong messages to hostile rebels such as ISIS and al-Qaida that can be summarized as: “Don’t mess with us. If you do, we will severely punish you.” So far, that warning has worked. When an ISIS-affiliated local commander decided on his own to attack an Israeli patrol along the border in late November, Israel retaliated harshly by locating the assailants and firing a missile that hit their vehicle and killed them. The counterattack prompted ISIS to send an apology via intermediaries.

Israel also has indirect back channels to the Assad regime via the UN peacekeeping force known as UNDOF, whose troops are slowly returning to their positions abandoned during the civil war after Israel guaranteed it would do everything to assist them and bring them to safety if they are in danger.

HOWEVER, ISRAELI
non-interventionism has a few exceptions. One is that the IDF will respond and retaliate in measure to any “spill over” of the war in Syria across Israel’s border regardless of who is the source of fire – be it the Assad regime or the rebels ‒ and whether or not it is intentional.

Another exception is that Israel acts against efforts by Iran and its proxies (Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias) to gain a foothold near its Golan border. “We will not tolerate an Iranian presence near our border,” another senior military source tells The Jerusalem Report.

At the same time, Israel uses its air force from time to time to bomb convoys and warehouses of advanced weapons (longrange accurate missiles) on their way from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah. These air strikes are delicately executed to avoid unintended clashes with Russian fighter planes in the skies of Syria, using the joint “deconflicting” channels set by Israel and Russia.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Israel in mid-April to assess the situation in Syria and confirmed what Israeli intelligence had already revealed ‒ that it was the Assad army that launched the sarin gas attack near Idlib against civilians earlier in April.

In talks with his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, both sides concurred that despite its military victories of the last year, the Assad regime continues to face obstacles to enlarging its sphere of control in Syria. This is because Assad’s army is exhausted and overextended after six years of bloodshed, while Hezbollah and the other Shi’ite militias are reluctant to engage in major direct battles against the rebels.

This realization, out of frustration and despair, pushed the Assad regime to use some of its “residual capacity” of chemical weapons (as much as three tons out of its once massive stock of 1,300 tons) in the last sarin attack.

“The war is not going to end soon,” says the third senior military officer who spoke with The Report. “And international efforts to reach a diplomatic solution are not succeeding.”

Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman.

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