Israel faces dual threat: Potential two-front war and refugee crisis
    Axis of Resistance ramps up attacks

    ANALYTICS  23 May 2024 - 18:10

    Mikhail Shereshevskiy

    Hezbollah, a Lebanese political party aligned with Iran and closely associated with Hamas, has been conducting extensive bombardments of Israel's border regions. Recent reports indicated that the group successfully targeted a Sky Dew military balloon, downing it 33 kilometres inside Israeli territory. This represents the furthest penetration since the onset of the conflict on October 7. The balloon, exceeding 100 meters in length, features a sophisticated radar system designed for the detection of enemy cruise missiles and drones. However, it fell victim to an Iranian-made drone in the possession of Hezbollah. The group is demanding an end to Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

    Conversely, Israel has undertaken strikes reaching up to 50 kilometres inside Lebanese territory. The targets include weapons depots, headquarters, and high-ranking Hezbollah figures. This signals an escalation in the depth of strikes conducted by both parties. Initially restricted to 8-10 kilometres, the strikes have now extended to approximately 50 kilometres, indicating an intensifying conflict involving smaller states.

    Lebanon's Hezbollah, along with Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, the Houthis in Yemen, various Syrian factions, the Assad regime, and Iraqi militias, collectively constitute the so-called "Axis of Resistance." This coalition, aligned with Iran, has gained control over a significant portion of the Middle East, encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and a segment of Yemen. The ongoing conflict essentially revolves around the contest between the Israeli-American coalition and the Iranian "Axis of Resistance," both vying for control over the Middle East. The skirmishes between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Hezbollah fighters, attacks on American military bases by pro-Iranian militias in Syria and Iraq, and assaults by the Houthis on merchant ships and US Navy forces in the Red Sea are disparate components of a broader conflict unfolding on 5-6 fronts.

    Inside Israel today, approximately 100,000 refugees from the northern regions are fleeing Hezbollah rockets, forced to live in hotels or with relatives. Similarly, in neighbouring Lebanon, a slightly larger number of people are fleeing the border region. Israel is conducting strikes near the town of Saida (biblical Sidon).

    At first glance, these events make an Israeli operation against Hezbollah increasingly likely, intending to push Hezbollah's combat formations 10-15 kilometres away from the border, beyond the Litani River. This is precisely what the refugees in Israel are demanding, stating they cannot return home otherwise. Israeli leadership has already voiced such plans. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an operation in Lebanon appears almost inevitable. With his ratings falling, he needs to present himself as a wartime leader and secure victories.

    Additionally, a prolonged conflict could overshadow the events of October 7, when Hamas invaded Israel from Gaza, marking one of the most severe blows to Israeli security systems in history. The refugee problem exacerbates the situation, with 300,000 refugees in Israel, including 200,000 who fled the south due to Hamas shelling, many of whom are part of Netanyahu's core electorate.

    However, waging a land war against Hezbollah will be extremely challenging for several reasons.

    Firstly, without ending the war in the south with Hamas, moving north means fighting on two fronts. Israel's small territory, despite having a large modern army and good logistics, makes simultaneous wars in both the north and the south highly problematic.

    Secondly, the US is pressing for peace talks with both Hamas and Hezbollah. While negotiations with Hamas are ongoing in Cairo, US envoy and mediator Amos Hochstein is attempting to broker a ceasefire agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Israel cannot easily disregard these talks because the US has threatened to cut off ammunition supplies, a critical dependency that could incapacitate the Israeli army.

    Thirdly, Hezbollah differs significantly from Hamas. Many experts regard it as one of the most formidable military forces in the Middle East. With 20,000 to 30,000 trained fighters, many of whom gained combat experience in Syria supporting Assad, and a similarly sized reserve, Hezbollah is a formidable opponent. Israel's previous wars against Hezbollah, from 1983-2000 and in 2006, ended unfavourably for Israel, resulting in losses and withdrawal from Lebanon. The Winograd Commission later acknowledged the failure of the Second Lebanon War, leading to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was subsequently imprisoned for corruption, essentially serving as a scapegoat for Israel's military and political leadership. This is a particularly unpleasant reminder for Netanyahu.

