Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah hung in effigy in Beirut protest (Twitter, August 8, 2020)
Two weeks ago, two attacks were attempted against IDF soldiers on the northern position of Mount Dov on July 27, 2020, and on the Syrian border on August 2. Both of them were apparently carried out by Hizbullah or its affiliates. These two attacks reflect the desire of the terror organization to retaliate for the death of one of its operatives, who was killed in an airstrike on July 21 outside of Damascus, Syria. His death was attributed to Israel. The missile attack on July 21 hit weapons depots near Damascus, which are related to the joint effort of Iran and Hizbullah to improve the accuracy of the rocket weapons held by the Lebanese terror organization.
Hizbullah’s determination to retaliate in a way that is probably intended to avoid escalation is a part of the setting of game rules in the battle in the Syrian region between Iran/Hizbullah on the one hand, and Israel on the other hand. It is clear that Hizbullah considers itself obligated to retaliate for the death of its operatives in Lebanon. Until now, it was accepted by the sides to the conflict that activities attributed to Israel in the Syrian region and directed against Iran’s bases in Syria, do not justify or necessitate a retaliation from Iran and Hizbullah.
However, there were no clear rules related to the strike on Hizbullah’s fighters involved in the Iranian efforts. Usually, Israel tried to avoid hitting them. (For example, during the attack on Hizbullah’s vehicle in April, Israel made sure to avoid hitting the terrorists themselves. See video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zp0CkWkaxNc).
That attack caused Hizbullah to retaliate by breaking the border fence with Israel at three different points without crossing it and without attempting to hit IDF soldiers.
The death of the terrorist operative in the July 21 attack near Damascus, though, posed a challenge to the organization. If it does not retaliate, it will be perceived as coming to terms with the rules of the game set by Israel to hit Hizbullah members, who cooperate with Iran in Syria, in the context of improving Hizbullah’s capabilities. Such a policy could spur Israel to intensify its attacks. Failure to act could also be interpreted as a sign of Hizbullah’s weakness in Lebanon. Even before the Beirut Port disaster, blamed by many on Hizbullah, the organization was in distress given the Lebanese economic crisis for which it is largely responsible, the economic difficulties it is experiencing due to the U.S. economic pressure on Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah, and due to the decision expected on August 18 by the international tribunal on the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005. The international tribunal is expected to find four members of the terror organization guilty for the assassination.
On the other hand, it should be remembered that the Hizbullah Precision Guided Missile (PGM) Project and the deployment of Hizbullah in the Golan Heights are primarily intended to serve the Iranian interest in developing capabilities to strike Israel, to deter the United States and Israel from attacking Iran and to be able to hit Israel if deterrence fails. There is a potential for escalation ahead of the expected confrontation in the international system over the possibility of lifting the arms embargo on Iran in October and ahead of the U.S. presidential elections in November.
The Beirut Port catastrophe and Hizbullah’s extensive activities in Lebanon now may portray the terror organization not as a defender of Lebanon, as it seeks to present itself, but rather as an Iranian affiliate. This can also undermine Hizbullah’s status in Iran, as the organization could be blamed for leading to a premature escalation.
Thus, Hizbullah is in a quandary as it tries to plead innocent for the port blast while trying to find a way that will enable it to retaliate against Israel and make it clear that it will not accept the attack on its operatives in Syria.
Israel, in turn, tries to prevent the escalation by deterring Hizbullah both through the declarations it sends through intermediaries as well through its actions on the ground. (Israel hit the cell that attacked the Golan Heights, and it also struck Syrian targets and perhaps those who were responsible for dispatching the squad.) But Israel restrained its actions in Lebanon by refraining from harming the terrorists who tried to carry out the attack on Mount Dov.
At this stage, it seems that despite its failures and the Beirut catastrophe, Hizbullah may keep trying to retaliate to clarify that it will not tolerate any attack on its operatives related to the Iranian-sponsored PGM Missile Project. Therefore, the IDF has to maintain the required combat readiness.
If Hizbullah acts extensively, there might be an opportunity for Israel to take advantage of the organization’s distress and inflict severe damage to it and its assets. However, at this point, given the need to focus on pressuring Iran and curbing the spread of the Coronavirus, among other considerations, it is better for Israel to avoid escalation.
The massive explosion in Beirut port is unrelated to the battle of Iran and Hizbullah against Israel, and yet, it has the potential to affect it, at least in the short term. A more likely possibility is that Hizbullah will be more restrained, fearing public criticism in Lebanon for the negligence that apparently led to a tragedy, though, there is no guarantee for a change in Hizbullah’s determination to retaliate.