Active Measures

Upsetting the Balance of Deterrence: The Vulnerabilities Leading to Potential War Between Israel and Hezbollah

The article below was published in the Spring 2019 edition of Active Measures, IWP’s student journal. 

The high level of tension between Israel and Hezbollah since the conclusion of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war has convinced experts on the conflict that another war between the two parties is all but certain. Yet, thirteen years later Israel and Hezbollah have yet to engage in another full-scale war. A reluctance to get involved in a destructive war has resulted in the tacit establishment of a “balance of deterrence” between the two sides. However, this paper identifies a number of neglected vulnerabilities on both sides of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict which, if exploited, would upset the “balance” and cause a full-scale destructive war in the Levant.

Although the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War was one that neither side wanted, it was not unexpected. More than twelve years after its conclusion, no conflict of similar magnitude has erupted between the two mortal enemies. Throughout this period, however, the concept of another major war between Israel and Hezbollah has been viewed as a matter of when, not if. Yet, if the assumption has been for so long that war between Israel and Hezbollah is nearly inevitable, then why has there been no war? If the many potential escalatory events that have occurred between the two sides (some of which were far deadlier than the ambush that ignited the 2006 war) have not resulted in full-scale war, then what will? There has been extensive scholarship on the nature of tensions between the two parties, the potential destruction a future war might bring, and the policies various parties involved must consider in relation to the anticipated conflict. However, there have been few attempts by scholars when analyzing the current environment to identify specific events that are most likely to cause a war to erupt.

The reason the 2006 War escalated so quickly was less about the fact that Hezbollah conducted a military operation against Israel and more about Israel believing its deterrent power was under attack. Kidnapped Israeli soldiers can be used as bargaining chips for Hezbollah to obtain concessions from Israel. Because of this fact, Israel believed that a certain level of military response was necessary in order to preserve a potential weakening of their deterrent power. Since then, there have been many violent altercations between Hezbollah and Israel, but none have convinced either side that a full-scale war was necessary because they did not serve as a great enough threat to the balance of deterrence. However, in the case of the volatile security environment in the Middle East, there are a variety of possible events that could certainly threaten the balance and lead to a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah, potentially dragging in other nations as well. This paper provides a focused analysis of both well-known and neglected vulnerabilities on both sides of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict which, if exploited, will result in full-scale destructive war in the Levant. There is no crystal ball that can provide any certainty about future events, but in a volatile environment like the Middle East, such an analysis is useful for states to understand and consider the risks when formulating strategy.

The Balance of Deterrence

Only a few years after the conclusion of the 2006 War, Hezbollah supporters seemed almost disappointed that another war had not occurred.[1] With the high level of tension ever-present between Israel and Hezbollah it might be more surprising that there hasn’t been a war since 2006. Throughout the post-2006 war period, Hezbollah’s leaders, mainly Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, threatened war if the Israelis attacked. Reciprocally, Israel asserted it would respond to any Hezbollah attacks.[2] Despite the inflammatory rhetoric, no war has erupted when Israeli and Hezbollah forces have clashed over the past decade. In 2015, a top Iranian general and six Hezbollah fighters were killed in an Israeli airstrike in Syria, and Hezbollah responded by killing multiple Israeli soldiers at the Lebanese-Israeli border.[3] The number of violent exchanges has increased as Iran and Hezbollah have sought to establish a military presence in Syria, while Israel has remained determined to stop that from materializing. Despite these clashes, there has been no resulting greater war.

It seems that Israel and Hezbollah have developed a successful pattern for maintaining a balance of strategic deterrence. The relationship does not constitute balance of power; Israel still has the overwhelming capability to destroy Hezbollah, but cannot afford to risk international condemnation if it does. Because of this fact, the term balance of deterrence provides a better definition of the nature of the competing relationship between the two sides. Nevertheless, as the Syrian War draws to a close and the key players in the Middle East turn their attention to Lebanon, it is unlikely that the current balance will be effectively maintained. There are certain vulnerabilities that could threaten the deterrent balance—some of which have already been widely discussed as possible threats, while others have been neglected due to the complexity and breadth of activities in the Middle East. These vulnerabilities include the effect of sanctions on both Iran and Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia’s meddling in Lebanon, and the pressure points in both Hezbollah and Israeli defenses.

