Brian M Downing
Israeli spokesmen are pointing out unacceptable actions by Hisbollah and IRGC. Iran is building underground missile plants in Lebanon, digging tunnels from southern Lebanon into Galilee, and assembling troops near the Syrian-Israeli border, thereby threatening Israel with a “two-front war”.
How Shia troops propping up Assad pose a threat to Israel is unclear. And the “two fronts” stretch only 90 miles and are heavily protected by IDF troops. Nonetheless, the signs are clear and the IDF is likely to attack in coming weeks. What will the war look like and how will it affect the already unstable region?
Ground invasion of Lebanon
Israeli troops have crossed into Lebanon several times since the late1970s. The strongest and most controversial incursion, in 1982, was directed by defense minister Ariel Sharon. It turned into a costly occupation and ended with an embarrassing withdrawal. The war, paradoxically enough, gave rise to Hisbollah – the Shia movement now claimed to endanger Israel.
Since then, Hisbollah has grown in numbers and experience and built fortifications across southern Lebanon. Having fought in Syria for several years, Hisbollah may be either more effective from the ordeal or badly weakened by high casualties. Even if the latter is the case, should the IDF drive deep into Lebanon, it will suffer significant casualties. Israel might limit a ground incursion to destroying tunnel complexes and drawing away Hisbollah troops from Syria.
The Lebanese army – historically Christian-led, aligned with Israel, and at odds with Hisbollah – has been fighting alongaide Hisbollah troops against ISIL. The operations have been successful and offer promise of continued sectarian harmony. Netanyahu must know an Israeli incursion would jeopardize this.
Hisbollah missiles and an air war
An aggressive air campaign inside Lebanon, one as intense as the 2006 campaign, is more likely than a large-scale ground war. Israel has bunker-busting munitions for use on tunnels near Galilee and underground missile facilities. At least some of the latter are thought to be in densely-populated parts of Beirut. As a neoconservative analyst recently coolly put it, “To fight Hezbollah while sparing Lebanon is no longer possible.”
An air campaign could result in Hisbollah’s use of its missiles. Israeli experts put the number at between 100,000 and 150,000 and believe some can strike anywhere in Israel. The US and Israel have made remarkable advances in anti-missile weaponry and deployed them along Israel’s borders. However, the Iron Dome, Patriot, and David’s Sling systems probably cannot handle thousands of incoming missiles at the same time.
IRGC and Hisbollah positions in Syria are vulnerable. Both forces have troop concentrations and supply bases that, with little warning, could be struck from Israeli airfields. Indeed, they already have over the last few years. Attacks in Syria would be less likely to lead to missile barrages from Lebanon.
Russian air defense systems in Syria have not fired upon Israeli fighters. This may be due to effective Israeli countermeasures or to Russia’s disinterest in protecting Hisbollah and Iran.
Airstrikes would further weaken the Shia government in Damascus. A substantial air campaign might inflict grave damage, especially if Syrian military positions were also on the target list. Rebel forces, relatively quiet since the loss of Aleppo late last year, might be encouraged to launch attacks.
Israeli jets have provided tactical air support on occasions and may do so in a more systematic manner. The Trump administration could provide additional air assets or at least timely intelligence.
The government’s ongoing offensive in the east has been quite successful. The Syrian army is retaking ISIL positions around Deir Azzour this week. But the campaign might have to be reined in to reallocate resources back to the west and north.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s chief aims may be to gravely weaken Damascus and prevent it from reconquering more of the east, and to lure Iran into deepening its commitment to a faltering ally. More Iranian troops in Syria, more IDF targets.
Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.