The Third Lebanon War: Not A Matter Of ‘If,’ But ‘When’
Israel reflects on history and weighs its options.
By Ari Lieberman
In the weeks preceding the Six-Day War, Israel was faced with ever increasing existential challenges which warranted resolute action. Israel’s generals correctly argued to the political echelon that with each passing day, Israel’s strategic position became more compromised. The situation was particularly acute on Israel’s southern border with Egypt where the Egyptian army deployed seven divisions including three armored divisions. Official Arab government pronouncements, with ever increasing shrill and belligerence, made clear that the intention was to wipe Israel off the map.
On June 5th 1967, Israel launched a preemptive strike aimed at destroying the Arab armies before they could launch their own attack (some historians have argued that the Arabs fired the first salvo by closing the Tiran Straits). Codenamed Operation Focus, the Israeli Air Force implemented its well-rehearsed plan of action and struck first, catching most of the Arab air forces on the ground and destroying the bulk of them. Contemporaneous with the air assault, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sprang into action, quickly routing the Arab armies in a matter of days.
It was a complete and decisive Israeli victory with few parallels in military history. Israel’s success in the Six Day War was attributed to many factors but chief among them was the fact that Israel had robbed the enemy of the initiative. Had the Arab’s attacked first, Israel would have still emerged triumphant but at a much higher cost in terms of men and material.
The doctrine of preemption is one that is ingrained in Israel’s military thinking. Israel is a small country with little strategic depth and a vulnerable civilian population. Preemption, the concept of striking the enemy first when there is a clear, present and imminent danger coupled with intent to injure, is a strategically sound doctrine and this is especially true in Israel’s case given its unique vulnerabilities, regional challenges and genocidal enemies.
In addition to exercising its right of military preemption, Israel has also acted preventative manner. Conceptually, this doctrine differs slightly from preemption as the threat while real, is not necessarily imminent. In 1981 and 2007, Israel destroyed the nuclear facilities of Iraq and Syria – both implacable foes – after intelligence confirmed that those facilities were capable of manufacturing atomic bombs. Israel has also struck Sudan and Syria dozens of times in efforts to thwart weapons transfers to Hamas and Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is currently mired in Syria’s civil war with 1/3 of its forces actively engaged in Syria to prop up Assad. In light of this, most Israeli experts agree that the probability of war breaking out in the near future is low. The last thing Hezbollah needs now is a two-front war. Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s raison d’être is to serve the Islamic Republic’s interests and do battle with Israel. A showdown with the terror group is therefore inevitable. The only question is “when,” not “if.”
Confluences of several factors make the probability of war more likely in the intermediate term. First, thanks to Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah assistance, Assad’s grip on power is the strongest it’s been since the beginning of the civil war while rebel groups opposing Assad are divided and often battle each other. This development will enable Hezbollah to shift its emphasis and resources toward Israel.
Second, though Hezbollah has suffered substantial casualties since it began its military entanglement in Syria – at least 2,000 of its members have been killed – the group has emerged militarily stronger. It has been lavishly equipped by Iran with modern weapons, including T-72 tanks, weaponized drones, Kornet anti-tank missiles and Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, and thanks to the Russians, improved its electronic warfare and special operations capabilities.
Third, in 2006, Hezbollah was believed to have possessed 11,000 rockets and missile of various calibers and guidance systems. Today, Hezbollah is believed to possess between 100,000 and 150,000 missiles and rockets. To place things in proper perspective, that figure is more than the combined arsenal of all NATO countries, with the exception of the United States. Moreover, with Iran’s assistance, the terror group has managed to build subterranean factories buried 50 meters below ground. These factories are capable of producing everything from small arms to Fateh-110/M-600 surface-to-surface missiles, making Hezbollah partially self-sufficient in arms, a capability that it lacked in 2006. If Iranian claims are to be believed, the Fateh-110 has a range of 300km and carries a payload of 500kg. The missile is believed to possess an accuracy level of 100 m CEP, which means that there’s a 50/50 chance that the missile will fall within 100 meters of its intended target. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has made clear on numerous occasions that his missiles would target a vulnerable ammonia plant in Haifa, Israel’s nuclear research facility in Dimona and other critical civilian infrastructure in any war with Israel.