    Israel has no realistic chance of destroying Hezbollah, although it can inflict substantial casualties. Should the Israeli army enter Lebanon, Hezbollah militants are likely to engage in guerrilla warfare, conducting ambushes and heavy assaults on Israeli columns of armoured vehicles and infantry. Hezbollah's extensive underground shelters enable it to evade artillery and air strikes. The group has been preparing for decentralized asymmetric warfare for decades, allowing it to operate with minimal central command. This tactic was effectively employed in 2006, with a network of combat cells coordinating attacks like a swarm of bees, targeting Israel's most vulnerable points, striking, and then swiftly withdrawing.

    The group's rear bases are located throughout the country, as well as in Syria, Iraq and Iran. The group is backed by Tehran and pro-Iranian militias scattered throughout the Middle East. In the event of war, many are likely to come to help Hezbollah.

    The terrain of southern Lebanon, a region covered with low mountains and forests, is ideal for guerrilla warfare, and this factor could be decisive altogether. Heavy equipment columns navigating in narrow passages are extremely vulnerable.

    Finally, in the event of an invasion, Hezbollah will shift its fire deep inside Israel. An Iranian-built missile arsenal of 150,000 missiles, not to mention the thousands of smart missiles and drones it has recently acquired, would allow it to rain missiles on all of Israel for months, paralysing its economy.

    Will pushing Hezbollah beyond the Litani River do much? Its rockets strike at hundreds of kilometres, and the Litani is not the Volga and is not a difficult obstacle for Hezbollah's mobile units, the Radwan special forces. It is designed to conduct sabotage raids into enemy territory, such as the one carried out by Hamas special forces on 7 October. At that time, Hamas militants who came out of the Gaza Strip managed to seize the headquarters of an Israeli division, kill 300 soldiers and take control of 22 settlements in Israel, which they held for several days. There they shot about 900 civilians. Hezbollah's Radwan special forces were trained for just such operations by the same Iranian specialists. However, if the Israeli army had managed to push the Radwan forces behind Litani, it would have reduced the likelihood of such operations.

    The IDF is the most technologically advanced army in the Middle East, boasting an air force capability that surpasses that of most NATO countries. However, Hezbollah fighters excel in asymmetric warfare. Time and again, they have shown that a large centralized regular army is not necessary for battlefield success. The experience of the Houthis in Yemen mirrors this approach. Skilled guerrillas may not defeat the enemy in open combat, but their objective is to bog down their adversaries, inflict unacceptable casualties, and compel them to withdraw. When guerrillas also possess an arsenal of drones and smart missiles capable of striking the enemy's rear, their operational capabilities are significantly enhanced.

    Besides, modern warfare is rapidly evolving. The question of who will master the use of FPV and other types of drones on the battlefield faster remains open. Recent reports by some Israeli media have added fuel to the fire. According to them, Hezbollah is rapidly building up its drone warfare capabilities. For example, the group has used a new type of drone, previously unknown, in its bombardment of northern Israel - they fire missiles at a target and then attack that or another target as kamikazes.

    On the other hand, Hezbollah and its backer, Iran, are not eager for a large-scale war. Iran has built up Hezbollah's missile and political-military arsenal over decades to act as a deterrent should Israel decide to bomb its nuclear program. Additionally, Hezbollah's support has been crucial for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, another Iranian ally, to maintain his hold on Syria.

    "Hezbollah is Iran's strategic asset, its trump card," analysts say. A border conflict with Israel to divert the IDF's attention from Gaza is one thing; a third full-scale Lebanese-Israeli war is quite another. In the event of such a major war, Hezbollah would inevitably be weakened, which is precisely what Tehran wants to avoid.

    In addition, Israeli precision strikes using drones and other weapons have eliminated several dozen high-ranking Hezbollah officers since the war began. It must be said here that some of the military formations of the "Axis of Resistance" are highly motivated, at least this is true of some of Hezbollah's fighters. And yet the organisation's leadership wants to live. The same goes for their handlers in Tehran.

    Hezbollah, Hamas and the aforementioned pro-Iranian militias in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are Iranian proxies - a network of influence that Tehran has entangled in the Middle East. By targeting one element of the network, Hamas, Israel has provoked strikes from Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis and other groups. But they, and Tehran itself, are not interested in a large-scale war with Israel and its US ally. These forces carefully calibrate their operations - Hezbollah, for example, has not so far shelled major cities in Israel. Still, the Iranian leadership, which finances and arms the groups, is not eager to experience the full force of simultaneous Israeli and American air strikes.

    For its part, the US, which fears a large-scale war in the Middle East in an election year, is putting pressure on all parties to the conflict to curtail it. So there is some chance of an agreement.


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