Hezbollah, Operating Under Constraints, Hopes to Avoid War

Two weeks ago, a third Lebanon war was narrowly averted. Hezbollah fired several anti-tank missiles at an IDF ambulance and missed. Both Hezbollah and Israel breathed a sigh of relief. The reasons for Israel’s reluctance for an all-out war have been widely discussed (Hezbollah’s missile arsenal, international opprobrium, the election cycle). Less understood are Hezbollah’s reservations. But the terror group, too, operates under constraints. It’s caught between Iran and Lebanon.

Hezbollah is a contractor. Its real headquarters isn’t Beirut but Tehran, to which it owes its very existence (Iran pulled together various Lebanese Shiite groups to form Hezbollah in the 1980s). Former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman calls Hezbollah “the most successful, and the most deadly, export of the 1979 Iranian revolution.”

While Hezbollah may be at its militarily strongest ever, with a missile arsenal estimated at 130,000 and troops battle-tested in Syria, it’s still no match for the Israel Defense Forces. And while Iran must be grating its teeth as it watches Israel knock out its proxy’s assets one after another, it’s not about to throw its most valuable chess piece into a game it can’t win.

Also, Hezbollah has money issues. That’s because its patron has money issues. According to Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon, Iran supplies Hezbollah with 70 percent of its operating budget, including small arms, a stream of military experts, and drone and precision missile technology. But with U.S. sanctions putting the squeeze on Iran, it has cut Hezbollah’s budget in half, forcing the group to slash terrorist salaries and reduce payments to its wounded and families of those killed in action.

Adding to Hezbollah’s money woes is the fact that its sponsor has taken on other “responsibilities.” Besides building a “land bridge” to the Mediterranean, Iran has expanded into Yemen, taking advantage of the opportunity offered by the Houthi insurgency. Iran supplies the rebellion with hundreds of millions of dollars, training, and advanced weaponry. The Iranian Crescent hopes to become a full moon, to paraphrase U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook.

Hezbollah’s second constraint is its need to maintain its position as a legitimate political player within Lebanon. It scored a big success in the May 2018 elections, coming in first in the popular vote. It’s the fifth largest faction in the Lebanese parliament. Pundits calculated after Hezbollah’s electoral success that Iran would become more aggressive against Israel. But the opposite may be true. The Islamic Republic may feel constrained precisely because of Hezbollah’s strong showing, seeing the possibility that with a little patience Lebanon itself will fall into its lap.

Hezbollah ran on the slogan, “We’ll build the state and we’ll defend it.” Since then, the terror group has tried to play the part of a responsible political faction. Makor Rishon notes that its chief, Hassan Nasrallah, has devoted a significant number of speeches to the slogan’s theme, addressing issues related to economics, industry, and even culture. Hezbollah also insisted on running the Health Ministry after the elections “to burnish its credentials in terms of relatively honest service delivery,” writes former ambassador Feltman in a January piece for the Brookings Institution, though he notes, “it does not seem to be a coincidence that control of the Health Ministry gives Hezbollah authority over significant amounts of cash.”

Given its efforts to make it seem that it puts Lebanon’s interests first, Hezbollah can’t at the same time be seen as dragging Lebanon into war.

Trying to spin Hezbollah’s aggression against Israel as serving Lebanon’s interest, Nasrallah said, “If we’re quiet after this incident [an August 25 alleged Israeli drone attack against Iran-supplied machinery to make precision missiles], Lebanon will enter a dangerous path in which we’ll be witness to drones blowing up targets and assassinating people. We in Hezbollah won’t allow Lebanon to be endangered.”

Hezbollah’s propaganda doesn’t appear to have convinced the Lebanese. A newspaper caricature that went viral on social media showed Nasrallah and Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani dragging a map of Lebanon into a bonfire marked “2006,” the year of the Second Lebanon War. That war cost Lebanon dearly. In 34 days, the IDF blasted Lebanese bridges, highways, factories, and other infrastructure. Lebanon estimated the damage at $10 billion.

What has Lebanon further spooked is that Israel did not precede the 2006 war with declarations about holding Lebanon responsible. It is making such declarations now. The Lebanese need little convincing that Israel means business. Immediately after Hezbollah’s Sept. 1 attack on the IDF ambulance, Lebanese prime minister Saeed Hariri contacted the U.N., France, and the United States to urge Israel to avoid escalation. A few days later, in a CNBC interview, Hariri took the unprecedented step of criticizing Hezbollah openly, a transparent attempt to distance his country from the terror group in the hopes of avoiding Israel’s wrath.

So far that wrath has been averted. Israel reportedly had sent its air force toward Lebanon following the attack on its ambulance, only recalling it when it learned that no one had been killed. Hezbollah for its part was eager to declare victory and move on, immediately celebrating with social media posts, speeches, and a well-organized convoy of cars, trucks, and motorcycles honking and waving Hezbollah flags.

Even so, the clash will come. Hezbollah won’t give up its goal of obtaining precision missile technology. In 2006, Hezbollah launched 4,000 missiles at Israel. Only a few struck residential areas. But 4,000 that strike within a few meters of their intended targets is a red line for Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu repeated this message when meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Thursday: “In the last month, Iranian attempts to harm Israel and set up precision missiles has grown. This is an unacceptable threat from our point of view.”

Israel will therefore continue to hit Hezbollah targets connected with such missiles, and Hezbollah will feel compelled to respond. Two Sundays ago, the anti-tank missiles missed. The steely nerves of the IDF commander in the ambulance is credited for getting his team to safety as two other missiles were fired. Neither Israel—nor Lebanon—can count on such a fortunate outcome in the future.

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