Has Hezbollah fallen into an Israeli trap? The details are still emerging, but it appears that several high-profile members of Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are dead after an Israeli strike near the Golan Heights. From a Reuters report:
An Israeli helicopter strike in Syria killed a commander from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the son of the group’s late military leader Imad Moughniyah, sources close to Hezbollah said, in a major blow that could lead to reprisal attacks.The strike hit a convoy carrying Jihad Moughniyah and other Hezbollah members including commander Abu Issa, in the Syrian province of Quneitra, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Lebanese sources said, killing five Hezbollah members in all.It comes just days after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said frequent Israeli strikes in Syria were a major aggression, that the group was stronger than before and that Syria and its allies had the right to respond. […]Iran’s semi-official Tabnak news site said several of its Revolutionary Guards had also been killed in the attack, without giving further details. State-run Iranian television said the identity of the “martyrs” could not be confirmed.
Hezbollah’s high command may already be regretting those threats. By striking the Hezbollah convoy—and the strike apparently resulted in the death of some very important Hezbollah and possibly also Iranian personnel—Israel is calling Hezbollah’s bluff.Spread thin in Syria, and with all its combat energy focused on propping up Assad, Hezbollah is probably not ready to take on the Israelis in a big way. But if Hezbollah follows through with its threats and responds to the Israeli attack with a counterattack, the inevitable devastating Israeli response will degrade Hezbollah’s war making capacity and quite possibly tilt the battle in Syria against the Shia.This development would be greatly welcomed by the Sunni powers in the Gulf and beyond. They desperately want to see Assad defeated and Hezbollah checked, but they lack the military means to do it themselves.Meanwhile, at a time when many of the Sunni countries in the Middle East are toning down criticism of Israel, feeling that they need Israel to help balance the scales against a surging Iran, both Hezbollah and Iran have been stepping up their anti-Israel rhetoric. For the minority Shi’a, that rhetoric is a way to build their legitimacy and soft power in the Sunni Arab world. They aren’t heretics out to destroy the Sunni world, they claim; they are good Muslims leading the resistance front against the hated infidels and Jews.The Israeli strike leaves Iran with nothing but ugly choices. The war in Syria is turning into a war of attrition, and the combination of sanctions and a collapsing oil price make it harder for Iran to keep propping up its clients. Serious hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel would likely change the balance of power in Syria, further undercutting Assad, and inflicting damage on Hezbollah that Iran will be hard put to make good.On the other hand, if Hezbollah meekly turns the other cheek against a very high profile Israeli attack on its senior leadership, its weakness will be advertised—and its reputation as a hardline opponent of Israel will be tarnished. Moreover, Hezbollah’s support for the murderous Assad is hugely unpopular among Sunni Arabs. If it is clear that Hezbollah is devoting its military might against Sunnis rather than taking on Israel, Hezbollah will be seen less as a courageous fighter against the Zionists than as an opportunistic pawn of the Persian heretics.For Israel’s Netanyahu, it all looks good. If Hezbollah backs down, Netanyahu will have scored significant military and political victories against a wily opponent. If Hezbollah retaliates, Netanyahu will have plenty of opportunities to hit Hezbollah where it hurts. The terrorist organization is committed to a whole series of deployments in Syria, making it much more vulnerable to air power and offering Israel a rich choice of targets.It’s hard to see why the Israelis would let Hezbollah off the hook. Striking effectively against Hezbollah will strengthen the tacit Israel-Sunni alliance that is the most dramatic development in Middle Eastern politics these days. If Hezbollah retaliates, Netanyahu is likely to punch back hard. If it doesn’t retaliate, he may well look for more opportunities to hit Hezbollah where it hurts. With fighters roaming across southern Syria, and with Israeli intelligence apparently in good shape, this may not be the last chance the Israelis will have for high profile strikes. Then Hezbollah will have to choose again: retaliate and launch a wider war, or grit its teeth and carry on.Israeli elections are scheduled for March 17; Netanyahu has a strong hand. Expect him to play it for all it is worth.