Hezbollah's next move

Image: Jo Kassis

Since the Hamas attack on October 7, Israeli retaliation has unleashed staggering levels of destruction – with the number of Palestinians killed now exceeding 10. The US sent two aircraft carriers and several destroyers to the region, along with special military personnel, to reinforce its ally and ward off any possible intervention from Iran or Hezbollah.

The latter has been involved in hostilities with Israel on its northern border, which stretches for a hundred kilometers from Naqoura in the west to Shebaa Farms in the east. This forced the Israeli army to maintain a high number of professional units stationed in the area, in addition to maintaining air force readiness and missile defenses. Whether this localized conflict will escalate is now a major question for the region and the world at large.

Far from being a puppet of Tehran, Hezbollah should be understood as a powerful political party, with a strong militia and significant influence in several countries beyond its native Lebanon – Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen. Its leadership and most of its bases consider themselves part of the transnational constellation that owes religious obedience to the Iranian Supreme Leader. But Hezbollah does not operate according to orders and decrees. He himself is a decision-maker in Iranian strategy in the Middle East. The final word on its policies comes from Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah and his cadres. Its relationship with Iran is that of partners, not assistants.

Hamas also has a high degree of autonomy and launched its attack based on its own political calculations – not those of Iran or Hezbollah. It decided that the policies pursued by the Israeli government and its settler population – indefinite occupation and gradual annexation – had reached a tipping point where inaction would prove fatal. This decision was based on a broader assessment of the geopolitical transformations taking place across the Middle East.

Normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel was anticipated for the end of the year. An agreement between Iran and the Americans was in the plans. The proposed India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor, which promises to reinforce the centrality of the Gulf States in the global economy, was fast becoming a reality. In light of all this, the “international community” was ready to further marginalize the Palestinian cause and revive the Palestinian Authority as a flexible alternative to Hamas. Internal and external dynamics convinced the organization that it had to act or accept a slow death.

It is almost certain that Hezbollah had no prior knowledge of the resulting attack. The Lebanese party agrees with Hamas on many issues and has spent years helping it with money, weapons and tactical advice. However, their geopolitical positions are not always aligned (they were on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, for example).

It appears that Hamas's act of desperation – engineering a conflict with the aim of reactivating the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle and maintaining its political relevance – will not have a direct domino effect on Hezbollah. At least not for now. By launching limited cross-border attacks, Hezbollah is signaling its willingness to open a second front if the pulverization of Gaza reaches a point the party can no longer tolerate. However, this restrained form of engagement also gives you space to continually reevaluate the situation, consider your options, and determine your next moves.

These are the issues facing Hasan Nasrallah's forces today. If they went into an all-out war with Israel (and possibly the US), would they be able to stop the Israeli invasion of Gaza and the massacre of tens of thousands of Palestinians? Would they risk decimating Lebanon and inflicting enormous damage on Hezbollah's support base? Would they lose thousands of fighters and most of their weapons? Would they put the achievements of the resistance axis in Syria, Iraq and Yemen at risk? What would they gain from this dangerous course of action? Answers can change at any time. The ideal strategy today may be extinct tomorrow. But for now, it appears this is Hamas's war, not Hezbollah's.

Hezbollah's options – to maintain hostilities with Israel at their current level, to escalate them, or to reduce them – are governed by three important variables. The first is the situation in Gaza. Israel wants to destroy the Hamas and received the green light from the US to commit genocide in pursuit of this goal, although its chances of compliance are highly uncertain.

If Hamas is able to drag out the fighting, inflict significant damage on the enemy, and prevent a total Israeli victory, then Hezbollah will score important political points with minimal sacrifices, simply by keeping Israel distracted on its northern front. The party could thus avoid the dangers of escalation and live to fight another war at a more propitious time.

The second variable is Hezbollah's power base in Lebanon, which, along with the majority of Lebanese society, supports the Palestinians but is hesitant about war with Israel. They know very well that, in addition to having lost their savings in the 2019-20 Lebanese banking crisis, an Israeli attack would threaten their homes and what remains of their vital national infrastructure. Hezbollah is understandably reluctant to endanger and alienate this constituency.

The last variable is Iran and its interests, including diplomatic rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the delicate negotiations with Joe Biden's government over its nuclear technology and the extension of US sanctions. The Iranian leadership knows that both would be disrupted by a major regional conflict – hence President Raisi's cautious stance and his continued lines of contact with the Saudi Crown Prince.

However, as Israel's killing machine mows down Palestinians by the thousands, each of these factors could change. If Hamas appears to be in existential danger, the calculus for Hezbollah may be different – ​​as the loss of that ally could embolden Israel to attack its Lebanese adversary next. As for the Lebanese people, it is unclear whether they will continue to prioritize their homes and possessions amid the proliferation of images of Palestinian body bags.

Could they, instead, be willing to suffer alongside the Palestinians? The Iranians may also have to look again at the balance between their immediate material interests and their nominal commitments to Palestinian liberation. Will they be able to sit face to face with US authorities as they applaud the immolation of Gaza? Wouldn’t that send the wrong signal to its other allies across the region – that Iranian support is fickle and unreliable?

If the situation in Gaza deteriorates to the point where Iran shelves its negotiations with the US, the Gulf states embitter Israel and Hezbollah's base becomes convinced that the party is not doing enough, this could be a trigger for Hezbollah climb. Likewise, if Israel decides to attack civilians in Lebanon and cause heavy casualties, Hasan Nasrallah cannot be expected to sit idly by. For Hezbollah, military intervention is always a political strategy rooted in the arithmetic of gains and losses and the complex field of allies and interests. Its next move will not be decided by Iranian influence or Islamic ideology, but by the demands of pragmatism.

*Suleiman Mourad is a professor at Smith College (USA). Author, among other books, of Mosaic of Islam: a conversation with Perry Anderson (To). [https://amzn.to/479oe1g]

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally posted on the blog Sidecar da New Left Review.

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