'Balance of terror' sustains tense calm between Hezbollah and Israel
On the fifth anniversary of the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, the border remains calm as both sides worry about the scale of devastation a new war would bring.
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“The risks of miscalculation are still huge, but there have been some lessons that have been learned by the two sides,” says Bilal Saab, a Middle East analyst and Hezbollah expert at the University of Maryland. “Deterrence is by default a [temporary] solution, not a lasting one.”Skip to next paragraph
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Threats to stability
Although the “balance of terror” should hold for now, developments in Lebanon, Israel, and the region continue to threaten that stability:
- In Syria, a strategic ally of Hezbollah and Iran, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is engaged in a bloody struggle with an opposition protest movement that shows no signs of yielding after four months of street demonstrations that have left up to 1,500 people dead.
- In Lebanon, an international tribunal based in The Netherlands last week issued indictments for the arrest of four people, two of them senior Hezbollah activists, for their alleged role in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister.
- In Israel, a lingering dispute over the path of its maritime border with Lebanon resurfaced over the weekend when Tel Aviv announced that it objected to a boundary proposal submitted by Beirut to the United Nations. At stake are the exploitation rights to massive fossil fuel deposits that are believed to exist in the eastern Mediterranean.
Hezbollah appears confident it can weather the crisis over the tribunal indictments, and international mediation may help prevent the maritime border dispute from turning violent. That leaves the fate of the Assad regime in Syria as Hezbollah’s biggest wild card for now.
Two wild cards: Syria and Iran
Syria serves as the geostrategic linchpin connecting Iran to Hezbollah and as the conduit for the transfer of weapons into Hezbollah’s arsenal. If the Assad regime collapses, it would deal a strategic blow to Hezbollah and Iran.
Some analysts believe Tehran may instruct Hezbollah to launch a diversionary war with Israel to distract attention from the unrest in Syria.
“The key is Iran, nothing else,” says Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Herzilya Interdisciplinary Center. “If Iran wants to provoke a conflict that serves its goals, then it will tell [Hezbollah] to do so.”
Other analysts disagree, pointing out that Iran and Hezbollah have no interest in provoking Israel into war in an attempt to save the Assad regime.
“Any argument that Hezbollah would resort to a diversionary war is not only baseless due to history, but also in terms of the very dynamics at play today,” says Saab, the Middle East analyst.
By the same token, Israel is unlikely to take advantage of Hezbollah’s concerns over Syria to launch a preemptive strike against the Lebanese group to degrade its military capabilities.
Such a step would trigger the long-feared war with no guarantees that the outcome would be favorable to Israel.
“I think the lesson of 2006 still resonates very deeply in Tel Aviv: that there is as yet no military solution to Hezbollah’s rockets and upgraded armaments,” says Saab.