Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Israel this past week involved, among other subjects of common American-Israeli interest, the matter of Iran’s so-called precision-guided missile program (PGM) in Lebanon and Syria. Pompeo’s visit was preceded by a series of alleged Israeli strikes on missile facilities in Syria, including one against a Hezbollah target.
Syria and Lebanon are key to Iran’s goal to ring Israel with missile bases, and as Levantine buffer states, both countries are fated to be theaters of conflict between stronger regional powers. Lebanon long has been a headquarters of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its local unit, Hezbollah. On top of that, Lebanon is disintegrating. What people used to refer to as Lebanon’s economy and financial sector have collapsed; the result of the structural corruption built into the sectarian political system, which is run by a terror group directed by Iran.
As Lebanon collapses, Hezbollah, with the support and supervision of its Iranian patron, is pressing ahead with its program to upgrade its stockpile of rockets. Israel has publicly pointed to sites in Beirut and in northeast Lebanon where Hezbollah has already set up production and conversion factories. Israeli operations aimed at thwarting this project are continuing and are set to increase.
The clash between Israel and Hezbollah that is being propelled by Iran’s missile building program inside Lebanon means that the fundamental assumptions of American policy toward the Lebanese pseudostate need to be revisited, as does Israel’s own increasingly unstable balancing act between its own clear security needs and a misguided American policy of propping up “Lebanese state institutions” that are controlled by Iran.
Israel’s own ostensibly “silent war” against Hezbollah appears to have more bark than bite. On April 15, a presumed Israeli drone strike targeted a Hezbollah vehicle on the Syrian-Lebanese border. The nature or identity of the intended target remains unclear. A report the day after the strike in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida, which has served at times as a conduit for Israeli leaks, identified the target, this time citing an unnamed source in Tehran, as one Imad Karimi. Al-Arabiya, citing its own information, claimed Karimi was an IRGC officer. Whatever the case may be, the first drone missile missed the vehicle. This allowed for the passengers to get out and take shelter in a nearby building. In fact, according to video footage, of the incident, enough time passed between the first and second missiles that the passengers managed to return to the car and retrieve their bags from the trunk.
It’s unclear whether the target was a particular individual or the cargo in the vehicle. If the former, the strike was obviously a failure. And if the latter, it’s an open question whether the targeted cargo was still in the car when it got hit with the second missile. In other words, it’s uncertain whether the strike was successful at all.
Spin from some quarters in Israel soon followed. It claimed that the miss was deliberate. Its purpose, supposedly, was to serve as a warning; a reminder that Israel was watching Hezbollah’s activities and could strike at any time.
Ironically, this spin echoed an article published by pro-Hezbollah writers in Lebanon a week earlier. According to these circles, the vehicle didn’t contain any high-ranking officials, and therefore deliberately was not hit the first time. The intended message, according to this pro-Hezbollah reading, was to remind the group: “We see you. We know what you’re doing in Syria, and your activities are in our crosshairs. You should be deterred. Nothing, not the coronavirus nor anything else, will stop us from watching you.”
Two days after the strike, Hezbollah orchestrated a response designed to mirror the message it ascribed to the Israelis. Hezbollah units breached the border fence with Israel in three different locations. Supposedly, some of the holes cut in the fence were wide enough to pass motorcycles through. Other pro-Hezbollah writers claimed they were wider still; enough to run a vehicle through—a reference to the Hezbollah threat that, in the next war, its fighters will raid communities in northern Israel.
And that was the end of it—on the Lebanon front, that is. Alleged Israeli strikes on Iranian infrastructure in Syria have since continued apace as they have for years. But then, why the need for a “warning” and a “reminder” that Israel is watching? The explanation in the Israeli spin is that Israel is avoiding the killing of Hezbollah personnel so as to minimize the chances of escalation and the potential of full-on conflict at this juncture.
Hezbollah’s interpretation of the message shows that what the group saw was reluctance on the part of its enemy. Notably, one article in the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar linked the episode explicitly to Hezbollah’s PGM capabilities. The article concluded that in spite of the fact that thwarting this capability is Israel’s priority, it is reluctant to cross a certain line.
