by Avi Davis
When Iranian Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was killed on the Syrian -Israeli border on Sunday, along with six Hezbollah operatives, the news faded quickly. Military deaths in the Middle East are, after all, a dime a dozen in these times, so why would Allahdadi’s make any difference?
Since hostilities ended between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 Israel’s northern border with Lebanon has been relatively quiet. But that belies the devastating fire power buried by Israel’s most implacable enemy beneath the soils of the Litani watershed.
For in Lebanon, the Israeli army is faced with the prospect of 100,000 long-range rockets – far more accurate and effective than the missiles used by Hamas in its confrontation with Israel over the summer and far more likely to cause damage to life and property than the former offensive.
Hezbollah is therefore the Hamas threat multiplied tenfold.
The 2006 conflict is believed to have killed at least 1,191–1,300 Lebanese people and 165 Israelis. It severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure, and temporarily displaced approximately one million Lebanese and 300,000–500,000 Israelis.
During that war, Hezbollah fired close to 4,200 rockets at a rate of more than 100 per day, unprecedented in any military confrontation since the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
About 95% of these were 122 mm (4.8 in) Katyusha artillery rockets which carried warheads up to 30 kg (66 Ib) and had a range of up to 19 miles. A minor percentage (22%) of these rockets hit cities and built-up areas across northern Israel, while the remainder hit open areas. The attacks in that conflict included the Fajr-3 and Ra’ad 1 rockets both liquid-fuel missiles developed by Iran. It is now known that Hezbollah possesses the far more advanced Fajr-3 and Fajr-5, with ranges of 27 and 45 miles; and a huge quantity of simpler 107mm and 122mm rockets with ranges up to 12 miles. These rockets are capable of striking many cities in northern Israel, such as Haifa, Tiberias, Afula, Nahariya, and Safed. In addition, Hezbollah has a cache of sophisticated antiaircraft and antiship cruise missiles which can significantly impede reconnaissance and deter attack.
This is not to mention the labyrinthine network of tunnels and deep underground bunkers Hezbollah has been constructing in the eight years since its last encounter with the IDF. The IDF believes it likely that tunnels, extending for several kilometers, have been burrowed deep into Israeli territory allowing a rapid strike force to mimic the planned Hamas Jewish New Year attack on Israeli settlements in the south. The rolling topography of the north is of course of no benefit to a potential large-scale attack, but the capture of even a handful of IDF soldiers or civilians will become a great boon to the Hezbollah war effort.
To state that the recent military confrontations between Israel and the terrorist groups who occupy territory adjacent to it are mere proxy wars between Iran and the Jewish State is to underline the obvious but still bears repeating. Iran’s geopolitical interests lie in establishing a military hegemony of the region, intimidating much lesser military powers — Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Jordan — into effective neutrality, so as to free itself to deal with its only serious challenger to its regional supremacy. The ongoing development of Iran’s nuclear arsenal — essentially unimpeded by negotiations with the West — acts as a clever strategic wedge for the theocratic regime which allows it to build its deterrent capabilities while intimidating its neighbors into quiescence. Seen in this light, Hamas’ recent confrontation with Israel may have been guided by Iran as a means of deflecting attention from its drive for status as a nuclear power and avoiding an eventual showdown with Israel. After all, Israel will be in no mood for another military confrontation so soon after its recent engagement with Gaza.
But if Hezbollah, the far greater asset, remains so useful to the Iranians, why wasn’t it then unleashed to wreak havoc on Israel’s northern border while hostilities ensued with Hamas in the south?
The answer may lie in the prospect of an imminent direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran. While Israel’s plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities are cloaked in ambiguity, most Israeli leaders are resigned to the fact that they will have to act unilaterally and decisively to severely retard, if not eliminate, Iran’s emerging nuclear clout. In the event of a strike against Iran, and threat to their own power, the mullahs may come to rely on Hezbollah’s arsenal’s retaliatory capabilities and perhaps even believe it acts as a significant deterrent against such an eventual attack.
Yet the Iranian strategy is now deeply complicated by the destabilization of both Syria and Iraq. The growing strength of ISIS in Iraq and its threat to the Baathist regime in Syria has presented a new challenge to a key Iranian ally in Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who has proved himself indispensable to the fulfillment of Iranian objectives regarding Israel. If Assad in Syria falls, then the Iranian hold on Southern Lebanon and its ability to resupply its proxy Hezbollah is compromised. Alarmingly for the Iranians, the Lebanese Republic itself may now have come into play with ISIS’ taking of the Syrian/ Lebanon border town of Arsal on August 4th. Hezbollah may well have its hands full in the coming months not only attempting to reinforce Assad in Syria, but keeping ISIS from control of Northern Lebanon.
Signs of a strange realignment of interests and forces in the Middle East are therefore evident. It should surprise no one that the Israelis have been engaged in secret negotiations with the Saudis for years over use of Saudi airspace in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran; Additionally, the failure of any of the moderate Arab states to rise in support of Hamas’s recent actions (in fact there were outright condemnations in both the Egyptian and Saudi press) is another signal of a growing rapprochement between Israel and some of its former enemies.
Predicting future conflicts in the foggy and endlessly complicated Middle East is a risky business, to be sure, but a clearer picture may now be emerging with Israeli interests aligning with those of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt — and perhaps even Lebanon itself — in some kind of awkward but coordinated confrontation with Iran. In this confrontation, Israel may well need to prepare itself for a neutralizing, preemptive strike on Hezbollah’s military installations in Southern Lebanon — just as the IAF is winging its way over Riyadh and into Iranian airspace.