The Israelis have chosen to publicly reveal the locations of Hezbollah’s alleged missile manufacturing facilities in Lebanon, rather than simply bombing them, to avert an escalation that could lead to war and to give international diplomacy a chance. But how long are the Israelis prepared to wait as Hezbollah grows ever stronger, asks Hanin Ghaddar
In a speech at the UN General Assembly in September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hezbollah of building missile production sites in Beirut, stressing the party’s intention to convert regular missiles into more accurate precision-guided weapons. Israel appears to have opted for outing Hezbollah, rather than striking its facilities, to give international diplomatic efforts a chance to contain Hezbollah’s mission in Lebanon and prevent another conflict.
Israel’s choice of outing Hezbollah’s facilities is down to its reluctance to engage in another war with the Iran-backed group in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s arsenal is estimated by the Israelis to have grown from 14,000 rockets and missiles in 2006 to up to 150,000 today. They included advanced weapons that can strike deeper and more accurately inside Israel and promise to cause serious damage next time around.
“Israel could find itself fighting two or more fronts in the next war and against multiple Shia militias under Iranian control”
In addition, Hezbollah today controls more territory in Syria, and Israel could find itself fighting two or more fronts in the next war and against multiple Shia militias under Iranian control, not just Hezbollah. Under the command of Iran’s Quds Force, Hezbollah today stands at the head of a multinational Shia army of tens of thousands of fighters from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
In 2017, when the rhetoric of war grew more heated, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, warned that any future Israeli war against Syria or Lebanon would draw in thousands of fighters from these Shia militias now battling to support the Syrian regime. In other words, the next war could actually be a war between Israel and Iran.
Hezbollah’s “Precision Project” is not new, but started a few years ago in Syria. Iran has built a number of facilities to convert regular rockets to precision missiles. However, the Iranians have faced two challenges to their plan. One, Hezbollah’s presence in Syria is more exposed and Israel has not missed a chance to destroy a large number of these facilities. Two, moving missiles to Lebanon undetected proved equally troublesome, with Israel bombing arms convoys setting out from Syria to the Lebanese border.
To allow the project to continue and to avoid Israeli aerial attacks, Iran seems to have decided that Lebanon could be a safer environment for missile manufacturing, while also aware of the risks this step entails. The rules of the game in Lebanon differ from those in Syria, which means Israel will have to think long and hard before attacking Hezbollah in its home front because of the risk of retaliation. This specter of triggering an unwanted war at least buys the party some time to continue working on the project.
Today, Hezbollah has put Lebanon in a high-risk situation, and international efforts are underway to help prevent any escalation. Meanwhile, Israel is sending more warnings to Iran and Hezbollah, making it very clear that it could strike if international and local efforts fail. Israel has reportedly sent a recent message to the Lebanese government via Paris along these lines. A similar message was sent to Iran during Netanyahu’s recent visit to Muscat.
The problem, however, is that Lebanon cannot and will not put sufficient pressure on Hezbollah to curb its activities. On the contrary, the “diplomatic tour” of alleged Hezbollah missile sites near Beirut airport hosted by Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil demonstrated that the government is more than willing to cover for Hezbollah’s actions. The international community can continue delivering messages and warn Lebanon and Iran of the risks posed by the continued existence of these missiles and the manufacturing facilities. But there is little that can be done to reverse Hezbollah’s course of action given that acquiring ever more accurate missiles is one of their main objectives, whether for the purpose of deterrence or in preparation for an inevitable war.
Hezbollah understands the risks, and prefers not to engage in another war with Israel at this point for many reasons: Unlike the 2006 war, Syria is no longer a viable destination for Lebanese refugees fleeing a new conflict, and the rest of Lebanon is already filled with a million and a half Syrian refugees, most of whom have fled areas in Syria now under Hezbollah’s control.
In addition, the international community, including many Gulf countries, who rushed in 2006 to help Lebanon with aid and funds for reconstruction, will probably be more hesitant this time around. Back then, the Lebanese government was a March 14 majority government and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora had good relations with the international community. Hezbollah benefited from the reconstruction funds that poured into Lebanon’s institutions in 2006 and used it to reconstruct most of its own private infrastructure, enriching many within its close circles.
Today, the results of the parliamentary elections in May and the government formation process have tied Lebanon and its state institutions to Hezbollah, currently the main decision-maker in Lebanon. This will probably discourage many international actors from investing in Lebanon’s state and infrastructure. Add to that Hezbollah’s current financial problems – mostly caused by Iran’s economic crisis – which might deter the party from engaging in such an adventurous game.
However, these calculations probably will not dissuade Hezbollah from halting its precision missile project in Lebanon or return it to Syria.
“War might not break out tomorrow, but it seems it is drawing closer by the day”
War might not break out tomorrow, but it seems it is drawing closer by the day. The international – mainly US – rhetoric against Iran and its regional proxies is escalating and Lebanon is today at the heart of it. Many in Washington are aware of the risks to Lebanon and the Lebanese. However, Hezbollah is just one part of the Iran problem, and it will not be dealt with separately by Washington.
This approach might push Israel to deal unilaterally with Hezbollah’s precision missile project, as they did in Syria. With Lebanon’s vulnerable economy, a Hezbollah-controlled parliament, and the lack of a functioning government, Lebanon might not be able to come back from the next war as it did in 2006. According to Israeli and international estimates, the next war will not only hit Hezbollah-controlled areas, such as the south, Bekaa Valley and Dahiyah, Beirut’s southern suburbs. With Hezbollah’s allies spread across Lebanese sects and communities, and the increased coordination between the Lebanese military and security institutions and Hezbollah, all of Lebanon, its infrastructure and state institutions, will be under attack – as many Israeli military and civilian officials have repeatedly warned.
Although Hezbollah will try to spin it as another “resistance war” against Israel, Arab support and sympathy for Lebanon will have been undermined by Iran’s sectarian campaign across the region. The West will try to limit the violence because of the humanitarian catastrophe that will result, but the appetite to stop Israel may be limited, as is the case in Syria where the Israelis have faced no recriminations for their repeated air strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets for nearly six years.
The only party that can prevent this disaster is Hezbollah. If Lebanon’s stability and safety are more important to Hezbollah than their precision weapons, or their readiness for war against Israel, they might consider it. But unfortunately, past experience has taught us otherwise.
Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy