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On 25 August 2019, two Israeli drones carrying explosives came down on a Hezbollah media centre in southern Beirut, Lebanon. One of the drones hit the roof of the centre and was followed by another that exploded in the air, further damaging the building. It was the first Israeli use of ‘suicide drones’ against Hezbollah.
The attack on Hezbollah, considered Iran’s main proxy force in Lebanon, was not an isolated incident. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted on 22 August, “Iran is not immune anywhere.” The Israeli military has in recent months stepped up its targeting of Iran’s allies in Syria, Iraq and now in Lebanon. it has also actively targeted Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored umbrella organization of mostly Shia militias. Taking into account the relative calm on the Israeli-Lebanese border in recent years, the use of suicide drones against Hezbollah marks a new phase in the power play between the two and, more broadly, between Israel and the Axis of Resistance, an alliance that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas in Palestine and aims to oppose Western and Israeli interests in the region.
When the tide of the Syrian war started turning in the favour of Iran and its allies in late 2015, Iran’s regional enemies, including Israel, began to worry. Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict served to enhance the group’s military capabilities and experience as well as encouraging the establishment of several new militias allied with, trained and supported by Tehran. Among them is the Syrian National Defence (SND), segments of which are being integrated into the Syrian armed forces. It goes without saying that the SND is modelled on groups such as Hezbollah and the PMF. The war on Islamic State (IS) in Iraq had a similar outcome. After IS’ defeat, the PMF became the country’s strongest military force. Generally, the wars in Syria and Iraq left the Axis of Resistance stronger than ever in terms of military institutions, capabilities and ideological commitment. Moreover, these militias enjoy Iranian backing. These facts are troubling for Iran’s enemies who see the militias as Iranian proxies.
While Iran’s regional clout was increasing as a result of its rivals’ miscalculations in Syria, Iraq and, more recently, Yemen, Tehran signed the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran nuclear deal, with a group of world powers. The deal, according to Iran’s regional enemies, effectively untied Iran’s hands. Although this is refuted by many Iran analysts who see the growth of Iran’s regional influence as a trend precipitated by Israel’s occupation of Lebanon in 1982, which led to the establishment of Hezbollah, and the American occupation of Iraq in 2003, which brought Iran’s allies to power in Baghdad. The Trump administration changed this trajectory by withdrawing from the JCPOA in 2018 and instigating a campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ aimed at bringing Iran to the negotiating table on American terms.
For its part, Israel’s policy towards Iran is opportunistic in many respects and focuses both on Iran’s regional influence and Trump’s anti-Iran stance. First, it aims to minimize Iran’s allies’ appetite for cooperation with Tehran by inflicting as much pain and devastation on them as possible. Second, it aims to create a sort of regional coalition that can normalize Israeli-Arab relations by focusing the Arab threat perception on Iran. Visits by Israeli officials to various Gulf states and the unprecedently open talks on Israeli-Arab cooperation is illustrative of this policy. Third, and also focused on the Arab threat perception, it is aimed at establishing a regional front against Iran’s influence, portraying Iran as a threat not only to Israel but to the Arabs more broadly. Israel’s announcement of its readiness to join a US-led maritime coalition to secure the strategic Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf should be seen as part of this. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hinted at this, saying that Israel cannot defend itself, let alone defend others. Fourth, and most importantly for the moment, it is meant to keep American pressure focused on Iran. As such, whenever a mediation between Iran and the United States (US) seems imminent, Israel initiates attacks.
Generally, the opportunity Netanyahu sees in the US’ maximum pressure campaign and the regional changes brought about by the defeat of Iran’s enemies in Syria and Iraq are also driving Israel’s escalation. At the same time, many analysts see Netanyahu’s military attacks as an attempt to win favour with Israeli voters in the 17 September 2019 elections, following his failure to form a coalition government after the elections in April. The fact that Netanyahu accepted responsibility for the attacks and said that Iran will not be immune anywhere backs this premise – previous Israeli governments have not had a tradition of accepting their role in attacks beyond their borders.
From the perspective of Iran and its allies, the attacks are Israel’s attempt to establish a new equilibrium in its collision course with them. By attacking Iranian allies across the region, the Israeli military is trying to break the deterrence the Axis of Resistance enforced over the course of two decades. As such, the Axis of Resistance is moving towards an eye-for-an-eye strategy. Hezbollah’s retaliation for the drone drones in Beirut, which came days after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced there will be no red line vis-à-vis Israeli aggression, indicates a recognition by the Lebanese group that its deterrence strategy is no longer working. In a speech after the incident, Nasrallah said that any Israeli drone entering Lebanese airspace will be downed and that Hezbollah has the capability to do so.
His threat followed Iran’s downing of an American spy drone in the Persian Gulf as well as its detention of a British oil tanker in retaliation for Britain detaining an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar. As Iran’s Supreme Leader put it, “The time of hit and run is over.” In other words, any attack on Iran or its allies will elicit a proportional response. Another instance of the new strategy being implemented is PMF leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis’ announcement that the PMF will establish its own air force, giving it the capability to defend itself against Israeli aggression.
While Israel’s military actions against Hezbollah and other Iranian allies have been mounting, the responses to these actions suggest a new phase in the regional power games. As deterrence has been the essence of Iran’s alliance-building with regards to Israel and the United States more broadly, Hezbollah and Iran’s proportional response to Israel’s attacks and the deployment of American military assets in the Persian Gulf suggests proportionality is increasingly being seen as a means to uphold and validate their deterrence. In addition to the escalating tensions this tit-for-tat behaviour brings about, it also increases the likelihood of full-blown military confrontation. Whether Israel will ignore Hezbollah’s no-red-line threat and continue its attacks remains to be seen. However, Iran and its allies have made their position clear: any attack will be dealt with in a proportional way.