The Financial Vulnerability

It is no secret that Iran and Hezbollah have an intimate relationship. Iran invests millions of dollars a year in Hezbollah, and Hezbollah repays the debt by acting as an extension of Iran’s foreign policy, which includes conducting terrorist and illicit financial activities around the globe. However, Hezbollah certainly retains a level of independence from Iran, as it conducts most of its activities on its own accord and hasn’t always done what Iran wants.[4] In a hearing before the Senate Committee on Armed Services in February 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah is a sort of “partnership arrangement, with the Iranians as the senior partner.”[5] Whatever the exact nature of the relationship may be, it is clear that the two Shia parties are connected and that what affects one affects both. As a result, the combination of sanctions on both Iran and Hezbollah, a crackdown on Hezbollah’s illicit financial network, and a reduction in Hezbollah’s political power could cause an emboldened Hezbollah military to feel threatened enough financially and politically to engage in more overt military actions to assert itself.

In Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of the Party of God, Michael Levitt discusses how Israeli intelligence estimated that Iran cut up to 40% in aid to Hezbollah as a result of the economic sanctions put on Iran in 2009. As a result, Levitt explains, Hezbollah was forced to enact austerity measures, such as cutting salaries and putting building projects on hold, causing tension within the organization. Due to the constraints suddenly thrust upon it, Hezbollah increased its illicit financial activities to generate income to maintain the social enterprises that keep it in power. Levitt argues that these activities made Hezbollah increasingly vulnerable to a concerted international effort to counter its activities. Despite the vulnerability, Hezbollah’s international criminal network was able to grow, likely due to the removal of sanctions as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran Nuclear Deal.6 No matter the reason, the concerted international effort Levitt predicted never effectively materialized.

Since President Trump took office, the United States in particular has increased measures to crackdown on Iran and Hezbollah’s illicit financial activities. This crackdown could have a significant impact on the balance of deterrence for Hezbollah. In 2016, the United States imposed sanctions on financial institutions that facilitated transactions with Hezbollah, resulting in the closure of thousands of Hezbollah’s accounts.[6] Furthermore, the Trump administration and the U.S. Department of Treasury have more recently asserted that they will prioritize the elimination of Hezbollah’s financial network, particularly in South America, Africa and the Middle East.[7] In response to the 2016 sanctions, Secretary General Nasrallah downplayed the consequences of sanctions by saying, “As long as Iran has money, we have money.”[8] Even this once reliable source of income is threatened, now that sanctions have been renewed on Iran and the Iranian economy is suffering.[9] This could have a serious effect, not only on Hezbollah’s immediate finances, but also on Lebanon’s overall economy as well. Such economic pressure could have an adverse effect on Lebanese support for Hezbollah.[10]

These are all positive developments for the West’s fight against Hezbollah and Iran, but what Western leaders may see as a victory could actually increase the chances of Hezbollah choosing war to advance its aims. Hezbollah has historically been able to retain control of Lebanon through political dominance, built with funds from Iran and its criminal networks. Hezbollah has been reluctant to use its military capabilities against Israel, given Israel’s overwhelming military capabilities. However, if Hezbollah believes that it is being cornered on the political or financial front as a result of the sanctions, it is likely to be more willing to engage in military action against Israel to bolster support for itself in Lebanon and assert its control.  Hezbollah’s troops might be emboldened by a perceived victory in Syria, or at least proof of Hezbollah’s military prowess, which might be enough to convince leaders of their readiness for another round with Israel.[11] Hezbollah might perceive a strike against Israel as a political show of strength to its Lebanese constituents, but military action would also increase the likelihood that an Israeli, American, or Saudi strike on Hezbollah’s capabilities, particularly in Lebanon, could result in a much more dramatic or miscalculated response.

