Is Israel Facing War with Hizbullah and Syria? (JCPA) JERUSALEM CENTER FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS) Vol. 9, No. 22 David Schenker 04/06/10)
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs Articles-Index-Top
-Concerns about Israeli hostilities with Hizbullah are nothing new,
but based on recent pronouncements from Syria, if the situation
degenerates, fighting could take on a regional dimension not seen
-On February 26, Syrian President Bashar Assad hosted Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah
in Damascus. Afterward, Hizbullah´s online magazine Al Intiqad
suggested that war with Israel was on the horizon.
-Raising tensions further are reports that Syria has provided
Hizbullah with the advanced, Russian-made, shoulder-fired, Igla-S
anti-aircraft missile, which could inhibit Israeli air operations
over Lebanon in a future conflict. The transfer of this equipment had
previously been defined by Israeli officials as a "red line."
-In the summer of 2006, Syria sat on the sidelines as Hizbullah
fought Israel to a standstill. After the war, Assad, who during the
fighting received public assurances from then-Prime Minister Olmert
that Syria would not be targeted, took credit for the "divine
-Damascus´ support for "resistance" was on full display at the Arab
Summit in Libya in late March 2010, where Assad urged Palestinian
leader Mahmoud Abbas to abandon U.S.-supported negotiations and "take
up arms against Israel."
-After years of diplomatic isolation, Damascus has finally broken the
code to Europe, and appears to be on the verge of doing so with the
Obama administration as well. Currently, Syria appears to be in a
position where it can cultivate its ties with the West without
sacrificing its support for terrorism.
In February 2010, tensions spiked between Israel and its northern
neighbors. First, Syrian and Israeli officials engaged in a war of
words, complete with dueling threats of regime change and targeting
civilian populations. Weeks later, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah
pledged to go toe-to-toe with Israel in the next war.1 Then, toward
the end of the month, Israel began military maneuvers in the north.
Finally, on February 26, Syrian President Bashar Assad hosted Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah for an unprecedented
dinner meeting in Damascus.
Concerns about Israeli hostilities with Hizbullah are nothing new,
but based on recent pronouncements from Damascus, if the situation
degenerates, fighting could take on a regional dimension not seen
since 1973. In January and February, Syrian officials indicated that,
unlike during the 2006 fighting in Lebanon, Damascus would not "sit
idly by" in the next war.2 While these statements may be bravado,
it´s not difficult to imagine Syria being drawn into the conflict.
The Israeli government has taken steps to alleviate tensions,
including, most prominently, Prime Minister Netanyahu issuing a gag
order forbidding his ministers to discuss Syria.3 Still, the
situation in the north remains volatile. Within a three-day span in
mid-March: the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) fired at Israeli jets
violating Lebanese airspace;4 four Lebanese nationals were charged
with spying for Israel against Hizbullah;5 and Israeli Defense Forces
(IDF) Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told the Knesset Foreign Affairs
and Defense Committee that the Shiite militia was "building up its
forces north of the Litani (river)." Currently, according to
Ashkenazi, the border was calm, "but this can change."6
It´s easy to see how the situation could deteriorate. Hizbullah
retaliation against Israel for the 2008 assassination of its military
leader Imad Mugniyyeh could spark a war. So could Hizbullah firing
missiles in retribution for an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear
facilities. The transfer of sensitive Syrian technology to the Shiite
militia could also prompt an Israeli strike. Regrettably, even if
Israel continues to try and diffuse tensions in the north, given the
central role Tehran has in determining Hizbullah policy, a third
Lebanon war may be inevitable.
Martyrs Month Pronouncements
In mid-February, Hizbullah held the annual commemoration for its
pantheon of heroes, a week of celebrations marking the organization´s
top three martyrs - founding father Ragheb Harb, Secretary General
Abbas Mussawi, and military leader Imad Mugniyyeh. On February 16 -
Martyred Leaders Day - Nasrallah gave a speech where he defined a
new, more aggressive posture toward Israel, upping the ante in the
militia´s longstanding "balance of terror" strategy. Promising parity
with Israeli strikes on Lebanon, Nasrallah threatened:
If you [Israel] bomb Rafik Hariri international airport in Beirut, we
will bomb Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. If you bomb our docks, we
will bomb your docks. If you bomb our oil refineries, we will bomb
your oil refineries. If you bomb our factories, we will bomb your
factories. And if you bomb our power plants, we will bomb your power
With current estimates suggesting that Hizbullah now possesses in
excess of 40,000 missiles and rockets, Nasrallah´s threats have some
resonance. Raising tensions further are reports that Syria has
provided Hizbullah with the advanced, Russian-made, shoulder-fired,
Igla-S anti-aircraft missile, which could inhibit Israeli air
operations over Lebanon in a future conflict.8 The transfer of this
equipment had previously been defined by Israeli officials as a "red
line."9 It is unclear whether such a transgression remains a casus
In addition to laying out Hizbullah´s new targeting strategy,
Nasrallah also discussed his yet unfulfilled pledge to retaliate
against Israel for the 2008 killing of Mugniyyeh. Two years ago,
immediately after the assassination, Nasrallah declared an "open war"
against Israel, swearing vengeance for the group´s martyred leader.
