January 20, 2015
by Avi Melamed
The Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah announced that six of its militants were killed on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights on January 18th.
In addition, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards announced that an Iranian General was killed in the attack. Reportedly, the Iranian general was second-in-command of the Al-Quds Force, the spearhead of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
According to some reports, in addition to the six Hezbollah militants that were killed, a total of six Iranian Revolutionary Guard Officers were also killed in the attack.
Among the Hezbollah militants that were killed was Jihad Mughniyeh, described as Hezbollah’s Commander in the Golan Heights, and the son of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s “Chief of Staff” who was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008. Also reportedly killed was Mohammed Ahmed Issa, described as a very prominent Hezbollah Commander who was in charge of the organization’s activities in Syria and Iraq.
Hezbollah and the Iranian regime hold Israel responsible for the attack and threaten to retaliate. A senior Iranian official formally announced that Hezbollah’s revenge will be painful. Officially, Israel however, has claimed no responsibility for the attack.
Accumulating information indicates that Hezbollah and Iranian officers were present on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights bordering Israel. In that context it should be noted, that according accumulating reports, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards deployed and developed surveillance and intelligence gathering capabilities and facilities in Syrian Army Military bases located east of the Israeli-Syrian Ceasefire Line in the Golan Heights. In addition, accumulating information indicates that Hezbollah aims to initiate attacks on Israeli targets from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights by using sub-contractors that the organization supports who launch sporadic attacks on Israeli Military posts and patrols. One of these proxies for example is a militia called the “Liberators Brigade of the Shab’ah Farms” allegedly formed in March 2013; it is very likely this is a camouflage name for one of Hezbollah’s sub-contractors.
Hezbollah will inevitably strive to initiate a painful retaliation. In a recent television interview Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, announced that his organization has advance missiles capable of targeting strategic targets and interests in Israel. In addition, he announced that his organization has in its possession “a weapon” – in his words “that will surprise Israel.” On different occasions, Hezbollah’s leader has announced that Israeli attacks on Hezbollah, or on Lebanon, will result in a decisive response by Hezbollah.
Therefore, Hezbollah cannot afford to let this attack go unanswered. Yet in my evaluation, not to the degree of generating a direct, wide military confrontation with Israel.
It is likely that the Iranian regime itself will instruct Hezbollah to refrain from a retaliation that might result in a wide-scale military confrontation with Israel.
That assessment stems from the following reasons:
A wide military confrontation at this time with Israel will jeopardize Iran’s two major strategic interests: One is the continuation and longevity of the Assad rule in Syria and the other is the Iranian Nuclear Project.
Hezbollah’s military involvement in the war in Syria keeps Assad in power. As of now Hezbollah is deeply engaged in the war in Syria which threatens to percolate into Lebanon as well. Thus, the time is not right to open an additional front with Israel.
And the other – the Iranian Nuclear Program. The Iranian regime provides Hezbollah with an enormous amount of missiles and rockets – some 100,000 of which are aimed at Israel. That capacity is one of Iran’s most important negotiating cards in the context of the future of its Nuclear Project (on that matter read for example my article “Is War in the Middle East Inevitable?”) (February 2012). A wide military confrontation with Israel could result in substantial damage to that arsenal – hence jeopardizing Iran’s bargaining card.
It is less likely Hezbollah will fire rockets. It is also very possible that in the immediate future one of Hezbollah’s sub-contractors will launch a limited amount of rockets perhaps from the Syrian side or from Lebanon.
Hezbollah will plan the time and the method of its retaliation to take place later on. Hezbollah’s retaliation is likely to take place in the future – not immediately. Previous events indicate that Hezbollah carefully chooses and calculates the method and timing for action.
Given the different calculations mentioned above, the more likely possible methods of Hezbollah’s retaliation are attacks on Israeli military targets in the Golan Heights (less likely along the Israeli-Lebanese border) or attacks on Israeli/Jewish targets abroad.
In my analysis, the method of targeting Israeli/Jewish targets abroad is less likely to take place as negotiations with the West regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program enter a crucial phase.
In addition, given the traumatic impact of the recent terror attacks in Paris on Western public opinion the Iranian regime will be extremely cautious not to be associated with such an attack.
But there is another reason that currently, an attack for Hezbollah abroad is problematic. According to accumulating reports, Hezbollah is currently suffering a tremendous embarrassment. It has been revealed that several of Hezbollah’s Senior Commanders and Officials were allegedly Israeli Mossad Agents. Hezbollah’s Second-in-Command openly admitted that the organization has experienced a breach which is deep and wide. Reportedly, Hezbollah is today reorganizing its units responsible for terror attacks abroad. Thus, this may impact Hezbollah’s ability to carry out a retaliation path abroad in the foreseeable future.
Assuming Israel is responsible for the attack, it is a very significant and multi-layered message to Iran and Hezbollah.
On one level, the operation indicates that Israel has outstanding intelligence capacities.
The attack also signals that Israel will not accept a change in the rules of the game. Over the last generation, Iran has successfully developed a massive armed presence through proxies on Israel’s Northern and Southwestern borders – namely Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. Positioning itself as the defender of the Palestinian cause under the slogan of “The Resistance” (Al-Mukawamah in Arabic), the Iranian regime causes Israel to constantly bleed through war by proxies. This attack sends a clear message that Israel will not allow Iran to extend its hold into the Golan Heights.
Furthermore, the action signals that the Al-Quds Force – Iran’s spearhead and the Elite Executive Forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – has no immunity.
And, finally, the offensive signals, that in spite of Hezbollah and Iranian threats, Israel will not hesitate to initiate drastic measures to secure its interests and to prevent what Israel defines as an intolerable threat. That is a very significant message given the fact that Israel constantly, consistently and decisively defines the Iranian nuclear program as an intolerable threat.