The Saudi Vulnerability

In November 2017, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri was summoned to Riyadh by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Upon meeting with the Crown Prince, Hariri was given a pre-written resignation letter and told to resign on public television. Despite the attempt, Hariri rescinded his resignation upon returning to Lebanon and the Saudis came under intense international criticism. The New York Times later wrote that it wasn’t clear to Western and Arab officials what the Saudis hoped to accomplish with the episode, but that the attempt might foment unrest or even ignite war in Lebanon.[12] What is clear is that Saudi Arabia was targeting Lebanon, and more specifically Hezbollah, as part of its increasingly tense cold war with Iran. This episode further proved that the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman continues to be a potential liability in the strategic environment of the Levant.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has proven to the international community that he is capable of sloppy foreign policy and erratic behavior, displayed by both the Hariri affair and the assassination of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In the climate of increasing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is much more likely that Saudi Arabia will undertake an action that would jeopardize the balance of deterrence that Israel and Hezbollah have painstakingly constructed. The Prince Mohammed might even order a strike against Hezbollah targets, an assassination of a key Hezbollah leader, or an orchestrated coup attempt against the Hezbollah-backed Lebanese government. Due to the Israeli tendency to deny covert action, it is certainly possible that a covert Saudi attack of any form on a sensitive Hezbollah target could be misperceived as an Israeli attack by Hezbollah, which could result in a “retaliatory” attack by Hezbollah on Israel that starts a war. These are the types of miscalculations that could change the perceived balance of deterrence and lead to a war, which could drag in neighboring countries.

The Defense Vulnerabilities

Hezbollah’s leadership—and even some Lebanese leaders—have repeatedly claimed that, in contrast to the Israeli military strikes in Syria, an attack on Lebanese territory would result in war. [13] Secretary General Nasrallah stated in 2017 that the next war would be fought in Israeli territory.[14] Similarly, Israel has made it clear through both words and actions that it will not tolerate an Iran-Hezbollah presence in southern Syria and will take action to prevent Hezbollah from further developing high-precision missiles. In September 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech to the United Nations in which he showcased Israeli intelligence that indicated Hezbollah was constructing underground missile factories in Beirut with help from Iran.[15] Israel views the construction of these missiles as a threat that could shift the balance of deterrence in a similar way that Hezbollah views the construction of the Israeli northern border wall as a threat to its ability to deter or respond to Israeli attacks.[16] These types of threats to the balance of deterrence are the most immediate factors that could lead to a direct war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Although a vast majority of Hezbollah’s missiles are believed to lack high-precision technology, Israeli intelligence has shown that missiles Hezbollah is seeking to develop may be capable of striking within 10 meters, or 32 feet, of their target.[17] The potential for this new capability shows why Israel is so concerned about these projects and have attempted to thwart their construction by repeatedly striking the transportation of construction materials in Syria. However, if Hezbollah is able to construct functioning factories – some of which are buried 50 meters beneath civilian infrastructure – Israel may feel it has no choice but to risk all-out war by destroying these factories in Lebanon.[18]

Although it is clear that an improved missile capability will be a more effective weapon for Hezbollah in a future war, there is a more substantial reason for Israel to fear precision missile capabilities by Hezbollah. One of Israel’s greater, but lesser known, weakness is its nuclear reactors, most notably its Dimona and Nahal Sorek reactors. A strike on one of these reactors could have catastrophic consequences in the surrounding region. International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) members have downplayed the significance of an attack on one of these reactors by arguing that even if the reactor were hit, the employees inside would be safe.[19] However, the IAEC fears that an attack on the reactor could be conducted for propaganda purposes, since it is a symbol of Israeli power and might cause widespread panic in the local populace. Furthermore, a 2018 study by four Israeli scientists found that a strike within 35 meters of the reactor could result in a breach of critical systems.[20] With these new missile capabilities, Hezbollah, already possessing the strike range almost anywhere in Israel, would have a much greater chance of accurately striking the surrounding area of the reactors.

