Did Hezbollah paint itself into a corner over 'retaliation policy?'

A week ago, when Hezbollah indicated one of its fighters, Ali Mohsen, was killed in Syria, the group immediately had its social media fans calling for attacks on Israel.

IDF prepares for possible Hezbollah attack in northern Israel, July 2020 (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
IDF prepares for possible Hezbollah attack in northern Israel, July 2020
Hezbollah has been telegraphing its policy of retaliation for months, trying to build up some kind of deterrence that it thinks will help it save face in case of potential casualties in Syria.
The idea has come about over the last years, in which Hezbollah has often followed through on claims it will retaliate against Israel if its members are targeted or killed. In this it tried to create a balance of terror. On July 27, it seems to have put that process into action in a limited way at first.
Many are scratching their heads after a small Hezbollah squad apparently approached Israel through the Mount Dov area. This is a disputed area that has long been targeted by Hezbollah. The group claims it is “resisting” Israel and trying to “liberate” the area, which it claims for Lebanon from the “Zionists.” But Hezbollah has hinted over the years that the battle with Israel will spread beyond Mount Dov to the whole border, as well as the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
A week ago, when Hezbollah indicated one of its fighters, Ali Mohsen, was killed in Syria, the group immediately had its social-media fans calling for attacks on Israel. It took a week for Hezbollah to do something. Pro-Hezbollah media linked to Iran and the Syrian regime all sought to praise and highlight the group’s July 27 raid into Mount Dov. Al Mayadeen claimed the group targeted a tank. Iran’s Fars News also said there were “unconfirmed reports” of an attack on a “Zionist tank.”
All these programs claimed they relied on Israeli media for their information. Clearly, the Hezbollah information machine was in the bunker with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. These channels also pointed out an Israeli drone had crashed a day ago, as if to link it to Hezbollah’s “success.”
Overall, the perception in the afternoon was that Israel had thwarted a daylight attack. It bore some commonalities with the September 1, 2019, retaliation Hezbollah carried out after it claimed an Israeli drone crashed in Beirut and after two of its members were killed in Syria. Both attacks took place in daylight.
In the 2019 incident, anti-tank missiles were fired. Israel evacuated mannequins placed in the vehicle that was hit. This ability to avoid casualties and have Hezbollah “retaliate” was unique last year. This year, it appears Hezbollah sent a small team to actually infiltrate into an area where Israeli forces are located.
Russia’s Sputnik in Arabic had another interpretation. Relying on a “source,” it claimed Hezbollah tried to infiltrate the border village of Ghajar, and it was exposed in the process of targeting an “Israeli military convoy.” In Lebanon, initial reports implied there were no Hezbollah casualties. Israel said in the afternoon there were no casualties. Some wondered if the incident was conjured up for Hezbollah to pretend it had done something, while doing nothing.
But the pro-Hezbollah narrative will be that they succeeded in crossing the Blue Line, just as they claim to have cut three holes in the border fence earlier this year as a “success.” They showed they could attack at a time and place of their choosing and keep Israel waiting. Nasrallah thus did what he said he would do. He “retaliated.”
Hezbollah’s narrative is that Israel is worried about Hezbollah and that it fears Hezbollah’s retaliation. This narrative works on several levels. It enables Hezbollah to pretend it is doing something and allows it to save face by carrying out smaller retaliations.
Over the last number of days, reports indicated that both Israel and Hezbollah did not want an escalation. Hezbollah seemed to play down talk of wider conflict. But Hezbollah is facing other problems, such as an economic crisis. This means it might need a distraction. However, it also knows that any incident could spiral out of control.
The question for Hezbollah is whether it painted itself into a corner with its balance of deterrence. There are now several incidents to look toward as a kind of model for Israel-Hezbollah relations. The problem is that complacency and expectation of de-escalation could lead to false beliefs that there will not one day be a false move, or miscalculation, by one side that leads to wider conflict.
Hezbollah continues to import precision-guided munitions from Iran and build up its arsenal, and it continues to slowly digest Lebanon’s government and economy. That is Iran’s real goal – to present an increased military threat along the Lebanese and Syrian border. It is not that Iran wants de-escalation; it wants a long-term threat close to Israel.
In this respect, Hezbollah initially showed it could decide when and where to strike in retaliation. It also showed that it somehow has a “right” to have its fighters in Syria and that if they are wounded, then it can “retaliate” as it chooses.
This presents a balance in which it has effectively extended its “right” to be present in Syria, much as it slowly became a norm to have Hezbollah run southern Lebanon. In this sense, what was once a question mark becomes reality.
On the larger playing field of the Middle East, therefore, Hezbollah acquiring this “right” to retaliate may be the larger story, even if its actual act appears to be a failure or an Israeli success in thwarting Nasrallah’s moves. That also leads to Nasrallah adopting a view that he can continue to hold Israel in waiting as to when he might next need to carry out an operation.