The latest evidence of the evolving nature of the war in Syria was on display Saturday, Feb. 10, when Israel mounted what a senior Israeli officer called “the biggest and most significant attack the air force has conducted against Syrian air defenses” since the 1982 Lebanon war. The unprecedented encounter was precipitated by the intrusion of an Iranian drone into Israeli airspace and led to the downing of a top-of-the-line Israeli F-16 by Syrian air defenses.
While attention is now fixed on the complex clash of Israeli, Syrian and Iranian interests in Syria, to judge by the heated rhetoric being lobbed by top Israeli and Lebanese officials, an ever more destructive war on this troubled front may loom on the horizon. Chest-thumping declarations promising to bomb Lebanon into the Stone Age and equally ominous promises by Hezbollah to take the next war into Israel frame this over-the-top interchange.
As long as fundamental issues like land and maritime borders remain unresolved, a war along Israel’s northern frontier does indeed remain an option. But Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri reflected a far more sober and reassuring consensus—shared by top political and security figures in both capitals and beyond—when he warned that the parties are more likely to blunder into the next war than intentionally precipitate one. As he explained in a recent interview,
“The only threat I see is that Israel will take any measures against Lebanon because of a certain (mis)calculation. And this is the real threat. There are other challenges, but we can manage them because we have the will to do so, but if Israel decides to wage a war against Lebanon, this is impossible to explain.”
The terrible cost of another war is well understood by all parties, and stands as perhaps the most effective impediment to precipitous action or miscalculation of the kind that sparked the 2006 war. “We did not think, even one percent, that the [incident precipitating the conflict] would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude,” acknowledged Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah after the August 2006 cease-fire. “You ask me, if I had known on July 11 ... that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.”
The current contretemps between Lebanon and Israel is focused on two specific issues: the contested location of the 1949 Armistice Line and the maritime border, and Israeli claims, yet to be confirmed or acknowledged, of Iran’s construction of facilities in Lebanon to produce precision-guided munitions for Hezbollah’s arsenal.
The border between Israel and Lebanon has never been fixed. Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 was acknowledged by the marking of a U.N.-demarcated Blue Line—268 blue markers placed along the 74.4 mile (120 kilometer) frontier. For more than two years Israel has been fortifying this border, in part as a national strategy to place a hard border around Israel’s entire perimeter, including Gaza, Egypt, Jordan and the West Bank. Lebanon argues that the concrete barrier is being constructed in part on Lebanese territory, a claim that Israel rejects.
In an unusual reflection of national solidarity, Lebanon’s president, prime minister and parliament speaker recently issued a joint statement noting that Israel’s actions on the border represent, “a grave breach of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.”
In the wake of this declaration, Hezbollah noted its “support [for] the stances of the president, the prime minister and the parliament’s speaker against this new form of aggression, and stress that we will object to any harm to (Lebanon’s) oil and gas rights.”
The long-running dispute over the maritime border is focused on a 533.2-square-mile (860-square-kilometer) triangle-shaped expanse in the Mediterranean. Lebanon’s recent decision to award a tender in disputed Block 9 to a consortium of international oil and gas companies—including French Total, Italian ENI and Russian Novatek—was criticized by Israel as “very provocative,” even as it proposes discussions to resolve the issue diplomatically. Empowering the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, to conduct a dialogue on the maritime border is one option raised in recent discussions.
Miscalculation on either of these border issues can precipitate war. However, Hezbollah’s dogged pursuit, with critical Iranian assistance, of an expansive military arsenal is at the heart of the regional conflict, particularly as the endgame of the Syrian civil war unfolds. Israel has identified Hezbollah’s acquisition of precision-guided munitions, constructed or transferred under Iranian supervision in Syria or Lebanon, as an intolerable violation of the informal yet effective “rules of the game” that have deterred war since 2006. On at least one occasion Israel has bombed a suspected arms production site in Syria and has regularly stymied Iranian efforts to supply Hezbollah’s increasingly sophisticated and lethal arsenal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has charged that Lebanon is becoming “a factory for precision-guided missiles that threaten Israel.” Ironically, unlike its relative freedom of operation in the skies above Syria, Israel has refrained from hitting suspected Hezbollah locations in Lebanon—an uneasy recognition of the still-effective “red lines” uneasily governing the standoff. According to retired Brig. Gen. Maroun Hitti, Prime Minister Hariri’s Advisor for Security & Defense,
“Neither Israel nor Lebanon will tolerate making Lebanon a missile factory for Iran. Netanyahu's accusations are based on false intelligence. The Lebanese government repeatedly asked for proof, and gave assurances to take the necessary actions to avoid such situation. Until today, no proof [was] given.”
Netanyahu has made clear the gravity of the situation. “These missiles pose a grave threat to Israel, and we will cannot [sic] accept this threat,” Netanyahu explained after a recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I explained our policy. These are not idle words. The Russians understand our position, they understand well the significance that we give to these threats.”
These are fighting words to be sure. But it is also the case that the dialogue of threats is an integral and almost unremarkable element of the system of deterrence that has evolved between Israel and Hezbollah over the last generation. Bombastic statements and indeed occasional, limited military action to support them have prevented war in Lebanon for a decade, even as the region has imploded. How long such “rules of the game” will deter the next war is anyone’s guess.
Photo: AHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images