Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The evolution of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in Syria

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Shmuel Levin

Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Israel has maintained that it is not looking to intervene in favour of either side of the conflict. Instead, Israel's policy has been to protect its national interests and to prevent advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah's hands in Lebanon, whether they originate from Syria or Iran. In April 2016, Israel admitted for the first time publicly that it had "attacked dozens of convoys transporting weapons in Syria destined for Hezbollah". There have also been multiple reports of Israeli jets flying over parts of Lebanon. In addition, Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman has stated that Israel acts to prevent the transfer of weapons of mass destruction.

Recent Israeli actions in Syria

Israel's policy vis-à-vis Syria took on new significance in mid-March when, in a serious escalation, Syria fired anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli aircraft operating in Syrian airspace. One missile was successfully intercepted by Israel's Arrow anti-missile system, marking the first time that the Arrow system has shot down a missile in combat. Previous such anti-missile successes, such as during the 2014 war with Hamas, involved the Iron Dome system, which deals with shorter range missiles and rockets, unlike the Arrow, which works against longer range systems. This caused an audible explosion that could be heard in central Israel and triggered rocket-warning sirens throughout the Jordan valley. According to a Jordanian military source, shrapnel also landed in Jordan. Syria's military also claimed that it had downed an Israeli plane and hit another, but Israel denies this, and it would not be the first time that Syria has made unfounded claims.

Previous Israeli strikes have generally not been met by a significant response from Syria. According to Assaf Orion, senior research fellow at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, the change on Syria's part reflects the strengthening of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad's position in recent months, "with his forces reclaiming all of Syria's second city Aleppo, as well as enjoying continuing Russian support".

Following the attack on Israel's aircraft, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged that Israel will "continue to act" where it identifies "attempts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah and we have intelligence and it is operationally feasible". Israel does not usually confirm or deny individual instances of air raids against Syria, but it appears "it may have been led to do so this time by the circumstances of the incident".

Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman also stated on Israel's public radio that "the next time the Syrians use their air defence systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation." And, only two days later, Israel carried out two more airstrikes. According to various reports, the targets included the commander of the Syrian regime's Golan regiment.

Russia's intervention

Interestingly, following Israel's initial operation in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Israel's ambassador to clarify Israel's actions. This occurred notwithstanding that Netanyahu had recently returned from a visit to Moscow where he discussed Israel's concerns in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to Israel's Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, Israel did not inform Russia before it attacked the Syrian targets. Katz also stated that the strike was carried out because al-Assad had attempted to "change the rules of the game vis-à-vis Israel" and because Israel sought to prevent Syria from becoming "a dangerous hub of Hezbollah activity".

Aside from not being informed, the Russian response may also have been precipitated by the presence of Russian troops stationed near the targets. Some analysts have suggested that the Russian response may also be indicative of a shift in regional dynamics, as Russia reaffirms its support for a recuperating Syrian regime. However, this seems unlikely given the agreements reached just a week before between Israel and Russia.

Beginnings of a new conflict?

Whilst the missile was fired by the Syrian regime, Hezbollah has taken on a leading role within the Syrian conflict. Some analysts describe the Syrian chain of command as a hierarchy whereby "Iranian officers give orders to Hezbollah commanders who in turn give orders to Syrian officers and soldiers." As such, it has been suggested that the recent conflagration between Israel and Syria may be the beginnings of a new conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

On this view, Israel and Hezbollah have been heading for conflict since the inconclusive end of the last Israel-Hezbollah conflict in 2006. Moreover, in January 2016, Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt Gen Gadi Eizenkot defined Hezbollah as "the primary enemy facing the IDF".

According to Tony Badran, Levant specialist and research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Israel and Hezbollah have until now maintained a "set of rules... where each side makes tactical calculations regarding what and where they can target without triggering a full-blown war", given the level of destruction it would cause.

As part of these rules, Israel has limited its engagement to within Syria and along the Lebanese-Syrian border, but not within Lebanon itself. However, these rules have now come under stress because of Russia's entry into the region, which effectively limits Israel's ability to strike within parts of Syria. As a result, the two sides are recalibrating the rules of engagement; whilst at risk of escalating into all out war.

New rules of engagement

Since the start of the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah has reportedly taken advantage of the opportunity to build up its missile arsenals within Syria's mountain ranges. Hezbollah is seeking the protection of the Syrian's army's hardened shelters against Israeli air strikes. This is particularly important for Hezbollah, given that in 2006, Israel destroyed Lebanon's medium and long-rage missiles within 34 minutes of the conflict starting. However, it should also be noted that Israel has successfully struck tens of targets within Syria's Qalamoun Mountains in recent times.

Additionally, Hezbollah's capabilities have grown significantly since the last Israel-Hezbollah conflict in 2006. According to Israeli estimates, Hezbollah is now capable of firing 1,500 missiles at Israel a day. Moreover, since entering the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah has evolved from its traditional guerrilla tactics to more conventional operations. This includes operating tanks and artillery systems, and Hezbollah fighters have "even acted as battlefield commanders of Syrian troops".

Despite this, if a war does break out, it is unlikely that Hezbollah would employ conventional military tactics against Israel as it has in Syria, given the superiority of the Israel Defense Forces. Rather, as it has in the past, it is likely that Hezbollah would continue to use guerilla tactics and avoid open confrontation. Even if this leads to a stalemate, Hezbollah "could claim victory by simply maintaining its ability to survive and continue fighting".

On its part, Israel published a new military strategy in August 2015 whose stated objective is "to deny the enemy the will and ability to continue fighting and operate against our own forces." Israel is thus not seeking to completely destroy Hezbollah, given Hezbollah's reliance on guerrilla tactics and terrorism.

However, Israel's new strategy also indicates that it is seeking to take advantage of its conventional military strength, rather than relying upon "standoff firepower". According to the new "Gideon Doctrine", "ground manoeuvres will be launched from the outset of a conflict... including a new emphasis on surprise operations aimed at centres of gravity in the enemy's operational or strategic rear". This is a marked departure from 2006, when Israel largely relied upon its airpower and the targeting of Lebanese rockets.

In the few weeks since Israel's operation in Syria, tensions appear to have calmed down once again. This suggests that, for the time being, Israel and Hezbollah may have arrived at a new set of rules - until next time.

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