Footage of Hezbollah convoy reportedly hit by Israeli air strike released.
(photo credit: ARAB MEDIA)
Israel’s northern front is heating up and this presents a threat to Israel’s security.
But imagine what sort of threat would be faced by the Jewish state – and a number of Sunni states in the region – if the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis were augmented by an Islamic Republic in possession of nuclear weapons? According to foreign media sources, Israel is responsible for a helicopter attack midday Sunday in the Syrian province of Quneitra that killed six Shi’ite terrorists.
Iranian Col. Ali Reza al-Tabatabai, commander of the Radwan force of the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon, was among those killed. The Radwan force, a special operations unit, is responsible for planning attacks against Israel. Others killed in the operation were a high-ranking Hezbollah officer and Jihad Mughniyeh, son of former Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh.
This is not the first time Israel has reportedly attacked Iranian and Hezbollah targets. Usually, these strikes are aimed at preventing the transfer of arms – particularly long-range missiles that compromise Israeli security – from Iran to Hezbollah via Syria.
Sunday’s attack was different from others in a few ways.
First, it targeted specific individuals who were either high-ranking commanders or, in the case of Mughniyeh, had added value as a high-profile name.
Second, the attack involved more risk on the part of Israel.
Hezbollah and Iran will find it much harder to simply ignore the killing of these military leaders. It would be seen as a sign of weakness in the eyes of both supporters and rivals if they fail to retaliate.
Israeli decision-makers must have known this, but nevertheless decided to go through with the attack anyway based on the assumption that Hezbollah and Iran are too preoccupied on a number of fronts to launch a significant retaliatory response.
Besides being bogged down in Syria’s civil war (an estimated 3,000-4,000 Hezbollah troops are fighting in Syria out of a standing army of about 10,000 full-time fighters) Hezbollah is involved in an protracted war with takfiris or extremist Sunni jihadists like those aligned with the al-Nusra Front or Islamic State.
Hezbollah is also wary of endangering its political standing within Lebanon by instigating an escalation of hostilities with Israel which is liable to deteriorate into a rerun of the 2006 Second Lebanon War that resulted in the destruction of Lebanon.
Iran, which is expending troops, weapons, cash and resources to prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria, has no interest in seeing Hezbollah, an important ally, diverting much-needed troops from Syria to the border with Israel.
Nevertheless, after Sunday’s attack Hezbollah and Iran now have a stronger motivation to retaliate in a way that has less of a chance of sparking a full-fledged conflagration.
One option might be a terrorist attack directed at Jews in the Diaspora, like the one carried by Hezbollah in Burgas, Bulgaria, in July 2012.
But the flare-up in the North should be seen as a harbinger of a much more serious challenge to Israel’s security and to Middle East stability – Iran becoming a nuclear power.
Imagine that the sword-rattling speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah that aired Friday on Lebanon TV was backed up by an Iranian patron with an atomic bomb.
Nasrallah bragged about Hezbollah’s ability to strike every inch of Israel with advanced, long-distance rockets that were not in its possession back in 2006. What if these missiles were placed under Iran’s nuclear umbrella? Iran with a nuclear-weapon capability would radically change Israel’s military calculations. Operations like the one carried out on Sunday would have to be reconsidered in light of a whole new set of dangers. Even if Iran never used a nuclear weapon, the very fact that it had one would transform its international status.
Even a country like North Korea, that has a tiny, failed economy and a starved population, gains the attention of the world solely because it has a nuclear weapon. In the case of Iran, not only would possessing nuclear arms mean power – it would mean the empowerment of madmen like Assad, who used chemical weapons against his own people, and Nasrallah, who dragged Lebanon into a pointless war with Israel.
Israel’s reputed air strike in Syria and the potential for fallout is a diversion from the real challenge: preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.