The alleged Israeli airstrike last week in Syria represents a significant milestone in the covert struggle characterizing the Israel-Hezbollah competition. Unlike previous reported airstrikes targeting advanced weapons deliveries and strategic facilities, the latest incident specifically targeted operatives situated close to the mountainous border with Israel on the Syrian Golan.
The airstrike killed a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard general, the head of Hezbollah’s operations in the Syria/Iraq theater, and Jihad Mugniyeh, a rising star within Hezbollah’s ranks and son of former leader Imad Mugniyeh. Whether or not Israel intended to target these specific individuals is already a source of debate. Nevertheless, the ability to locate and strike the convoy emphasizes the sophistication of actionable intelligence and the deaths of such prominent figures will be construed as an operational success that warrants a retaliatory response.
Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game
Throughout the last few years, Israel explicitly sought to maintain its qualitative edge by mitigating Hezbollah’s efforts to acquire sophisticated “game-changing” weapons systems that would inhibit Israel’s ability to operate freely in Lebanese airspace. Both Israel and Hezbollah refrained from acknowledging previous alleged Israeli strikes in Syria, which primarily targeted anti-aircraft missile shipments and strategic bases, including a storage facility boasting a fleet of Hezbollah’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).
A Hezbollah security source revealed that “it was like an unannounced agreement: ‘You ignore us and we ignore you’. Attacks should not rise to full provocation.”
However, the latest airstrike challenged the eroding informal arrangement characterizing the asymmetric dynamic. Hezbollah may believe that killing senior leaders during a reconnaissance mission violates previous understandings. Yet Hezbollah’s diffusion of its base of operations is itself game-changing, establishing an Iranian-led stronghold for planning and coordinating attacks against Israel from Syria.
These developments come in context of Hezbollah’s recent admission that Israeli intelligence infiltrated the inner circle of its decision making apparatus, challenging the terrorist organization’s impenetrable image. In a recent interview, leader Hassan Nasrallah confessed that infiltrations are part of the battle with Israel and Hezbollah’s deputy chief Naim Qassem praised the organization for being able to withstand “some major infiltrations,” implying that the recent discovery of a vital Israeli spy was not the first.
Major intelligence penetrations and successes remain the hallmark of effective counter-terrorism, disrupting terrorist plots and facilitating the elimination of key figures. Even after suspected collaborators are discovered, terrorist operations may be hindered by growing suspicion within the ranks, contributing to the further deterioration of group morale. However, Hezbollah remains one of the world’s most powerful and resilient terrorist organizations. The latest strike also came three days after a confident Hassan Nasrallah warned of retaliation to any further Israeli strikes in Syria during a public interview. Israel’s actions are therefore viewed as a direct challenge to the group’s perceived deterrent power and the Jewish state expects revenge.
In light of heightened tensions, the Iron Dome anti-missile system has been deployed to the northern front and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are sending significant military reinforcements to the area. Lebanese media are also reporting of Israeli military airplanes flying at low altitude over southern Lebanon, engaging in surveillance of Hezbollah positions and monitoring potential terrorist activity. Previous strikes in Syria have not solicited these types of Israeli precautions, emphasizing the severity associated with the seemingly credible threats emanating from Iran and Hezbollah.
Since Hezbollah remains bogged down in Syria’s civil war, the group will refrain from responding in a manner that will lead to a major escalation with Israel. As a result, a barrage of missiles targeting Israeli communities is not expected, but should not be entirely ruled out. A relatively low-key strike on an Israeli military target near the northern border or in the disputed Sheba’a Farms is a more feasible option. Even though Hezbollah claims to represent Lebanese national interests, its modus operandi and ongoing involvement in Syria indicates that its primary allegiance remains with its main benefactor, Iran. However, should Hezbollah choose to strike, it will likely seek to retaliate against Israel from its Syrian base to avoid further loss in popularity among a weary Lebanese population that fears being dragged into an unnecessary war.
Hezbollah may also enhance its ongoing efforts to target Israeli diplomats and civilians abroad. In recent years, however, the organization has suffered significant setbacks on the international covert front. Terrorist plots targeting Israeli interests in Azerbaijan, Thailand, India, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Cyprus, Thailand, and Peru have been foiled and Hezbollah operatives continue to serve in jail in some of these countries. The group’s only success remains the 2012 bombing of a passenger bus in Bulgaria, killing five Israeli tourists and the Bulgarian bus driver.
This unfortunate track record indicates that Hezbollah’s covert capabilities and training programs have weakened. Nevertheless, successfully targeting Israeli and Jewish interests abroad is an attractive course of action that can mitigate Israeli reprisals in the event Hezbollah’s role remains ambiguous. Officials in Jerusalem have reportedly utilized backdoor channels to warn Lebanese government personnel and Hezbollah of severe repercussions should the terrorist organization choose to attack Israeli interests in other countries.
Hezbollah believes that the recent high-level spy caught in its midst assisted Israel in thwarting some of the group’s terrorist plots abroad. These international endeavours sought to avenge the death of leader Imad Mugniyeh, who was killed by a sophisticated car bomb in Damascus in 2008. Last week his son, Jihad, suffered a similar fate via airstrike. Hezbollah’s track record proves that the group is committed to preserving some level of perceived deterrence with the Jewish state. The extent to which Hezbollah succeeds in restoring lost prestige will continue to rely heavily on the quality of remaining Israeli intelligence assets devoted to the ongoing tit-for-tat.
Michael Shkolnik is a counter-terrorism analyst with a private Washington D.C. based institute and is pursuing a Ph.D. at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. Shkolnik’s research focuses on the Islamist terrorist-insurgency nexus and the conditions that enable terrorist groups territorial control. He completed a master’s degree in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security Studies while working with two prestigious national security think tanks in Israel, monitoring Middle East developments, extremist organizations, and state-sponsors of terrorism.
Featured Photo from Wikipedia Commons.