However, to date, the militia´s attempts to strike Israeli targets -
in Azerbaijan and Turkey - have failed.10 During his speech,
Nasrallah reiterated Hizbullah´s commitment to retaliate. "Our
options are open and we have all the time in the world," he said,
adding, "What we want is a revenge that rises to the level of Imad
The Damascus "Resistance" Summit
In recent years, meetings between Assad and Ahmadinejad have been
routine occurrences. It has also been customary for senior Syrian and
Iranian officials to visit their respective capitals - and to sign
defense or economic agreements - immediately following meetings
between the Assad regime and U.S. officials. So it came as little
surprise that Ahmadinejad arrived in Damascus just days after
Undersecretary of State William Burns departed the Syrian capital.
The surprising part about his visit was that Hassan Nasrallah joined
the presidents for dinner.
On the day before Nasrallah´s visit, Assad and Ahmadinejad made great
efforts to demonstrate that Washington´s transparent efforts to drive
a wedge between the thirty-year strategic allies had failed. In a
press conference on February 25, Assad famously mocked U.S. Secretary
of State Hilary Clinton and the administration´s gambit to split
Syria from Iran, announced the end of visa requirements for travel
between the two states, and described "support for the resistance [a]
s a moral and national duty in every nation, and also a [religious]
legal duty."12 He also said that he discussed with his Iranian
counterpart "how to confront Israeli terrorism."
While the Syria-Iran bilateral meeting and subsequent press
conference was described in some detail by Assad regime insider
Ibrahim Humaydi in the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, far less is known
about what Assad, Ahmadinejad, and Nasrallah discussed during their
dinner meeting the next day. According to the account in Hizbullah´s
online magazine Al Intiqad, the meeting was about "the escalating
strategic response of the axis of the confrontationist, rejectionist,
and resistance states" to the U.S.-Israeli threat.13 Significantly,
this article also suggested that war with Israel was on the horizon.
Resorting to the most extreme decision - that is, launching and
setting a war on its path - will decide the final results. In any
case, if reasonable calculations prevail, they will lead to producing
comprehensive and specific [Israeli] compromises or it will lead to
postponing the war which still waits for its most appropriate time
Based on its analysis of the trilateral summit in Damascus, this
Hizbullah organ seems to be suggesting that a war, while not
imminent, is inevitable.
The Weak Link
In the summer of 2006, Syria sat on the sidelines as Hizbullah fought
Israel to a standstill. After the war, Assad, who during the fighting
received public assurances from then-Prime Minister Olmert that Syria
would not be targeted, took credit for the "divine victory."15 Since
then, Syria has upgraded its rhetorical and materiel support for the
Shiite militia.16 Damascus has helped Hizbullah to fully rearm,
reportedly providing the militia with cutting-edge Russian weaponry
from its own stocks. In this context, Syrian officials have been
increasingly trumpeting their support for, and loyalty to, the
resistance, so much so that the official government-controlled Syrian
press now proclaims that "Syrian foreign policy depends on supporting
Damascus´ support for "resistance" was on full display at the Arab
Summit in Libya in late March 2010. According to reports, at the
meeting Assad urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon
U.S.-supported negotiations and "take up arms against Israel,"
imparting his own experience that "the price of resistance is not
higher than the price of peace."18 During his speech before his
fellow Arab leaders, Assad was equally hard-line in his
prescriptions. At a minimum, he said, Arab states should cut off
their relations with Israel. The "maximum" - and presumably
preferable - policy option, he said, would be to support the
Despite the rhetoric, however, it´s not clear that Syria is presently
itching for a fight with Israel. After years of diplomatic isolation,
Damascus has finally broken the code to Europe, and appears to be on
the verge of doing so with the Obama administration, which recently
announced the posting of a new ambassador and indicated a willingness
to revise sanctions and modify U.S. economic pressures on Damascus.20
Currently, Syria appears to be in a position where it can cultivate
its ties with the West without sacrificing its support for terrorism.
