Following an Israeli strike two weeks ago on a Syrian drone installation that killed two Hizballah fighters and a successful Israeli drone hit on Hizballah’s Dahiya stronghold in Beirut last weekend that destroyed a fuel mixer critical for the terror group’s guided missile capabilities, it briefly looked as if the long-predicted clash between Israel and Hizballah was about to erupt. Not only had Hizballah lost two men, Israel had conducted an open strike inside of Lebanon for only the second time since the 2006 war there. If anything was going to break the uneasy equilibrium that has emerged in the last thirteen years along the Lebanese border, this sequence of events seemed like a good candidate. Indeed, Israel had significantly minimized any open IDF presence along the Lebanese border, including imposing new restrictions on any IDF vehicular movement so as not to provide Hizballah with easy soft targets.
Hizballah’s response came on Sunday in the form of Kornet anti-tank missiles shot at an armored ambulance, prompting return artillery fire from Israel into southern Lebanon with no casualties resulting on either side. As of this writing, the back and forth ended there and has not gone further, and the IDF seems cautiously optimistic that the window for more serious escalation has closed. What could have easily turned into the next Lebanon war has, for now, been averted.
It is no secret that Hizballah does not appear to be itching for a fight with Israel. Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah admitted following the 2006 war that Hizballah would never have kidnapped two IDF soldiers – the event that prompted the fighting – had he anticipated such a heavy Israeli response. Israel’s Dahiya Doctrine – the tactical principle of responding to an attack with a disproportionate military response against civilian infrastructure used by enemy combatants in order to deter future attacks on Israel– was developed as one of the lessons of the 2006 war, and it has successfully deterred Hizballah for over a decade. But the Dahiya Doctrine will not work to deter Hizballah forever, and the drone attack in Dahiya itself was the first direct Israeli assault on Hizballah headquarters since the doctrine was unofficially developed during the 2006 fighting and openly articulated a few years later. Irrespective of whether Hizballah was going to jump into all-out war against Israel, two missiles fired at an ambulance is a more restrained response than the IDF seemed to be anticipating.
The likeliest explanation for Hizballah’s relative restraint revolves around one of its most controversial variables, which is its inclusion in the Lebanese government. Hizballah is a terrorist organization, yet it is also arguably the most powerful group in Lebanese politics, sits in the Lebanese parliament, and is part of the governing March 8 Alliance coalition. The irony is that as Hizballah has become more enmeshed in government and in Lebanese political affairs, understandably outraging many in the U.S. and Israel, it has also become more susceptible to the deterrence created by the Dahiya Doctrine. While Hizballah may not have a constituency outside of its traditional Shi’a demographic strongholds, it now has to be responsive to a wider set of political partners and Lebanese stakeholders. Putting all of southern Lebanon or the entirety of the Lebanese armed forces at risk over its narrower conflict with Israel is much tougher now than when it was nothing larger than a terrorist group.
The more that Hizballah is embedded in Lebanon and Lebanese institutions, the more likely that Israeli deterrence remains successful. It makes for a difficult calculus, since eroding any shred of respectability or acceptance that Hizballah has within wider Lebanese politics and society is ultimately the best outcome. However, deeper Hizballah involvement in Lebanese politics and society creates a different set of pressures and restraints on Hizballah that Israel cannot impose by itself. The enormous unpopularity and damage to Hizballah’s current position that would result from provoking an Israeli strike on Lebanese infrastructure is likely the biggest reason that Hizballah has been trying to spin a couple of missiles at IDF targets as a great victory in response to Israel’s Dahiya strike.
In addition, Hizballah may be exercising some restraint due to directives coming from Tehran. While Hizballah tries to pass itself off as a Lebanese movement, it is a pro-Iranian militia funded, armed, and controlled by Iran. Any real confrontation with Israel will cause untold damage inside of Israel from Hizballah’s arsenal of hundreds of thousands of missiles and rockets, but will also result in Hizballah’s destruction as a fighting force with any significant military capability. Hizballah’s destruction right now is simply not in Iran’s interest given that it likely envisions Hizballah as its conventional equivalent of a second-strike capability. In other words, Hizballah is Iran’s doomsday weapon in the event of an American or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program, meant to be activated in that instance as a way of wreaking havoc inside of Israel and across Western countries and thus serving as a deterrent. Iran is not going to waste Hizballah outside of that scenario, and thus responding even to a direct Israeli strike on what is functionally Hizballah’s headquarters in a manner that risks a war does not fit into Iran’s strategic aims.
Finally, there is the possibility that the conventional reading of the situation last weekend is wrong, and that Hizballah actually intended to cause far more damage than it did. Hizballah fired multiple missiles at the ambulance, which was manned by a group of soldiers. While the ambulance was armored, Kornet missiles are meant for tanks and can easily destroy an armored ambulance. The only reason that no soldiers were killed was because the first missile missed its target and the second did not directly hit the ambulance. It is only through sheer luck that Israel did not have to bury five soldiers this week, and had that scenario occurred, we would not today be talking about a limited Hizballah response or the two sides averting a protracted conflict. If this interpretation is correct, then Israel is not yet out of the woods and a larger Hizballah response may yet be coming.