The perennial foe Iran, through its proxy’s, has long brought the fight to Israel’s doorstep. But the nature of the threat has evolved and southern Syria threatens to be the flash point for a northern war spanning the territory of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine.
Exploiting the chaos of Iraq and Syria, Iran has long worked to expand what Jordan’s King Abdullah first coined as the ‘Shi’ite crescent ’— a slew of friendly governments and movements in the Middle East that includes Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — thereby creating a ‘land bridge’ from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah represents a key pillar of Tehran’s strategy and a means to directly confront Israel. Nursed into existence by Iran during the 1985 Lebanese civil war, today the US treasury department estimates that Iran provides more than $700 million a year in funding to Hezbollah. Their position within Lebanon has never been more secure, with this month’s general election — the first since 2009 — delivering the movement and its political allies, the Shi’ite Amal party, 70 out of 128 seats. For Israel, this new political reality has increased Hezbollah’s influence over the levers of power within Lebanon and threatens to mobilise the structures of government against it. As Israeli Defence Force Brigadier General Ronen Manelis put it: “De facto, Iran has opened a new branch, 'Lebanon branch - Iran is here.”
A more direct threat comes from Hezbollah’s extensive para-military wing — estimated at 25,000 active combatants with another 20-30,000 in reserve. Its weapons capabilities include an arsenal of short-ranged rockets and ballistic missiles, which have become a nightmare for Israeli war planners. During the 2006 war with Israel, the group launched nearly 4,000 rockets into northern Israel from an amassed arsenal of 30,000. 12 years later, Israel reports this number has risen to 150,000. While likely over exaggerated, Hezbollah none the less maintains the ability to follow through on threats to “cover the entirety of occupied Palestine with missiles.”
Increasing the complexity of the threat is Iran’s attempts to supply more sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah, including the M600—a short-range ballistic missile capable of sending a 500kg warhead 250 km into the heart of Tel Aviv. Israeli warplanes have conducted over 100 sorties on targets inside Syria since the start of the war, halting multiple attempts by Iran to deliver the weapon into Lebanon. For Iran, securing its supply lines through Syria is key to supporting the flow of weapons and logistics to its proxies inside Lebanon.
At the direction of Tehran, the US estimates Hezbollah had as many as 7,000 combatants inside Syria in 2017. The demand for its fighter is so great, that rotations have increased from one week of combat and one week of leave, to 20 days combat. With over 200 small villages across southern Syria, Israel fears the establishment of a Shi’ite militia tasked with liberating the Golan Heights—annexed from Syria by Israel in 1981—could see a Hezbollah styled paramilitary organisation form inside Southern Syria. This new threat is undoubtedly driving Israeli pressure on the US to officially endorse the Annexation of the Golan Heights, increasing the buffer between Israeli settlements and Syria. Following a missile strike inside the Golan Heights, Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, made clear that the movement has the capability and the will to strike back against Israel.
More directly, Iran itself has leased a number of military sites off the Syrian government. Israel claims that these bases, such as the T4 airbase near Damascus, are being prepared for Iranian troops and Shi’ite militias under its control.
Through political organisation and militant group Hamas, Iran’s tendrils are able to reach out into Palestinian territories. Yehya al-Sinwar, leader of Hamas operations in Gaza, has lauded Iran as the group’s largest supporter of money and arms. Sinwar has promoted relations as “returning to the old days” — a reference to the souring of relations that occurred during the Syrian civil war. While the full scale of Iran’s current support is unknown, Iran previously pledged $50 million to the Hamas led government in Gaza after they seized control in 2006.
But, though support for Hamas is likely to continue, the group is far from a puppet and the threat of direct confrontation on behalf of Tehran remains unlikely. For the impoverished Hamas, it has been consistent in its message – war with Israel is not in its current strategic interest, a policy endorsed by Sinwar. For Hamas, it is prudent to accept funding from Shi’ite Iran — despite the inherent tensions it brings as a fundamentally Sunni organisation — while talking down its appetite for direct confrontation.
As demonstrated by the invasion of Gaza in 2014, Israel is not averse to conducting a pre-emptive war. Lasting 51 days, Operation Protective Edge targeted the personnel and military capabilities of Hamas within Gaza. Unlike Gaza though, Tehran’s allies in Syria are not isolated. A limited invasion threatens to draw in Hezbollah and with it Lebanon, opening a war on two fronts that would be of a magnitude more destructive than either side has faced before. As one Israeli Colonel put it: “you see villas, red tile roofs, summer homes… I see rocket rooms, weapons caches, underground compounds.”
Under the banner of pan-Islamism, Tehran has been able to overcome the traditional antagonisms of Sunni-Shia and Arab-Persian relations to rally a diverse range of enemies against Israel. Israel’s response is critical. Iran benefits most when tensions between Arabs and Israel are at their worst, but inaction from Tel-Aviv allows the threat to grow and become more pervasive. Israel’s answer has so far been dominated by the use of airstrikes, targeting launch sites, weapons caches and supply convoys across Syria. But as the threat of an embedded force within Syria edges ever closer to fruition, the question of an Israeli ground strike becomes one of scale and timing.
James Baylis is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.