The explosions in Beirut port took place at the peak of the mobilization between Israel and Hezbollah against the backdrop of targeting one of Hezbollah’s leaders in Syria and Hezbollah’s threat to retaliate against his killing, considering that this operation, which constitutes a violation of the rules of engagement in force between the two sides and which Hezbollah refuses to give up, constitutes a violation of the "balance of deterrence" between the two sides which Hezbollah says it has created after the July 2006 war.
The horrific Beirut explosion has produced a new scene and created different facts in the Lebanese and regional arenas. In addition, it is likely to have repercussions on the conditions of the actors, especially Hezbollah which is driven to search for different paths in dealing with many of the issues it faces internally and externally, including the issue of escalation with Israel or the risk of opening a large-scale war front in the region.
The Israel-Iran-Hezbollah Triangle: Pre-Explosion Positions
The targeting of the Hezbollah leading figure came in the context of a relentless attack that was launched by Israel on Iranian militia positions in Syria with the aim of driving Iran out of this country. This coincided with successive explosions in a number of sites inside Iran (mainly the Natanz explosion), in addition to sporadic operations, most of which indicate the existence of a role by Israel and its intelligence in what happened.
Israel’s drive towards "resolving" the Hezbollah problem
Israel has recently intensified its attacks against Iranian bases and assets in Syria and inside Iran itself, most likely based on an Israeli assessment that Iran is going through a weak moment as a result of the economic and political conditions it is going through, in addition to its differences with Russia regarding the sharing of influence in Syria. In addition, Israeli circles estimate that the current stage, until the date of the US presidential elections, constitutes an opportunity to strike Iran and its militias in light of the existence of a US administration that understands the Israeli move, which may not be the case if the elections are won by Joe Biden who may opt for appeasement with Iran following the footsteps of his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.
The Israeli strategy emanates from a sense of profound existential danger. Hezbollah now possesses tens of thousands of missiles, Iran is on its way to become a nuclear state, and all previous measures have not helped in changing the equation permanently in favour of Israel. Despite the heavy pressure of the US sanctions it suffers from, Iran has managed to evade efforts to force it to modify its behavior in the region. Indeed, it is in the process of signing a strategic agreement with China that it would rely on to save it from the grinding economic crisis. It is also working on renewing its strategic agreement with Russia for the next twenty years.
As a result, voices have started to emerge in Israel, especially in the military establishment, calling for an operation to be carried out to neutralize Hezbollah's missiles in the context of a short and decisive battle before it was too late. They share with some Israeli newspapers their perception of the next war in the context of the “Tnufa” (“Momentum”) plan for the 2020-2024 period. The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel concluded that coronavirus and the difficult economic conditions in Lebanon and Syria have accelerated security and political events more than expected. This indicates a change in estimations regarding the war with Hezbollah. Some generals have provided technological solutions to solve the Hezbollah missile complex, namely the "Skyguard" system, based on an extremely powerful chemical laser that is capable of intercepting missiles quickly and inexpensively.
Iran and the policy of escape from the dilemma
Contrary to its policies that are based on absorbing the Israeli strikes and avoiding responding to them with the aim of not having to engage in an uncalculated confrontation with Israel, and with the US by extension, Iran has recently shown readiness to escalate with Israel. This was clearly demonstrated by its announcement of the agreement with the Syrian regime to supply it with sophisticated air defense systems.
However, the most important indication has been the attempt to heat up the front between Israel and Hezbollah. Israeli media revealed that the cell that was targeted near the Golan and which tried to plant explosive devices on the side of the border strip does not belong to Hezbollah. Rather, it is an Iranian cell that is loyal to one of the militias recruited by Iran in the areas near the Golan. Hezbollah is also believed to have come under Iranian pressure to speed up the response, but it preferred to be patient on the pretext that the response must be effective and calculated at the same time.
Iran believes that it is in its interest to shift the confrontation away from the Iranian interior and keep it in Syria. Iran even favours the confrontation in Lebanon, despite its risks to Iran’s ally Hezbollah, because this would contribute to breaking the wave of attacks on the Iranian interior, given the direct impact that this has on the stability of the political regime on the one hand, and on delaying the nuclear project, which has become Iran's dream to achieve a regional deterrence equation and strengthen the regime's security and authority in the face of its internal opponents on the other.
