The firing of four rockets from Lebanon into Northern Israel today immediately set off speculation that Hezbollah might be looking to distract its supporters from the debacle in Syria that many are calling the terrorist group’s “Vietnam.” However, that thesis was soon to be discredited. Rather than the signal for another round of fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, it appears the attack was something else entirely. According to the Israel Defense Forces spokesman, the incident was a “one-time event” rather than the latest chapter in the long history of conflict with Hezbollah. But that news shouldn’t provide much comfort for Israelis or Westerners concerned about the instability in the Middle East. While some experts are dismissing this as an example of how a small jihadist group fires off a few missiles “to show that they exist,” there is another more sinister interpretation.
If the rockets were the work of a Salafist Sunni terror organization operating out of a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, this may be a sign that Hezbollah’s iron grip on the region may be slipping. While anything that weakens a group that is a vital ally of Iran and a perennial adversary of Israel may be thought of as a good thing, the ability of such a group to act with impunity in this manner may be a sign that the war in Syria isn’t just weakening Hezbollah; the chaos there is spreading with unknown consequences but which is likely to lead to more violence against Israel and more blood spilled on both sides of the border.
The rules that once seemed to govern the combatants in the region may be breaking down. As vicious as Hezbollah may be toward both Lebanese opponents and Israelis, it chose to observe the cease-fire that has existed along the border with the Jewish state since 2006. The reason for that is that an organization that was more intent on consolidating its influence in Beirut and aiding Iran’s effort to bolster the Assad regime in Syria understood those interests would be damaged by daring the Israelis to retaliate for attacks on its people. Though Israelis look back at the 2006 Lebanon War as a disaster because of the inept leadership of then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the IDF as well as for the devastating impact of Hezbollah rocket barrages on northern Israel, the Lebanese wanted no rerun of the ferocious Israeli efforts to take out the terrorist group’s infrastructure. Similarly, the government of Syria kept the cease-fire lines with Israel quiet since 1973 lest it be humiliated by the spectacle of yet another defeat at the hands of the IDF.
Though with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, Bashar Assad appears to be winning his war against Syrian rebels, the virtual collapse of that country is breaking down any semblance of stability. As the Times of Israel speculates today, the regime’s use of barbarous tactics against opponents such as the reports of chemical weapons being used outside Damascus could influence Syrian Sunnis and their allies in Lebanon to strike out in any direction in a vain attempt to gain revenge for the atrocity. And that means that “when all else fails, target Israel.”
Due to anti-missile batteries like the Iron Dome system, Israel’s ability to deal with such attacks is greater than it was in the past. One of the four rockets fired by the jihadists was reportedly shot down by Israel fire. But the kind of chaos that may have produced this incident will also test Jerusalem’s intelligence capabilities and make it harder to know where to deploy the few such batteries. Moreover, the goal of the jihadists is not just to strike blindly at the Jews. They hope to start an exchange of fire that will prompt Hezbollah to escalate the fighting and start another war.
This is just one more consequence of the Western decision not to deal with the Syrian problem two years ago when it could have been resolved cheaply and without ceding half the country to the control of groups that may have links to al-Qaeda. The costs of America choosing to lead from behind may be just starting to add up.