Israel Bombs Bound-for-Hizbollah Iranian Arms Caches in Damascus, Deepening the Syrian Conflict’s Regional Dimension and Possibly Setting the Stage for New Israel-Lebanon War
The Syrian conflict escalated sharply this weekend and threatened to further regionalize in volatile and unpredictable ways after Israel reportedly carried out two massive bombings on a military complex in Damascus in as many days.
Diplomatic sources said the attacks, which reportedly killed 42 Syrian soldiers, hit the facilities with a view towards thwarting the transfer of “game-changing” Iranian-made Fateh-110 guided missiles to Hizbollah.
Rebels, opposition activists and residents said the strikes hit bases of the elite Republican Guard and storehouses of long-range missiles, in addition to a military research center that American officials have called the country’s main chemical weapons facility.
An American official said a more limited strike early Friday at Damascus International Airport was also meant to destroy weapons being sent from Iran to Hezbollah.
Concerns flared about whether Hezbollah might attack Israel in retaliation, possibly drawing Lebanon into the conflict. Israel deployed two of its Iron Dome missile-defense batteries in its northern cities. Iran’s IRNA news agency said Israel could expect a “crushing” retaliation from Syria or “the resistance,” meaning Hezbollah.
The attack led some on the side of the Syrian opposition to quietly, and not so quietly, cheer an Israeli strike on Syrian soil and further exposed the motley crew of strange bedfellows on one side of the current conflict: the FSA, al-Nusra, Qatar, Israel, Saudi Arabia, March 14, the EU, and Turkey.
The Damascus bombing also forced the ever-incompetent, anti-Assad Arab League to scramble out a hilarious face-saving statement that characterized the Israeli attack as a "grave violation of the sovereignty of an Arab state."
Yes, the same Arab League that has been vocal about arming opposition groups in Syria for the last year is now concerned about sovereignty issues.
What happens, at this point, could determine the extent to how far Lebanon does or does not get pulled into the conflict.
Hizbollah now has a strategic choice to make regarding if, or how, to respond.
With Syria’s over-hyped air defense systems apparently offering no challenge to Israeli bombing runs, and the regime busy engaging the opposition on a variety of fronts, it seems likely that pressure will be put on Hizbollah to retaliate.
Recalling some of the words in Hassan Nasrallah’s recent speech could offer some clues regarding the group’s hesitance thus far to wholeheartedly enter the Syrian conflict, as well as point to the possibility that more countries and non-state actors may yet enter the fray on both sides of the conflict.
During Nasrallah’s address on April 30th, he spoke directly to the Syrian opposition and its backers by warning that “Syria has real friends in the region, and the world will not let Syria fall into the hands of America, Israel or takfiri [radical islamist] groups.”
Emphasizing this contradictory coalition of opposition interests, he continued by stating that Hizbollah’s involvement up until this point, including its offensive in Qusayr, is solely meant to protect Lebanese Shi’a inside the Syrian border. He warned, however, that the group has the capacity to change the equation should the Syrian regime need further assistance or if the balance of power shifts further towards the opposition.
"The battle is long, although we have never called for combat," he said, and warned, "you cannot topple the regime militarily, and the facts on the ground prove that, although you have only fighting the Syrian army and the pro-regime popular forces until now." Nasrallah added, "No Iranian forces have entered Syria at the moment. If this is the situation so far, how things would be in the future should resistance forces and other nations intervene?”
By showing a card in his hand but not putting on the table yet, Nasrallah sent a warning to the armed opposition groups, their patrons in the Gulf and Turkey, as well as Israel and the United States.
He concluded by cautioning that “If there is anyone who thinks that the resistance in Lebanon, as a result of regional events, is in a weak, fragile or confused position, they are deeply mistaken. We will confront any aggression against Lebanon, and we will emerge victorious.”
Israel, on the other hand, is hedging its bets that Syria won’t respond, despite Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad saying that the Israeli strikes were “an act of war.”
Hizbollah’s interests are not identical to those of Syria, and with the domestic situation in Lebanon heating up on the sectarian front, Hizbollah seems unlikely to drag south Lebanon into another destructive war with Israel by responding on behalf of a distracted Syria.
The group is also further politically integrated domestically, and its governing responsibilities in Lebanon are much more pronounced and important than they were during the days when Hizbollah was solely an armed militia or even before the 2006 War.
Their core Shi’a constituents make up the majority of a divided Lebanese society, and are first and foremost concerned with representation, social services, and job creation rather than “resistance.”
The group also essentially ran the last Lebanese government in a pragmatic manner alongside its March 8th coalition members and will surely have a large role in the yet-to-be-formed new government moving forward.
These reasons point to Hizbollah being cautious and could explain their delicate calculation of not fully entering the Syrian conflict thus far.
If there are any Israeli attacks on Lebanon in the coming days, however, Hizbollah might be forced to make a limited response that could set the stage for a new phase of the conflict and renewed hostilities across the Lebanese-Israeli border.
Indeed, as a Hizbollah source told Al-Monitor this weekend, ”Syria has the right to do whatever it sees appropriate; Hezbollah will not push them to respond, though there are circles in the group that believe an equation should be set ASAP,” revealed our source, who hinted, "on the contrary any attack on Lebanese soil won’t go without a reply."
Some also see Israel’s attacks on the bound-for-Hizbollah arms supplies distinct from the Syrian conflict entirely and more in line with Tel Aviv exploiting the chaos in Syria in an attempt to draw their longtime Hizbollah foes into a conflict while their supply routes are compromised, simultaneously sending a message to Iran.
Just days before the attacks on Damascus, Israel carried out a major drill in the north, simulating a massive military confrontation with Hezbollah after sustained airspace violations and sound-breaking flyovers across Lebanon.
This is also an extremely dangerous gamble, and one that Hizbollah expert Nicholas Noe chillingly forewarned of nearly two years ago.
Since the Assad regime’s threshold for doing the same is probably lower (and far more incendiary with its WMD capability), the actors now consolidating themselves to boil Assad (and secondarily Hezbollah) to the breaking point, including many influential voices in Washington and European capitals, need to very carefully consider the wisdom of the road that they are going down—a road that will, in all probability, bring great destruction to the region, including to Israel whose home front will undoubtedly be a main frontline.