Commentary Magazine


Iran’s Private Army Digs in for a Wider Lebanon War

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” — Henry David Thoreau

The Obama administration needs to start paying attention to Lebanon again before it explodes.

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Hezbollah is moving long-range rockets and missiles away from the Israeli border and even north of Beirut in a move that would make a Third Lebanon War much more destructive over a much larger area than the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The previous conflict was mostly, but not exclusively, confined to the Hezbollah-controlled Shia areas in the south and in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Israel Defense Forces Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi says Hezbollah is now capable of firing rockets all the way to Tel Aviv from as far north as Beirut. Depending on where Hezbollah is placing its arsenal, taking out launch sites from the air might endanger America’s allies and Hezbollah’s enemies in the Christian, Sunni, and Druze parts of the country.

IDF Major General Giora Eiland says if a third war does in fact start, “Israel will not contain that war against Hezbollah. We cannot.” The last Lebanon war didn’t end well, and as Dwight Eisenhower once said, “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” The problem, though, must be enlarged in just the right way and to just the right size.

“The only way to deter the other side and prevent the next round,” Eiland continued, “or if it happens, to win — is to have a military confrontation with the state of Lebanon.”

That would make for both too much and too little enlargement. Too much because Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s “March 14″ parliamentary majority is being held hostage by Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria and is not really part of the larger problem; too little because the problem is much larger than Lebanon. Hezbollah is but a piece of a region-wide resistance bloc. It can’t be effectively dealt with without acknowledging what it is — the Lebanese branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Syria is the logistical hub Iran uses to maintain its division abroad on the Mediterranean. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah doesn’t answer to anyone in Beirut, but to his patrons and armorers in Tehran and Damascus.

It looks like he’s itching for a fight, but no war need be fought at all if Israel can convince Syria and Iran to back off. Jerusalem doesn’t strictly require American backup and support to enlarge the scope of the problem to include those two countries, but having it would certainly boost the deterrent effect.

Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei might be undeterrable, but Syria’s Bashar Assad certainly isn’t. Turkey convinced his more ruthless late father, Hafez Assad, to cease and desist supporting the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) back in the 1990s, and did so without firing a shot by threatening to invade. Turkey didn’t want to invade, yet Turkey never had to. Syria, meanwhile, has continued sponsoring or even outright committing terrorism against the more “reasonable” Israelis, Iraqis, and Lebanese.

Syria is without question the junior partner in its relationship with Iran, but Tehran’s Islamic Republic regime would have a lot less power in the region — especially in Lebanon — if Assad were spooked into noncooperation. Without assistance from Syria, Hezbollah would develop serious logistics problems that might eventually render it as militarily weak as Hamas. Without support from Iran, Hezbollah would eventually run out of cash and ammunition entirely. No other government in the world would give money and guns to a totalitarian-minded Shia militia.

Hezbollah itself has been deterred from picking fights for a while, but that period seems to be winding down now that it’s better armed and equipped than ever before. Nasrallah has lately been threatening a war that will destroy Israel, “liberate” Jerusalem, and “change the face of the region.” I’d like to think he’s just throwing out “red meat” for his base, but Jonathan Spyer persuasively argues that there is “not a shred of evidence to suggest that these sentiments are intended for the printed page only” and that Hezbollah is “as tactically agile as it is strategically deluded.”

There will most likely be no resolution to the Hezbollah problem as long as the Islamic Republic regime in Iran exists in its present form, but it may yet be possible to stop Hezbollah from doing something stupid again. Terrorist and guerrilla armies are hard to deter, but rational actors like Syria aren’t, and even Khamenei himself may pressure Nasrallah to take it easy if he thinks Tehran might get hit if he doesn’t.

The point here isn’t to ensure that the next war takes place in four countries instead of in two. The point is to prevent the next war entirely by making it cost more for those who would start it. If Damascus and Tehran can continue setting the region on fire without paying a price — without even fearing that they might pay a price — they will continue to do so.

The Obama administration may want to consider the Lebanon file a higher priority than an Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” that’s not going anywhere. The next Israeli-Hezbollah war could be bigger and more destructive than any Arab-Israeli hot war in decades, and could make last year’s war in Gaza look, by comparison, like a bar fight.

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