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The Possibility of a Hezbollah Attack on Israel

July 21, 2008
stratforgeopolidiary.jpgThe Stratfor Geopolitical Diary
Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin warned Israel on Sunday of the increased potential for a Hezbollah attack along Israel’s northern frontier. Yadlin said that Hezbollah militants could use continuing disputes over border territories and Israeli Air Force flights over Lebanon as excuses to attack northern Israel.

 An attack on Israel certainly might be launched under one of the pretexts Yadlin mentioned, but Hezbollah strategy is far more complex than that.

Israel has been engaged in talks with Syria for some time now. Although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar al Assad have not publicly sealed an agreement yet, we have seen a number of indications that the Syrians are taking steps to reduce Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon. Cooperation between Syria and Israel spells serious trouble for Hezbollah, as any deal between the two countries will have to involve Syria cracking down on the militant group and weakening its position in Lebanon. Hezbollah needs to disrupt the talks between Syria and Israel in order to have a chance of survival. By blatantly attacking Israel, Hezbollah could exploit Israeli misgivings about Syria and a weak Israeli leadership to derail the peace talks.

But this strategy comes with big risks, as attacking Israel now would mean almost certain defeat for Hezbollah. The Israelis have been preparing for another war with Hezbollah since the summer 2006 conflict that ended more or less in a stalemate. If Hezbollah sparked another round of conflict, Israel would be much better prepared this time.

Israel, eager to make a better showing against Hezbollah than in the 2006 conflict, would this time not hesitate to unleash its full force on the militant group. Also, unlike in 2006, Israel would enjoy Syrian support against Hezbollah. Hezbollah would suffer hostility along one of its most important supply lines and opposition from a close state ally. Hezbollah’s communications network (its lifeline) would also be completely vulnerable, making victory nearly impossible for the group. A war with Israel would also result in massive damage within Lebanon’s Shiite community, undercutting Hezbollah’s chances of salvaging existing popular support — especially after a military defeat.

In short, the environment in the summer of 2008 is very different from that of summer of 2006.

The question of whether to attack or hold back is reflected in Hezbollah’s leadership structure. Hezbollah is deeply divided. It appears that the main split is between the old guard leadership and the younger cadres emboldened by the 2006 summer conflict. The old guard is willing to focus more on Hezbollah’s economic potential in Lebanon — mainly controlling the drug trade in the Bekaa Valley for a tidy profit. This faction of Hezbollah has something to lose by being clobbered in a war with Israel and Syria. But the younger members, encouraged by Hezbollah’s performance against Israel in 2006, won’t go down without a fight, regardless of the cost. To attack and get beaten back or to not attack and shrivel up — this is the question that Hezbollah’s leadership is grappling with right now.

Disputes over Hezbollah’s future and how it should proceed in light of an Israeli-Syrian agreement only weaken Hezbollah. Without a clear vision on how to proceed, Hezbollah’s chances of succeeding diminish and its chances of splintering rise. Hezbollah’s rivals can exploit and exacerbate this split and are doing so. Syria has recently thrown its support behind minority factions of Hezbollah, even making possible the return of former Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheikh Subhi al-Tufaili. The Amal movement, Hezbollah’s main rival within Lebanon’s Shiite community, is another tool for the Syrians to use in diminishing Hezbollah’s influence. Currently, Hezbollah is vulnerable to the age-old military strategy of divide and conquer.

It is unclear which path Hezbollah will take from here. It certainly still poses a threat to Israel and, even if there is not consensus among Hezbollah’s leaders, there still could be a rogue attack carried out by one of the factions inclined to attacking. Hezbollah’s response to such an act would be interesting to see. If the militants take credit for it, then they would face a two-front war; if they denounce it, they would reveal their vulnerability to splintering just as Israel would be mounting a response to the initial attack.

There are a number of regional powers leaning on Hezbollah to refrain from attacking Israel. They call on Hezbollah to accept its fate and transition from militancy to a more civil form of politics. So if Hezbollah were to attack, it would be doing so without much outside support — meaning that a unified Hezbollah attack would be very desperate, with very little chance of success. But there is too much internal opposition to support the movement’s transition from militancy. Hezbollah does not have any good options right now, and the probability of it suffering a major internal fracturing is higher than ever.

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