The winds of war are once again brewing on Israel’s tense northern border. A series of Iranian inspired provocations in Syria and Lebanon are creating the perfect storm for outbreak of hostilities and full-scale conflagration.
On Tuesday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun met with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, and Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri at the presidential palace in Baabda where the three discussed Israel’s construction of a border wall and alleged violations of Lebanon’s maritime rights. Following the meeting, Aoun’s office released a belligerent statement accusing Israel of undermining stability and threatening Lebanese action “at various regional and international levels to prevent Israel from building the cement wall...and from the possibility of infringing on Lebanon’s oil and gas wealth and its (territorial) waters.”
Midweek, Lebanon’s so-called Higher Defense Council released a statement calling on Lebanon’s armed forces to confront Israel’s “aggression” on land and sea. Contemporaneous with the HDC statement, Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah issued pamphlets and a video threatening to attack Israel’s offshore gas rigs.
Lebanon can best be described as a dysfunctional, failed state. It has long ceased to be an independent, sovereign nation having abdicated nearly all its power to Hezbollah, which means that Lebanon has essentially been transformed into a pawn of the Islamic Republic. In an article published in the Wall Street Journal, Lebanese analyst Hanin Ghaddar insightfully pointed out that Hezbollah used to be considered a state within the Lebanese state. Today, it is Lebanon that is a small state within the Hezbollah state.
That analysis is wholly accurate. Lebanon’s army, a once venerated Lebanese institution that was considered a unifying force and above politics is now nothing more than an auxiliary force for Hezbollah. President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri are thoroughly corrupt and have been bought and paid for by the mullahs. Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has little power and is kept in line by implicit threats to his life. His father, Rafic, was murdered in 2005 by Hezbollah operatives acting on behalf of Syrian intelligence agents.
Iran, through its proxy Hezbollah, is using Lebanon’s corrupt and subservient government as a vehicle to initiate belligerent rhetoric and actions against Israel using contrived Israeli border transgressions as a pretext. Lebanon’s claims are of course entirely without merit. Israel has been beefing up its border with Lebanon by constructing a series of berms, cliffs, electrified fencing and concrete barriers as an effective means of preventing Hezbollah border infiltrations. Despite Lebanese claims to the contrary, these fortifications are entirely within Israel’s borders.
Moreover, Israel has made efforts to settle the maritime dispute and establish firm maritime borders through diplomatic means. However, Hezbollah controlled Lebanon has steadfastly refused to negotiate with the “Zionist entity.” Lebanon recently broke the status quo, advertising a tender to energy companies to search for natural gas in the so-called Block 9 area of the disputed zone. In response to this overt provocation, Israel moved forward with a bill to unilaterally delineate the maritime border.
So why has there been a sudden uptick in aggressive rhetoric from the Lebanese side? Israel has been constructing fortifications along the border for some time without provoking too much protest from the neighbors to the north. In addition, while the maritime dispute was always on simmer mode, it never reached the boiling point of where it is today. There are two likely answers.
As the civil war in Syria winds down, and Iran consolidates its position in that war-torn country, its emphasis is shifting westward toward Israel. Resources which had previously been expended in Syria can now be deployed against Israel. Hezbollah’s raison d'être is to wage war against the Jewish State but for the last six years, the group has been focused on killing fellow Muslims. Hezbollah wants to once again reposition itself as a leader of the so-called “Lebanese resistance.”
In addition, it is no secret that Iran is currently experiencing a period of distress. Widespread demonstrations that wracked the country in late 2017 and early 2018 caught the mullahs entirely by surprise and have left them shaken. They were only able to suppress the popular protests through sheer ruthlessness and brutality but they have not managed to extinguish the flame entirely. The embers of resistance are still burning. With increasing regularity, brave Iranian women have taken to the streets and publicly removed their hijabs in overt defiance to the repressive theocratic authorities. This form of protest would have been unfathomable in the recent past. Clearly, Iran is nearing a precipice and its repressive leaders need to deflect attention away from domestic woes. Nothing accomplishes this better than by steering the population to the Muslim world’s proverbial boogey man, Israel.
Despite this new level of belligerence, the prospect of war breaking out this year in the north is still low. In the summer of 2006, Hezbollah undertook an adventure against Israel that cost them dearly. In 33 days of fighting, the terrorist group lost 1,000 fighters and much of its infrastructure. It took them years to recover, and only with the infusion of billions of dollars poured in from Tehran. To put things in proper perspective, in five years of fighting in Syria, Hezbollah is believed to have lost just over 2,000 men killed. The level of firepower that Israel can bring to bear against Hezbollah is unfathomable and Hezbollah and its paymasters in Tehran are cognizant of this.
This potent level of deterrence should keep the terror group in check, at least in the short term. Moreover, Israel has conveyed messages to Tehran through Russia that an Iranian buildup of forces next to its borders is unacceptable and represents a red line that if crossed would trigger an immediate Israeli military response. The Russians are certainly no friends of Israel but they do understand that Iranian provocations against Israel run counter to Russian interests. Therefore, we can expect Putin, who holds considerable sway in Syria, to pull the reins on Iranian recklessness and adventurism.