War would change this comfortable dynamic. In the event of an Israel-
Hizbullah conflagration, pressures on Syria to participate would be
intense. Furthermore, could Syria really watch an Israeli attack on
Iran´s nuclear facilities without responding? After so much crowing
about its support for Hizbullah and its regional ilk, could Syria sit
out yet another fight?
While it´s too early to predict the timing or the trigger, on
Israel´s northern border there appears to be a growing sense that war
is coming. Iran may have an interest in maintaining Hizbullah´s
arsenal until an Israeli strike. Likewise, for Hizbullah, which
lately has been playing up its Lebanese identity in an effort to
improve its image at home, waging war on Israel on behalf of Iran
could be problematic. In any event, it is all but assured that a war
on Israel´s northern front will be determined, at least in part, by
In early February, Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak told the
IDF: "In the absence of an arrangement with Syria, we are liable to
enter a belligerent clash with it that could reach the point of an
all-out, regional war."21 Regrettably, regardless of what happens
between Syria and Israel in the coming months, the decision of war or
peace with Hizbullah may be out of Israel´s hands.
* The author would like to thank his research assistant Cole Bunzel
for his excellent assistance in the preparation of this article.
1. "Full Text of H.E. Sayyed Nasrallah Speech on Day of Martyred
2. "Syria Will Back Hizbullah Against IDF," Jerusalem Post, January
6, 2010. Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem echoed this threat in
February 2010; see "Al-Mouallem at Press Conference with Moratinos,"
SANA, February 4, 2010.
3. Attila Somfalvi, "Bibi Tells Ministers to Keep Mum on Syria,"
Ynet, February 4, 2010, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-
3844619,00.html. Netanyahu also reassured Syria that Israel remained
interested in peace.
4. "Lebanese Army Fires on Israeli Warplanes," AFP, March 21, 2010,
5. "Lebanon Charges Four with Spying for Israel," Press TV, March 20,
6. Amnon Meranda, "Ashkenazi: Hamas Doesn´t Want a Flareup," Ynet,
March 23, 2010, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-
7. "Nasrallah Speech on Day of Martyred Leaders."
8. See, for example, Barak Ravid, "Israel Warns Hizbullah: We Won´t
Tolerate Arms Smuggling," Ha´aretz, October 12, 2008,
9. "Report: Hizbullah Trains on Missiles," UPI, January 17, 2010,
10. See Yossi Melman, "Hizbullah, Iran Plotted Bombing of Israeli
Embassy in Azerbaijan," Ha´aretz, May 31, 2009,
http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1089204.html. Also Avi
Isaacharoff, "Turkish Forces Foil Attack on Israeli Target,"
Ha´aretz, December 9, 2009,
11. "Nasrallah Speech on Day of Martyred Leaders."
12. Ibrahim Humaydi, "Al Asad: Ta‘ziz al-‘alaqat bayna duwal al-
mintaqa tariq wahid li-l-qarar al mustaqill," Al Hayat, February 26,
13. "Qimmat Nejad-Al-Asad-Nasrallah: Ayy hisabat ba‘daha?"
15. "Speech of Bashar Asad at Journalist Union 4th Conference,"
August 15, 2006,
16. In addition to the Igla-S anti-aircraft missile, some unconfirmed
reports indicate that Syria may have transferred some of its Scud-D
missiles - capable of delivering chemical warheads - to Hizbullah.
17. "Junblatt wa-l-Tariq ila Dimashq," Al Watan, March 10, 2010,
http://alwatan.sy/dindex.php?idn=75718. That support for resistance
is central to Syrian foreign policy comes as little surprise: in
2009, Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem volunteered to join Hizbullah.
See "Muallem Says He´s Ready to Join Hizbullah," Gulf News, May 3,
18. "Arab Leaders Support Peace Plan," AP, March 28, 2010,
19. Ziyad Haydar, "Qimmat sirte infaddat ‘ala ‘ajal...wa bila za‘al,"
As Safir, March 29, 2010, http://www.assafir.com/Article.aspx?
ArticleId=3020&EditionId=1496&ChannelId=34736. In an interview
following the summit, Syrian advisor Buthaina Sha‘ban declared
victory for the Syrian position, saying that "an agreement took place
among the Arab leaders in a closed session to support the resistance
and reject normalization" with Israel.
20. Ibrahim Humaydi, "Washington tarfa‘ mu‘aradataha ‘udwiyat Suriya
fi munazzimat al-tijara al-‘alamiya," Al Hayat, February 24, 2010,.
21. Amos Harel, "Barak: Without Peace We Could Be Headed for All-Out
War," Ha´aretz, February 2, 2010,
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