What started as a great week for Hezbollah now looks set to end in perilous ambiguity.
The results of Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Lebanon were favorable to the U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, giving it and its partners a de facto majority for the first time since 2005, further consolidating its grip on the country’s state institutions.
A dramatic outbreak of direct military hostilities Wednesday between their arch-foe Israel and their sponsor, Iran, however, adds a sudden new element of uncertainty to the Party of God’s position. Although they appear to have been largely spared in the “dozens” of Israeli attacks on alleged Iranian military assets in Syria—the heaviest Israeli offensive in the country since the 1973 October War—the possibility of further escalation dragging Hezbollah into the arena, and potentially Lebanon with them, is considerable.
“The chances of an escalation, miscalculation, [or] accident that could suck Lebanon into the conflict are worryingly high,” said Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and the author of Warriors of God, a military history of Hezbollah. “If Israel attacks Hezbollah in Lebanon, or if Hezbollah helps Iran by attacking Israel from Lebanon, then the large-scale war for which we have been bracing for 12 years will be on,” Blanford told The Daily Beast.
The prospect is a grim one for the Lebanese. Israel has long warned any future war in Lebanon would be even more devastating than the July 2006 conflict, which killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians and reduced much of the country’s infrastructure to dust. Hezbollah, too, is more powerful militarily today than it was in 2006, with between 5,000 and 8,000 fighters in Syria alone, and many more still in Lebanon, according to Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute, who has tracked the group’s military activities for years. In possession of over 100,000 rockets, according to the Israeli military, the party is not a force to be taken on lightly.
“Iran is determined to entrench in Syria as a reward for having invested so heavily in President Bashar al-Assad’s survival. Israel is equally determined to prevent an Iranian military entrenchment. Neither side appears willing to compromise at this stage and there is no third party—including the Russians—that is willing to mediate a solution or has the leverage to do so.”
Ultimately, how far Israel acts against Iran, and its proxies such as Hezbollah, will be determined in large part by the prevailing mood on Pennsylvania Avenue. With President Trump citing both Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and its “sinister activities in Syria” as among his reasons for leaving the JCPOA—and with renowned Iran hawks Mike Pompeo and John Bolton at the president’s ear—there seems little reason to expect the Israelis to be held back any time soon.