BEIRUT: The pressure Hezbollah is experiencing given its military intervention in Syria and the wave of suicide bomb attacks targeting Shiite areas of Lebanon was illustrated Tuesday in the lack of response to an unusual Israeli airstrike against an area under its control on the Lebanon-Syria border.
While it remains unclear which side of the border was struck by Israeli jets in the late Monday night air raid, the fact that it occurred in the vicinity of Janta likely makes it an assault against a Hezbollah target rather than, for example, a Syrian military position.
Before the monthlong war in 2006, Hezbollah’s retaliation to an attack on its facilities would have been swift across the U.N.-delineated Blue Line in the south. But the silence from Hezbollah officials in the aftermath of the airstrike and the muted reports from Al-Manar TV channel, which said there was “no raid on Lebanese territory,” suggest that the party is not inclined to risk opening a third front with Israel on top of battling rebels in Syria and Al-Qaeda-linked suicide bombers in Lebanon. That forbearance is aided by the fact that no one can determine for sure if the Israeli airstrike hit Lebanese or Syrian territory because the area south and east of Janta is a Hezbollah military zone with no public access, granting the party some wiggle room in avoiding having to respond militarily at an inopportune time.
Determining the precise location of the airstrikes – four missiles in two sorties, according to reports – would help in identifying the target. Hezbollah operates a string of military training camps in the hills between Janta and Brital, constructed in the aftermath of the 2006 war. The camps, which consist of firing ranges, accommodation and support facilities and at least two identical small urban warfare training sites, are clearly visible from the air. However, they are relatively low-value targets and under current circumstances probably offer little attraction to the Israeli military. The fact that Hezbollah has broken with convention since 2006 by constructing training camps in the open in the Bekaa Valley, rather than covertly, points not only to an increased requirement for training facilities given the enormous recruitment surge in recent years but also to a confidence that Israel would not risk an escalation for the sake of destroying a relatively worthless facility.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the target was a Hezbollah “missile base” that was taking part in the military operations in the Qalamoun area north of Damascus. However, if Israel chose to take the bold step of attacking a Hezbollah military facility on Lebanese territory, it would do so because it was perceived as a threat to the Jewish state, not as a favor to beleaguered Syrian rebels fighting Syrian troops in Qalamoun. Furthermore, it is unlikely that Hezbollah would employ its own arsenal of advanced missiles against Syrian rebels in Qalamoun because of the possibility that their exposure would lead to a pre-emptive Israeli airstrike.
Israel has struck Syrian weapons depots on five occasions since January 2013, reportedly destroying consignments of SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made Fateh-110 guided missiles which were allegedly destined for Hezbollah. Israeli officials repeatedly state they will not allow “game-changing” weapons to reach Hezbollah. Despite some threats, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has chosen to ignore the airstrikes. But Monday night’s attack is the first against targets so close to the Lebanese border, if not actually just inside Lebanon itself, and in an area where there are no significant Syrian military bases that could serve as weapons depots, thus potentially warranting attack. That suggests the target could have been a Hezbollah arms convoy en route from Syria into Lebanon via the Janta area. A dirt track that winds through rugged mountains from the Zabadani area across the border to Janta has been in use since the early 1980s to ferry arms and ammunition to Hezbollah’s weapons depots.
Since 2006, the track has been hardened and in some places asphalted, presumably to facilitate larger vehicles. Hezbollah usually dispatches its arms convoys across the border in bad weather to hinder aerial and satellite reconnaissance and has been known to switch off the local electricity supply and jam communications as an additional security measure. The weather Monday night was poor, which adds to the possibility that an arms convoy was the target.
If the assumption is correct that an arms convoy was hit in the airstrike, Hezbollah’s silence stands in contrast to the deterrence strategy it adopted against Israel in the 2000-2006 period. During those six years, Hezbollah crafted a finely tuned tit-for-tat strategy using the Blue Line as a locus of retaliation for Israeli attacks or breaches of Lebanese sovereignty. In response to Israel’s daily overflights in Lebanese airspace, Hezbollah fired anti-aircraft rounds above Israeli border settlements and then taunted the Israeli military by dispatching its own pilotless drones into Israeli skies. Hezbollah responded to assassinations of its cadres and close allies by “deniable” operations along the Blue Line such as a roadside bomb ambush against an Israeli jeep or employing a sniper to shoot dead a soldier.
The 2006 war and the subsequent mutual desire to avoid an even greater conflagration between Hezbollah and Israel led to a change in the “rules of the game” that prevailed before. Hezbollah is considerably stronger militarily than in 2006 in terms of another war with Israel, it’s commitment to the Syria conflict notwithstanding. But it has honored an unofficial and de facto cease-fire along the Blue Line over the past seven years. Instead, it is Israel that is setting the new “rules of the game,” apparently determined to take advantage of Hezbollah’s preoccupation with Syria and domestic security to try and thwart the transfer of advanced weapons to the party, an action it never risked taking before because of the potential for retaliation and unwanted escalation.
While it appears evident that Hezbollah is not seeking another showdown with Israel for now, Israel’s new sense of assertiveness against its Lebanese enemy raises once more the risk of miscalculation and overreaching, especially given the current turmoil and unpredictability in the region.