Israeli airstrikes killed two Hezbollah operatives in Syria Aug. 24. Hours later, two drones crashed in the vicinity of Hezbollah’s media relations office in a southern suburb of Beirut. One of the drones crashed without causing any damage, while the second exploded and damaged Hezbollah’s office. Hezbollah maintains that the two drones were Israeli, and that both had been armed with explosives.
These latest developments have brought the situation to a boiling point on the Lebanese-Israeli front, where a relative calm had prevailed since the end of the 2006 war.
Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed retaliation. In an Aug. 25 speech, Nasrallah said that a response to the killing of its operatives in Syria would come from Lebanon. But he left it anyone’s guess as to how the group would retaliate, making reference to both military and civilian Israeli targets.
“I tell the Israeli army on the border: Be prepared and wait for us,” Nasrallah stated. Addressing Israeli residents on the border area with Lebanon, he warned, “Do not live, do not rest, do not be reassured.”
Nasrallah asserted that the drone incident had “changed the rules of the game.” He said that Hezbollah until now had refrained from targeting Israeli drones in Lebanese airspace so as not to be accused by its domestic rivals of raising tensions with Israel. However, he made it clear that this restraint was about to end.
“From now on, we will confront the Israeli drones in Lebanese skies and we will take action to bring them down,” he declared.
The British Times newspaper reported that the drones targeted two crates that contained components to produce “precision-guided missiles.” But Hezbollah officials spoke of a possible assassination attempt. In an interview with Al-Monitor, an official from the Lebanese movement said, “A military target could mean an assassination and does not necessarily mean weapons material.”
The official also attributed these developments to events that have unfolded in Syria. “The Israelis used to rely on the armed groups in southern Syria [to fight Hezbollah and its allies], but that project has failed,” he said.
Israel does indeed have a record of assassinating Hezbollah operatives after failing through other means. Hezbollah’s former top military commander Imad Moughnieh was killed in a joint Mossad-CIA operation back in February 2008 in the Syrian capital Damascus.
That operation came less than two years after Israel’s failures in the 2006 war, in which Hezbollah fought the Israeli forces to a standstill. While both sides claimed victory in the conflict, a US army analysis called the ending “at best … a stalemate for Israel.” Moughnieh was believed to have played an instrumental role in Hezbollah’s military successes in that war.
Hezbollah's commanders have gained valuable new combat experience in Syria. Facing such a situation, Israel may indeed feel that the time has come to focus its efforts on security operations including assassination against the movement.
Meanwhile, the possibility of war cannot be dismissed. The Israeli press has reported that Israel had warned Lebanon via the United States that the entire country would become a target if Hezbollah were to retaliate. And while US officials have stressed the need to avoid escalation and preserve stability, it isn’t clear how much pressure the United States is willing to put on Israel to prevent a flare-up.
According to Kenneth Katzman, an Iran expert at the Congressional Research Service, the history of bad blood between the United States and Hezbollah limits Washington’s willingness to pressure Israel to refrain from escalation.
In a telephone conversation with Al-Monitor, Katzman explained that the United States may be more willing to pressure Israel to tread softly in places like Iraq, as escalation “could disrupt the fight" against IS in that country.
When it comes to Lebanon, however, Katzman pointed to “the memory of the attacks on the US marine barracks in Beirut” in 1983 and to the United States having designated Hezbollah as a terror organization.
However, war could be a high-stakes gamble for Israel. In declaring that Hezbollah would shoot down Israeli drones in Lebanese airspace, Nasrallah suggested that the Lebanese movement possessed anti-aircraft capabilities.
Military experts say Hezbollah is indeed likely to possess anti-aircraft systems similar to those recently unveiled by the Ansar Allah Houthi movement in Yemen. “Iran provided the Houthis with the Fater-1 anti-aircraft system, and therefore it is most likely that Hezbollah also has this system,” said retired Lebanese Gen. Elias Farhat in remarks to Al-Monitor.
Hezbollah’s possession of anti-aircraft capabilities could be a game-changer in any future war, as such capabilities could weaken Israel’s traditional air superiority.
Considering the risks, Israel could absorb a Hezbollah retaliation without further escalating the situation. Such a scenario played out in early 2015 after an Israeli airstrike killed six Hezbollah members in the Syrian district of Quneitra in the Golan Heights. The attack took place Jan. 18 and Hezbollah retaliated 10 days later, striking an Israeli convoy in the Shebaa Farms area and killing two Israeli soldiers. Israel opted to avoid escalation at the time.