Fourth, in any future conflict with Israel, Hezbollah will be able to mobilize assistance from other Iranian proxies. Thanks to the Iran deal and concomitant cash infusion resulting therefrom, including $1.7b in ransom payments from the Obama administration, the Islamic Republic has successfully raised additional proxy Shia armies whose members include Pakistani, Afghani, Yemini, and Iraqi recruits. The largest of these militias is the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi, an 80,000 strong force that can easily be transported to Lebanon should Iran call upon them to fight.
Fifth, while Hezbollah never felt constrained by UNSC resolution 1701 – which prohibited the group from operating south of the Litani River and called for its disarmament – it exercised some measure of discretion when operating near the Israeli border, alternatively known as the Blue Line. Today, that is no longer the case. Hezbollah terrorists brazenly operate right up to Blue Line, taking pictures and videotaping Israeli patrols, an ominous development mimicking the situation that existed before the 2006 Second Lebanon War. The IDF has videotaped Hezbollah terrorists erecting observation posts under the guise of a fake NGO called “Green Without Borders.” Repeated Israeli complaints to the United Nations regarding Hezbollah violations of UNSC resolution 1701 and its nefarious activities along the Blue Line have predictably fallen on deaf ears. What’s more, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), a military force created by the UN tasked with enforcing UNSC resolution 1701, has become virtually useless and many Israelis actually view it as a hindrance.
Sixth, Hezbollah can no longer be viewed as merely a separate entity operating alongside the government of Lebanon. Hezbollah and by extension Iran, exercises near full control over Lebanese affairs and has fully absorbed Lebanese state institutions. The Lebanese army (LAF) has openly cooperated with Hezbollah in the latter’s efforts to suppress anti-regime forces in Syria and Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, who is almost certainly on Iran’s or Hezbollah’s payroll, has expressed open support for the terror group. As such, the LAF has been reduced to a mere auxiliary unit for Hezbollah.
Lastly, Hezbollah has transformed south Lebanon into one large armament storage facility without regard to civilian infrastructure and population centers. Hezbollah is utilizing civilian housing to store its wares often providing homeowners with pecuniary inducements in exchange for storage space. This practice of shielding is a clear violation of the laws of war.
Armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is inevitable and can unfold in one of two ways. Hezbollah receives its marching orders from the mullahs of the Islamic Republic. If Iran orders its proxy to attack, it will dutifully obey. Iran would almost certainly employ the Hezbollah card if it is attacked by the United States or Israel.
A war could also begin if Hezbollah miscalculates by provoking Israel with a localized attack along the border. This was the case on July 12, 2006 when a Hezbollah border provocation resulted in full scale conflagration.
In either case, Israel must not allow the initiative to rest with the enemy. As such, it must act preemptively or preventively to rob the enemy of this vital strategic asset. Hezbollah and Iran must not be allowed to dictate the war’s timing and location.
During the Second Lebanon War, Israel responded in reflexive fashion but did so in a haphazard and staggered manner. It first employed its air force but after a few days, the air force began running out of targets. Only in the final days of the 34-day battle did Israel commit itself to a more robust ground assault but by that time, the framework for a ceasefire initiative had already been agreed upon.
Many Israelis bitterly viewed the Second Lebanon War as a wasted opportunity. Though Israel inflicted severe devastation on the enemy, established deterrence and obtained real strategic benefits, it failed to inflict a knockout blow against Hezbollah despite being given one month’s time to do so.
In the next war, Israel will likely broaden the theater of operations to include Syria where Hezbollah maintains a significant presence. It will also likely commit itself to boots on the ground in a more expeditious fashion so as to deny the enemy a platform from which it can fire its rockets. More importantly, Israel will commit itself to total war from the outset in shock & awe-like fashion with the aim of breaking Hezbollah’s back. This is a realistic goal that would have wide regional backing, particularly from Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, which views Hezbollah as a malign influence. Israel would also receive considerable political support from the Trump administration, which is far more sympathetic to Israel than the previous administration.
The next Lebanon War will be brutal and devastating but will be fought with the achievable aim of breaking Hezbollah’s back and degrading its military capabilities to the point where Lebanon can once again reassert its sovereignty. Hezbollah may have dodged a bullet in 2006 but in the next war, it will not be so lucky.