The Strategy Behind
Israel’s Attack on Iran and Hizballah
Israel’s claims of an imminent threat of
Hizballah attack are not credible. More
likely it wants to subdue the Lebanese
militia so that it has a free hand to
manipulate the Syrian battlefield to its
By Jonathan Cook
January 22, 2015 "ICH"
- Israel has good reason to fear that
the Lebanese militia Hizballah and Iran’s
Revolutionary Guard will seek dramatic
revenge for the killing of 12 senior figures
from the two organisations in an air strike
in Syria on Sunday.
Israel’s concerns were underscored on
Wednesday by the decision of its military
chief of staff, Benny Gantz, to cancel a
trip to meet his European counterparts, as
the Israeli army remained on high alert.
Earlier, on Monday, Israel moved an Iron
Dome anti-missile battery to the northern
border, in case of rocket fire from
Hizballah. That is precisely what Hizbullah
leader Hassan Nasrallah had vowed only last
week if Israel continued to launch attacks
on Syrian soil.
“We consider that any strike against Syria
is a strike against the whole of the
resistance axis, not just against Syria,” he
said, adding that he had many long-range
Iranian rockets that could reach deep into
General Ali Jafari, commander of the
Revolutionary Guard, echoed that warning on
Tuesday, saying Israel should wait for
“devastating thunderbolts”, and that
Israel’s air strike had created “a new
beginning point for the imminent collapse of
the Zionist regime”.
Rhetoric aside, however, Hizballah and Iran
are likely to try to avoid the inevitable
direct military confrontation with Israel
that would follow a decision to fire some of
Hizballah’s thousands of rockets into the
That certainly appears to have been Israel’s
calculation in launching the attack.
Hizballah and Iran – both stretched
militarily in Syria as they try to bolster
Bashar al-Assad’s regime from the threat
posed by various opposition and extremist
groups – have no interest in opening an
additional front, this time with Israel.
In addition, Iran is suffering economically
from a US-Saudi engineered fall in oil
prices and cannot risk an intensification of
sanctions – currently being advanced in the
US Congress – by being blamed for a major
escalation of hostilities with Israel.
Likewise, Iran will be averse to falling
into a trap set by Israel, aggravating
tensions with western powers as Tehran tries
to negotiate a deal with them on its nuclear
programme. Israel would be only too
delighted to see the talks collapse.
And Iran has invested heavily in arming
Hizballah with rockets and missiles to
provide a deterrent against Israel launching
a strike on Iran. Using that arsenal now, as
one Israeli analyst surmised, would be
“wasting [it] on border skirmishes that have
no strategic significance for Iran”.
Hizballah, meanwhile, will be reluctant to
fire rockets for fear of weakening its
domestic political position. It has no
popular mandate – explicit or implicit – to
drag Lebanon into another devastating
confrontation with Israel, like the one in
2006, in retaliation for military losses it
sustained on Syrian rather than Lebanese
Boutros Harb, Lebanon’s telecoms minister,
warned as much: “It’s not in anyone’s
interest for a front to be opened [with
Israel] and for Lebanon to enter a war.”
More likely Iran and Hizballah will seek
revenge at a later time, either by attacking
Israel from Syria or by hitting a high-level
target abroad. Such a strike could itself
escalate into a wider conflict, as occurred
both in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza with
Hamas last summer.
It is not surprising that Quneitra province,
the area of southern Syria next to the
Israeli-occupied Golan Heights where
Israel’s air strike occurred, has become a
flashpoint. Israel, on the one hand, and
Hizballah and Iran, on the other, have been
sucked into the relative power vacuum
created there since the Syrian army lost its
grip on the territory last summer.
Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, is
reported to have strongholds in the area and
controls the Quneitra crossing on the 1967
ceasefire line with the Golan Heights.
Israel has engaged in a range of activities
in the Quneitra region in support of the
It appears to have been quietly trying to
gain a foothold by recruiting collaborators
among the local population, in what
Hizballah fears may eventually become a
replication in Syria of the South Lebanon
Army, a militia Israel created to help
destabilise southern Lebanon throughout the
1980s and 1990s.
Israel has also assisted rebel groups,
including al-Nusra Front, allowing its
wounded fighters to access its medical
services, as a report last month by United
Nations monitors in the area confirmed.
Israel is also said to have been arming and
training these groups, and providing them
with maps and intelligence. The strong
suspicion is that Israel is trying to forge
links with these fighters to help them
attack Hizballah and the Syrian army.
According to some reports, Israel’s downing
of a Syrian military aircraft over the Golan
Heights in late September was intended to
aid al-Nusra Front as it fought for control
of Quneitra crossing.
And most visibly, Israel has carried out a
series of air strikes against targets in
Syria, of which Sunday’s was only the
latest. The Israeli media have claimed that
the earlier attacks were designed to stop
Syria and Iran transferring weapons to
Hizballah to strengthen its fighters as they
take on opposition forces. However, there
are also reports that Israel is trying to
weaken Syria’s military infrastructure to
assist the rebels and give its own aircraft
unhindered access to Syria’s skies.
However unlikely the alliance may seem,
there are strategic reasons why Israel might
wish to help al-Nusra Front and even the
more extremist fighters of the Islamic State
Israel appears to prefer that the Syrian
army, Hizballah and Iran remain trapped in
an endless struggle against the opposition –
whatever their hue – that saps their
resources and military strength, leaving
Israel to control the playing field.
Nasty wake-up call
Hizballah, by contrast, has every reason to
want to cement its position in southern
Syria. Nasrallah and Assad received a nasty
wake-up call last summer when the rebels
seized Syrian positions in the Quneitra
Sunni opposition forces thereby gained
control both of the border with the Golan
Heights, giving them access to Israel, and
moved into position next to south Lebanon,
home to much of Lebanon’s Shia majority and
For this reason, Israeli leaks to the media
that Hizballah and Iran have been trying to
establish missile bases in the Quneitra area
cannot be discounted.
However, claims from Israel that it was
under imminent threat of a Hizballah attack
from the Quneitra area – justifying the
strike – are implausible. If Hizballah is
now averse, as seems to be the case, to
hitting Israel after it killed so many of
its commanders, why would it have been
preparing to attack Israel before the
strike, when it had far less cause?
Israel appears to prefer that the Syrian
army, Hizballah and Iran remain trapped in
an endless struggle against the opposition.
More likely, the team were there to assess
ways to tighten their hold on the area,
compensating for Syria’s weakness, to
prevent both further territorial losses to
opposition forces and Israel’s continuing
Veteran Israeli military analyst Alex
Fishman observed: “The Iranians and the
Syrians reached the conclusion that Israel
is no longer deterred on the Syrian front
and is carrying on uninhibited.” For this
reason, they are under pressure to create a
new “balance of deterrence” with Israel.
Israel’s Channel 2 TV quoted Lebanese
sources on Tuesday confirming that the team
were establishing missile bases in southern
Syria, presumably with Assad’s assent. If
that was the case, then most likely the goal
was to create a stockpile of rockets similar
to the one that exists in south Lebanon to
deter Israel both from striking in Syria and
from helping rebel groups.
Israel’s desire to stop Hizballah and Iran’s
counter-move – and thereby keep its free
hand in Syria, launching attacks when it
pleases – seems a more probable explanation
for its attack on Sunday.
Jonathan Cook is a Nazareth- based journalist and
winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize
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