General Secretary Nasrallah has threatened these reactors, calling this plan Hezbollah’s “nuclear bomb” option. Improved accuracy of Hezbollah’s missiles presents a serious threat to Israel, whether or not Hezbollah would actually go through with an attack.[21] Israel has viewed the vulnerability of the reactors as a viable justification for a preemptive strike before, as seen in its justification for launching the Six Day War against Egypt in 1967.[22] It is not difficult to see how the current environment between Israel and Hezbollah makes a similar event more likely to occur. Conversely, a strike on Hezbollah’s prized missile capabilities will likely make it believe it is threatened enough to respond with a retaliatory attack significant enough to escalate the conflict into a full-scale war.

Conclusion

A war involving Israel, Hezbollah, and their allies would be a disastrous situation that would result in devastating levels of death and destruction and further destabilize the Middle East. The fact that at the present time each country has believed that it would gain little and lose much from a war has so far prevented such a calamity. However, in an environment as tense and dangerous as the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict there is a heightened risk that one party or the other could be pushed over the line and decide that war is advantageous. It is likely that the balance of deterrence will be maintained for the near future, as experts suggest, and Israel, Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah will continue to play their dangerous game of chess.

The best thing Israel and its allies, notably the United States and Saudi Arabia, can do in this tense situation is understand how Hezbollah views its own position financially, politically, and militarily, and how any efforts to defeat Hezbollah will affect those views. Israel and the United States must recognize that successful efforts to dramatically reduce Hezbollah’s power have the potential to increase the threat of a Hezbollah attack, rather than decreasing the threat. Israel and Saudi Arabia will do what is necessary to protect its borders, so to prevent escalation the United States must use its unique position to signal to both Israel and Hezbollah that it will not only come to Israel’s defense if it is attacked, but it will also not tolerate rogue actions by Israel or Saudi Arabia that might provoke Hezbollah when they are vulnerable. Hezbollah must be convinced that the best way to maintain and increase its power in Lebanon is not through military means. It will take extremely tactful diplomacy and strategy, but if Israel and its allies want to maintain the status quo or defeat Hezbollah without a full-scale war, they will need to work slowly to chip away at Hezbollah’s stranglehold over Lebanon so as to not allow them to believe their only recourse is war.

Instead of assuming a future war will be started by accident, experts and analysts should work hard to identify exactly what type of events could influence the leaders involved to choose war, as well as what measures can prevent these events from occurring or escalating into war. This should include examining scenarios outside immediate military activities, such as economics and politics, and from different angles, such as Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the conflict, in order to give decisionmakers the best chances to avoid war. Most importantly, as likely as war may seem, anyone involved should remember that nothing in history is inevitable.

[1] Thanassis Cambanis, “Stronger Hezbollah Emboldened for Fights Ahead,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/07/world/middleeast/07hezbollah.html. (October 6, 2010).

[2] Benjamin Kerstein, “Hezbollah Leader: If Assad Loses, We Will See Netanyahu in Damascus,” Algemeiner, https://www.algemeiner.com/2018/11/10/hezbollah-leader-if-assad-loses-we-will-see-netanyahu-in-damascus/, (November 10, 2018); Yaniv Kubovich, “Israel Told U.S. and Russia It Will Retaliate If Iran Attacks from Syria,” Haaretz, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/israel-told-u-s-and-russia-it-will-retaliate-if-iran-attacks-from-syr-1.6040951, (April 30, 2018).

[3] See “Three Killed as Israel and Hezbollah Clash on Lebanese Border,” BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31015862, (January 28, 2015);

Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Top Iranian General and Six Hezbollah Fighters Killed in Israeli Attack in Syria” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/19/top-iranian-general-hezbollah-fighters-killed-israel-attack-syria, (January 19, 2015).

[4] Matthew Levitt, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013), 357.