Hezbollah’s public messaging in the aftermath of the April 15 strike augurs bad things for Lebanon. If the strike was botched, the Israeli Air Force will fine-tune its targeting next time. If it was indeed a deliberate miss, intended to convey a “warning,” the Israeli leadership is bound to see that this stunt was too clever by half and backfired. After all, Israel’s messaging on the buildup of Iranian infrastructure in Syria is that the IAF will keep bombing it until the Iranians recognize the cost and abandon their project. At the same time, if the PGM program is continuing apace in Lebanon, as the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar all but admitted it was, there will be no room for wishful thinking about how to handle Israel’s problem. But the nature of the Israeli ask from Secretary Pompeo in relation to this matter is not yet clear.
There are two strands in Washington when it comes to Lebanon policy. On the one hand, there’s the view, expressed recently by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft, that the United States is committed to supporting Lebanon as a “sovereign, stable, and independent nation.” The way to do that is by “strengthening Lebanese state institutions,” namely the Lebanese Armed Forces, as a “counterweight” to Hezbollah. However, when pushed on what that actually means in practice—or to name any actions that the LAF have taken specifically against Hezbollah—the response usually comes in the form of an incoherent Dada tone poem filled with gibberish about “narrative.”
Those who espouse the “state-building” view in Washington don’t expect the LAF to do anything about the PGM. In fact, they don’t want it to do anything, for that would “destabilize” Lebanon—and prematurely destroy the LAF’s imaginary Hezbollah-fighting capabilities. Instead, the LAF’s job is to allow Hezbollah to build its rocket factories—while developing its own capabilities for a future day when it is strong enough to “take on Hezbollah”—a task for which the LAF has shown zero interest.
Meanwhile, not only is Hezbollah media talking openly about its precision-missile capability, but the group is encouraging the LAF’s deployment along the eastern border with Syria, as its Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah made clear in a speech last week. The reason for Hezbollah’s enthusiasm for the LAF deployment isn’t hard to figure out, the point of the deployment being to coordinate with the Bashar Assad regime and prevent anti-Iranian Sunni militia elements from Syria from entering Lebanon, where they might in fact target Hezbollah. In this framework, American investment in the LAF is hardly a problem for Hezbollah. If anything, it is an asset, protecting Hezbollah’s own dominance inside Lebanon and guarding the group’s flank as its fighters do battle on behalf of Iran.
The second strand of American policy recognizes that the idea that the LAF will someday use its new American weapons against Hezbollah is a pipe dream. The LAF will never address Hezbollah’s PGM program and arms buildup—because it is both politically controlled and physically constrained by the Iranian-backed terror group. Only Israel will fight Hezbollah.
The justification for the second strand of America’s “strengthen the LAF” policy is that American aid is needed in order to build a force for the day after a war between Hezbollah and Israel, in which Hezbollah—and Lebanon—will presumably come out the losers. This view is premised on the idea that such a war is inevitable. It is not premised on preserving stability inside Lebanon. If anything, it’s premised on restoring a modicum of stability following the cataclysm.
Of course, this imagined “day after” role for the LAF is just as misguided and fantastical as the idea that the LAF will actually fight Hezbollah on its own. Just because a fantasy is more modest doesn’t make it any more realistic. Only Washington policymakers could imagine that. An army that can’t and won’t fight with a command structure controlled by a foreign power isn’t going to suddenly become a forceful, unitary structure the day after Lebanon is bombed to pieces. More likely, it will fracture into its constituent pieces—Shia, Sunni, Christian—while most of its soldiers go home to care for their families.
As Lebanon disintegrates and social order frays, faulty American assumptions about the “Lebanese state” are likely to come crashing down—revealing the foolishness of the fantasies constructed by Washington policymakers looking to position themselves in internal American policy debates by wasting hundreds of millions of American taxpayer dollars.
Meanwhile, Israel is looking to stave off a future war with Hezbollah for as long as possible by taking as much preemptive action as it feels it can, while also warning about the inevitability of a conflict if “something” is not done by “someone” to stop the joint Iranian-Hezbollah missile program, which it has rightly assessed to be a strategic threat. The reality, for good or ill, is that Israeli security lies in Israel’s hands alone. It’s not anyone else’s problem. While Israeli talk is pointless, and in some cases counterproductive, the United States can help by ending the merry-go-round of fantasy about “strengthening” a Lebanese state that doesn’t exist, and let the Israelis fight Hezbollah on their own.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.