The Iranian preference of shifting the confrontation to the Syrian arena coincides with an Israeli desire that Hezbollah carry out its possible response from the Syrian front due to the belief that Israel has points of superiority in the context of operations in Syria. Besides, unlike the Lebanese border, the Syrian border is characterized by being comfortable to operate in, having no clear laws, having no mutual deterrence, and permitting all sorts of operations.
Changing facts after the Beirut explosion
The huge Beirut port explosion has changed the facts on the ground dramatically and affected the stances and positions of the parties to the conflict, as follows:
1) Hezbollah’s new calculations
Hezbollah is facing changes that require urgent responses from it at various levels:
At the political level, Lebanon has entered into a political crisis that is expected to be lengthy, especially after the resignation of the government on which Hezbollah had a great influence. Today, there are calls for repeating the parliamentary elections as Hezbollah has a large parliamentary bloc supporting it. Besides, the return of the mobility to the Lebanese street implies that the country will enter a new phase that may reproduce the concept of the state and the system of government in Lebanon. Hezbollah anticipates the occurrence of internal developments after the issuance of the verdict of the Special Tribunal on the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri on 21 August 2020. All this drives Hezbollah to focus on those developments and not get preoccupied with other issues.
At the operational level, the explosion of the ammonium nitrate warehouse in Beirut port alerted Hezbollah to the danger of Israel’s targeting of Hezbollah’s weapon storage sites after the Israeli government revealed the existence of weapon warehouses near Beirut Airport and elsewhere. Hezbollah is likely to move those weapons located in pro-Hezbollah areas of Beirut’s southern suburb to other places. This calls for a lull in the conflict with Israel until this mission is accomplished.
Consideration of internal alliances: although Hezbollah's ownership of the ammonium stock has not been proved, large sectors of the Lebanese people have directed their anger towards Hezbollah, especially Christians and supporters of the Free Patriotic Movement with which Hezbollah is associated through an alliance that was established based on the 2006 Mar Mikhael agreement. In mid-July 2020, the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai called for declaring Lebanon a neutral country that is not involved in regional conflicts, in an explicit criticism of the linking by Hezbollah of Lebanon’s fate with Iran's project in the region.
These considerations drive Hezbollah to retreat from targeting Israel at this stage, as this may have internal repercussions that are more severe in their impact on Hezbollah and its bases, especially after the threat by Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, according to Israel Today newspaper, to change the current military and security equation and follow a new equation based on targeting and striking the infrastructure of the state of Lebanon upon every operation by Hezbollah that inflicts harm on Israeli soldiers and citizens.
2) Israel's calculations between hesitation and fear
Despite pressure by the military circles to take decisive action against Hezbollah, there is no consensus on this is matter inside Israel, even among the military themselves. Assessments indicate that the home front is not prepared for a large-scale war against Hezbollah whose missiles would affect more than two million people in the settlements and the Israeli north. The area lacks an adequate number of shelters. Besides, transporting this large number of people to central and southern Israel requires logistical capabilities that will not be easy under the barrage of missiles.
Israeli circles question the efficiency of the Israeli army and its capability to manage successful ground battles, especially that the army has not been effectively tested since 2006 and that its wars in Gaza are not considered an indication of its effectiveness due to the limited sectors that participated in them.
More importantly, Israeli leaders realize that the war decision is decided in the US, especially that the dispute policies have become more global than regional. In addition, despite President Trump's apparent rush at Iran and Hezbollah, there is still no US green light to Israel to conduct an overall war against Hezbollah.
The Beirut port blast has contributed to reducing or postponing the possibility of a large-scale armed clash between Hezbollah and Israel. The two sides of the confrontation will most probably find an appropriate opportunity to rearrange their cards in light of their political and security crises.
However, while there are no strong theoretical indications of an imminent new war in the region, the possibility of such a war remains valid as it constitutes a way out of political crises and an escape from the duties placed by the current stage on both the Israeli leadership and Hezbollah that, ironically, share being under the pressure of internal and external political crises.
EPC | 22 Nov 2020
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