[5] U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Armed Services, Worldwide Threats to the National Security of the United States, 112th Cong., February 16, 2012, Statements by James Clapper, Available from C-Span, https://www.c-span.org/video/?304462-1/threats-national-security.

6 Levitt, Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God, 372.

[6] Rouba El Husseini, “Crackdown on Hezbollah Accounts Raises Tensions in Lebanon,” The Times of Israel, https://www.timesofisrael.com/crackdown-on-hezbollah-accounts-raises-tensions-in-lebanon/, (July 6, 2016)

[7] “Treasury Targets Hizballah Financial Network in Africa and the Middle East,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/sm0278, (February 2, 2018).

“Hezbollah in South America: The Threat to Businesses,” Stratfor, https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/hezbollah-south-america-threat-businesses, (February 05, 2018).

[8] El Husseini, “Crackdown on Hezbollah Accounts Raises Tensions in Lebanon.”

[9] Ladane Naserri, Golnar Motevalli and Arsalah Shahla, “After Sanctions, Iran’s Economy is Nearing a Crisis,” Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-08-09/as-sanctions-hit-iran-s-on-the-verge-of-economic-breakdown, (August 9, 2018).

[10] Zvi Bar, “Israel and U.S. Set Eyes on Lebanon as Iran-Saudi Proxy Clash Heats up,” Haaretz, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-and-u-s-set-eyes-on-lebanon-as-iran-saudi-proxy-clash-heats-up-1.6636163, (November 11, 2018).

[11] Nour Samaha, “Hezbollah Is ‘Stronger Than Ever’,” Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/06/01/hezbollah-is-stronger-than-ever-isis-syria/, (June 1, 2015).

[12] Anne Barnard and Maria Abi-Habib, “Why Saad Hariri Had That Strange Sojourn in Saudi Arabia,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/24/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-saad-hariri-mohammed-bin-salman-lebanon.html, (December 24, 2017).

[13] Amos Harel, “Netanyahu’s UN Intel Reveal Forces Hezbollah to Reconsider Beirut Missile Sites,” Haaretz, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-between-palestinians-and-hezbollah-israel-tries-to-steer-clear-of-an-october-surprise-1.6513219,  (September 29, 2018); “Lebanon’s President Vows to Confront Any Israeli Aggression,” AP News, https://apnews.com/8e34018e19cb4f7699c8e947ba19663f, (October 02, 2018).

[14]  The Times of Israel Staff, and Associated Press, “Nasrallah: Next War with Israel Could Be Waged inside Israeli Territory,” The Times of Israel, http://www.timesofisrael.com/nasrallah-next-war-with-israel-could-be-waged-inside-israeli-territory/, (May 11, 2017).

[15] Harel, “Netanyahu’s UN Intel Reveal Forces Hezbollah to Reconsider Beirut Missile Sites.”

[16] Anna Ahronheim, “Nasrallah Warns Israel against Continued Construction of Border Wall,” The Jerusalem Post, https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Nasrallah-warns-Israel-against-the-construction-of-border-wall-539334, (January 21, 2018).

[17] Judah Ari Gross, “IDF Releases Photos of Alleged Hezbollah Missile Sites near Beirut Airport,” The Times of Israel, https://www.timesofisrael.com/idf-releases-photos-of-alleged-hezbollah-missile-sites-near-beirut-airport/, (September 27, 2018).

[18] Avi Issacharoff, “Iran Sets up Underground Rocket Factories in Lebanon – Report,” The Times of Israel, https://www.timesofisrael.com/iran-sets-up-underground-rocket-factories-in-lebanon-report/, (March 13, 2017).

[19] “Zachary Keck, “Israel’s Great Weakness: Attack Its Nuclear Reactors,” National Interest, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/israels-great-weakness-attack-its-nuclear-reactors-28587, (August 2018).

[20] Keck, Israel’s Great Weakness: Attack Its Nuclear Reactors.”

[21] Ibid.

[22] Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, (Columbia University Press, 1998), 266.