First published in The Times of Israel
Two weeks on from Hezbollah’s claim it would retaliate at ‘an appropriate time’ to Israel’s airstrike inside Lebanon, its consequent two ineffectual attack attempts on the Golan Heights are a far cry from the ‘Party of God’ of old. Together they suggest that the military commitments facing the group as a result of the Syrian conflict are now beginning to outweigh the political necessity of ‘resistance’ to the Jewish state, and that the group is being forced to choose its battles carefully.
Denied at first by Hezbollah, whose Al-Manar TV reported that no attack had taken place, Israel’s bombing of one of the group’s bases near Janta was soon reported by local media, which stated that four fighters had been killed. Forced to respond, Hezbollah downplayed the results of the attack; the first sign that there was little stomach amongst its military leadership for further confrontation with Israel.
This was particularly significant since substantial political criticism has been sparked in recent weeks by Hezbollah’s insistence on including the principle of ‘resistance’ in the new government’s policy statement. This could have been deflected by emphasising an Israeli attack on Lebanese soil, yet the group chose not to do so. Given the deployment of thousands of Hezbollah fighters around Syria however – particularly to its critical, ongoing battle in the Damascus-area rebel stronghold of Yabrud – it is not surprising that fighting Israel has taken a back seat politically.
Syrian regime artillery fire and airstrikes have been targeting Yabrud for weeks, and Hezbollah has been heavily involved in moving to clear the town alongside local pro-Assad paramilitaries and government troops. Such campaigns however extract significant costs in men and materiel, and several rebel groups are already claiming to have killed a large number of the group’s fighters in ambushes over the weekend.
Meanwhile, back in Lebanon the need to confront the threat from Sunni terrorists is taxing the organisation’s military planners. In September 2013 reports suggested that Hezbollah fighters leaving Beirut to prepare for retaliation against Israel had left inexperienced members defending Shia areas, and it is likely the same is true of reinforcements sent to Syria. Given the clear threat posed by groups like the Al-Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades, these reports suggest that any further conflict with Israel would risk leaving these areas vulnerable.
Accompanying these two concerns are fears over the fallout of any Israeli reprisals to a Hezbollah strike, particularly against Shia communities already angered by the cost of the campaign in Syria. The blowback from the group’s involvement across the border has already seen regular bombings and rocket attacks by rebel groups, and to risk adding Israeli retaliation to these in return for political gain would be a step too far.
With no sign of the fighting in Syria coming to an end anytime soon, and the frequency of car-bombings targeting Shia areas in Lebanon increasing, facing these challenges will likely continue to remain more significant to Hezbollah’s leadership than the politics of ‘resistance’. The fact that their rocket-fire ‘retaliation’ was not discovered until the day afterwards is a clear sign the group’s ability to fight effectively on two fronts has been severely curtailed, and the existential nature of the war in Syria means it must take precedence regardless of its political cost.