Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Syria-Israel-Hezbollah Triangle

Sun setting over the skyline of Tel Aviv, courtesy of Ron Almog/flickr

What does the future have in store for the region?

Since Israel’s inconclusive war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, there has been saber rattling between Israel, Hezbollah and Syria. Following the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, by Asef SHAWKAT's goons in Syria... Hezbollah’s military leader, Israel said it would hold Lebanon accountable for any Hezbollah retaliation in the future....., but, should there be any retaliation at all, Hezbollah KNOWS that it should be directed against Asef SHAWKAT in Damascus......

By Simon A Waldman

In addition to supplying long range weapons such as M-600 and scuds missiles to Hezbollah, Syria was recently reported to have entered into a military alliance with Hezbollah, consisting of joint headquarters which would take hold in the event of war with Israel. In response, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman warned last April that, "Assad should know that if he attacks, he will not only lose the war, neither he nor his family will remain in power" . Given the heightened tensions, the possibility of Syrian involvement in a future Israel-Hezbollah war warrants further attention.

Diplomatic deterrence

While it remains a distinct possibility that Israel would attack Lebanese targets during a future conflagration with Hezbollah, it is doubtful that Israel would willingly extend the war to Syria. This remains the case even if Israel were to set itself an ambitious (and unrealistic) aim of eliminating Hezbollah.

Israel would inevitably face condemnation from all corners of the international community; from allies and even the US, and would be hard pressed to find approval from Washington, keen to engage Syria and concerned about Syria's ability to make life difficult for troops in neighboring Iraq. An Israeli attack and the lack of US support would make the likelihood of an emergency UN Security Council meeting and subsequent binding resolution a near guarantee, limiting Israel's time and ability to launch a credible and effective operation against Syria.

Indeed, expanding a war against Hezbollah would effectively assure Israel of international isolation. Following the US lead, Europe, Canada and Australia would outwardly condemn Israel's actions in the harshest tone possible and would add fuel to the fire of the 'boycott Israel' movement. Much closer to home, Israel would face unrest not only in the Palestinian territories, but also in Arab neighborhoods in the north of Israel. Egypt, Jordan and Turkey would recall their ambassadors (assuming that Turkey's ambassador will soon be re-stationed in Tel Aviv) and face virulent public demands that future relations with Israel be reassessed.

Further, anger on the streets would lead Arab League members to denounce Israel in the harshest terms. Unlike the quiet satisfaction that came from some quarters during Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah, an attack against Syria, a member of the Arab League, would not be supported by Arab states whose own regimes would be threatened by domestic anger over a failure to respond.

Pandora's box

In such difficult diplomatic circumstances it is highly doubtful that Israel would have enough time to concentrate efforts on Syria. Israel's two most recent conflicts, the Hezbollah War of 2006 and Operation Cast Lead, Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza in 2008, barely lasted a month. Israel's limited time would be best spent concentrating its efforts on Hezbollah rather than broadening the conflict to include Syria, making it an altogether different war; a conventional one pitting state against state.

But assuming that, as Leiberman predicted, Israel did go to war against Syria, attacking Syrian targets, and destroying its airforce and the Assad regime, the question of Assad's successor would become urgent. It is highly doubtful that Israel would want to open such a pandora's box. Despite the rhetoric, posturing and concern over Syria's ties to Iran and Hezbollah, Israel has enjoyed over two decades of relative quiet on its Syrian front.

While Syria does not pose a serious threat to Israel on the battlefield, the launch of multiple projectiles from Syria into Israel is a risk which Israel would be highly reluctant to take. Close to one million Israelis left their homes in the north during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, and with Syria in possession of long range missiles capable of hitting population centers and strategic locations in all of Israel, Syria poses enough of a threat to Israeli civilians to deter a significant Israeli strike. Although just a marginal possibility, an escalation against Syria might also bring Iran into the conflict. Such a large-scale war is something Israel would only resign itself to as a last resort.

Syria's strategic imperatives

As far as Israel and Lebanon are concerned, Syria is in a relatively strong position. Through Hezbollah, Assad maintains influence in Lebanese affairs. This status quo will likely continue into the near future. Even the potential fallout from future events such as the conclusions of the Rifik Hariri investigations, which will most likely blame Hezbollah for the former prime minister's death, is unlikely to damage Syrian influence to any considerable degree.

However, standing on the sidelines of an Israeli attack on Lebanese targets in a war which would arguably be caused by Syria's proxy, Hezbollah, would not endear Syria to the Lebanese public or the political echelons. This is why Syria would not encourage Hezbollah to provoke Israel in the near future. Even if it is unsuccessful in doing so and an Israel-Hezbollah war did ensue, possibly with the backing of Iran, Hezbollah's other sponsor, Assad would be very reluctant to join the conflict. Indeed, despite Syria's vested interests in Lebanon, Hezbollah and its alliance with Iran, Assad would not risk his regime for it.

This is not to say that there is no chance of an Israeli attack against Syria in the event of war with Hezbollah. However, if any such actions were to take place they would be isolated and very limited, such as strikes against imminent transfers of weaponry which could tip the strategic balance, rather than any full-scale fighting. And such operations, while highly embarrassing for Assad, would not see the end of his regime. Therefore, even if Israel were to broaden an offensive to include large-scale attacks on Lebanese infrastructure - or even if Hezbollah were beaten to a point of existential danger - the possibility of Syria attacking Israel remains remote. Syria would want to avoid giving Israel a casus belli to launch an attack, which would see the end of the Assad regime.

Unlikely war, unpredictable situation

A future war between Israel and Hezbollah is unlikely to involve Syria, and if there were any kind of engagement it would be on a small scale, with Israel most likely attacking the transfer of balance-altering weaponry. If Israel were to attack Syria without a significant casus belli, it could face unprecedented diplomatic isolation as well as thousands of rockets aimed at its population centers and military targets. Assad, on the other hand, stands to lose his hold on power if he becomes embroiled in a large-scale conflict with Israel. Both parties have compelling reasons to want to avoid such an eventuality. There is no cause for complacency, however. In a border where hedging trees can lead to a fatal exchange of fire, and Iranian nuclear ambitions could provoke an Israeli attack, unpredictability remains the best presumption.