BY Michael Eisenstadt and Jeffrey White, American Interest—
The recapture by pro-Assad regime forces—including Lebanese Hizballah—of rebel-held Aleppo (December 2016) and of IS-held Deir al-Zur (ongoing as of September 2017) may not just mark the denouement of Syria’s tragic civil conflict, but may also pave the way for the next Hizballah-Israel war. Buoyed by these successes, Hizballah leaders have increased the frequency and volume of their war talk. Thus, in February, Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah warned (as he has in the past) that there would be “no red lines” in a future war with Israel. In April, Hizballah held a press conference along the border to highlight Israeli defensive preparations and to declare its readiness for war. And in June, Nasrallah pledged that Hizballah would be joined in a future war by “tens…or even hundreds of thousands” of Shi‘a fighters from Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
These statements and activities were likely motivated by Hizballah’s desire to restore its image as a “resistance” organization whose principal raison d’etre is fighting Israel, which has been tarnished by its role in fighting Arab-Muslim rebels in Syria. Had Israel wanted to attack Hizballah, any time during the past six years would have been better than now, with the Syrian war winding down. So it is unlikely that these statements were prompted by a change in Hizballah’s assessment of the threat posed by Israel. Israel has responded to Hizballah’s operations in Syria and to what it sees as growing Hizballah military capabilities with its own talk and actions. In September 2017 it held what was billed as the largest military exercise in decades in a rehearsal of a war with Hizballah. The rhetoric and actions on both sides have focused renewed attention on the possibility of another Hizballah-Israel war.
It may seem unlikely that Hizballah would start such a war while thousands of its fighters remain dispersed throughout Syria, but it should be recalled that its last war with Israel in 2006 as well as Hamas-Israel conflicts in Gaza in 2008–09, 2012, and 2014 were the unintended outcomes of miscalculations by both parties. So the possibility of war, at least in the near-term, cannot be dismissed. In the long run, however, another Hizballah-Israel war seems likely, as the “axis of resistance” (whose core members are Hizballah, Iran, and Syria)—emboldened by their apparent success in Syria and perhaps by the Russian military presence there—may be tempted to provoke Israel. However such a conflict starts, one thing is clear: The next Hizballah-Israel war will likely be the most destructive Arab-Israeli war yet.