One way of judging the effectiveness of the IDF’s campaign against Hamas is to observe the level of nervousness among Hamas’s allies. And with the opening this morning of a northern front — tepidly, with only three rockets — it seems that Damascus and Tehran are feeling the pressure of a Hamas defeat. This defeat is coming in both military and diplomatic forms. So far there is firm international support for a cease-fire arrangement that would prevent the reconstruction of the smuggling tunnels by which Hamas arms and funds itself. The idea is that the IDF will cripple and humiliate Hamas militarily, and the cease-fire will strangle the group into quiescence. Geographically and politically, the latter was impossible in Lebanon. In Gaza, this is not the case; it is a small territory bordered by two countries that wish to see the group destroyed. That’s why Hamas just rejected the French-Egyptian cease-fire — because the group knows that the deal being discussed would all but eliminate its ability to re-arm.
The rockets that were fired from Lebanon this morning are said to have been the work of the PFLP, and Hezbollah quickly denied any involvement. But the PFLP is closely aligned with the Syrian regime and it is thus very difficult to believe that at a time of such heightened tensions it would freelance an attack. It is especially hard to believe that it wasn’t an approved attack given that Iran’s national security adviser, Saeed Jalili, and parliament speaker Ali Larijani are both in Damascus and holding lengthy meetings with Khaled Mashaal and other high-level Hamas and Syrian officials at the Iranian embassy. (Note to the IDF: this is what’s known as a “high-value target.”)
Given the context, it is far more plausible that Tehran and Damascus wished to send a volley into Israel, but didn’t want Hezbollah’s fingerprints on the attack. So why do it? For one, it imbues the Gaza war with a new sense of uncertainty. Israel would much prefer to fight one war at a time. Second, the strike is surely intended to strengthen Hamas’ position in any cease-fire talks by injecting the proceedings with a sense of urgency. It is hoped that an unnerved Israel will be a more flexible Israel. And finally, no discussion of the Middle East would be complete without mentioning honor. Iran’s client is getting the beating of its life, and neither Hezbollah nor Syria nor Iran have done anything more than stage street demonstrations and deliver tirades. Sending a few rockets into Israel helps show that Tehran is willing to assume some risk, however meager, on behalf of its ally.
In all of this, Hezbollah is in a difficult position domestically. A new round of Hezbollah-instigated fighting with Israel is the last thing most Lebanese want right now, and would damage Hezbollah’s prospects in the parliamentary elections in May. It is important to Hezbollah to cultivate a pretense of democratic legitimacy in Lebanon, and every one of its freelanced wars with Israel erodes such perceptions. And it’s doubtful that Tehran itself wants Hezbollah involved. The Iranians would prefer to keep the group’s powder dry in case of an Israeli or American attack on the Iranian nuclear program. Hence the use of the PFLP.
The conflict now teeters between rapid escalation to Israel’s north, or an eventual cease-fire arrangement with a badly damaged Hamas. Where the conflict goes now depends on whether Tehran wishes to stand down as its client is crushed, or whether it deems such an eventuality unacceptable. Then the real war might start.
UPDATE: Tony Badran, as usual, has a very smart take on these developments.