Last week, Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, announced that Israel was working tirelessly to thwart Iranian weapons transfers to Hezbollah via Syria. For the first time, Lieberman hinted that in addition to sophisticated weaponry, Hezbollah was seeking to acquire WMDs. The defense minister also noted that Israel would operate to preserve its interests “without taking other circumstances or restrictions into account.” Presumably, this means that regardless of the prospects of Hezbollah-Iranian retaliation or the presence of a Russian anti-aircraft umbrella, Israel will continue to act when its interests are threatened.
Lieberman’s tough talk followed a series of Israeli strikes against military targets within Syria. The first targeted a Hezbollah weapons convoy travelling along the Beirut-Damascus highway while a second strike hit a Syrian military compound just outside Damascus housing elements of Syria’s 4th Armored Division. A third attack on December 7 targeted Mezzeh Air Base in western Damascus. A number of secondary explosions occurred following the attack indicating direct hits.
Assad’s propaganda outlet, Sana, as well as the Hezbollah-affiliated Al Mayadeen TV channel blamed Israel for the Mezzeh attack though the former claimed the strike was carried out with surface-to-surface missiles while the latter alleged that it was executed by fighter jets flying over “Lebanese airspace.”
Following the attacks, Arab media reported that Russia had warned Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, not to retaliate. Russia’s interest in Syria is to ensure the survival of its air and naval facilities centered in or near Latakia and Tartus. Putin has no interest in needlessly antagonizing the Israelis and any form of Iranian or Hezbollah retaliation serves no Russian purpose and may in fact, undermine Moscow’s goals.
Hezbollah was quick to deny the Arab media reports terming them “incorrect and completely invented.” Despite the fact that Hezbollah uses principally Russian weapons and is wholly subservient to Iranian interests, it continues to maintain the façade of an independent, indigenous “resistance” organization. That is why Arab media reports of Russian warnings to the terror group provoked an immediate temperamental response but it is likely that those media reports were accurate.
In Syria, Putin pulls the strings and but for Moscow’s intervention, Assad’s position would be extremely precarious. It is therefore likely that Russia put the kibosh on any thought of Hezbollah retaliation as that kind of action would antagonize Israel and run counter to Russian interests.
On Sunday, in a 60 Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu classified Israel’s relations with Russia as “amicable.” That description might be bit of an understatement. At a recent conference hosted by the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Russia’s envoy to the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov termed relations between Moscow and Jerusalem “at their highest point ever.”
This diplomatic accomplishment can be directly attributed to Netanyahu’s relentless international effort to broaden and deepen Israel’s relations with non-traditional allies. Though the United States will never be supplanted as Israel’s most important ally, eight years of Obama have taught Israel that it cannot rely solely on the United States for backing.
To that end, Israel, under Netanyahu’s stewardship, sought diplomatic breakthroughs with other nations and that effort has paid high dividends, especially with respect to Russia-Israel relations. Because of those efforts, Israel can now freely operate when necessary in Syria to preserve its interests despite the deployment of sizable Russian forces in theater. Both sides maintain political and military liaisons that are in constant communication to prevent mishaps. In addition, Arab media reports confirm speculation that Russia has placed a leash around the necks of Iran and its Shia proxy.
Notwithstanding Russian constraints on Hezbollah and the organization’s deep involvement in Syria’s quagmire, the terror group is constantly looking for ways to strike at Israel in a manner that does not break the rules of the game. Its cells operate in Europe, Africa, Latin America, South-East Asia and the Asian sub-continent, looking for weak points and ways to create mischief. The 2012 Burgas bus bombing, in which six civilians were murdered on Bulgarian soil, represents a good example of the type of response we can expect from the Iranian proxy group.
In addition, last week, the Israeli military released an illustrative map demonstrating the extent to which Hezbollah has transformed South Lebanon into one giant ammunition dump and embedded itself within the civilian population in blatant violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. Flush with Iranian cash, in part received from the Obama administration during a ransom exchange, Hezbollah pays impoverished residents of South Lebanon to store their munitions in their homes.
The IDF has identified over 10,000 structures and underground munitions silos constructed by Hezbollah in or near civilian areas. Such a deliberate undertaking which makes use of human shields constitutes a war crime. But Hezbollah does not feel constrained by meaningless U.N. resolutions that are more bark than bite. Israel for its part will not be constrained by Hezbollah’s cynical exploitation of the civilian population. In the next war, it is highly likely that Lebanon’s civilian population will pay a steep price and the blame will rest squarely with Iran and Hezbollah.