Israel's Free Hand on Syria

By Tony Badran
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Take, for instance, what a source close to Hezbollah told NOW Arabic last month, when Syrian rebels took control of the Rankous border crossing, not far from Nabi Sheet. "The party is present operationally in the areas adjacent to Hermel," the source said, adding, "The Rankous crossing is close to Hezbollah's movement and, naturally, impacts it negatively." However, the source emphatically noted that Hezbollah would not tolerate such rebel presence in this area, as it was strategic for the Shiite group.

Such incursions by the rebels on these strategic border areas, which are vital for Hezbollah's military operations, are probably why the party has been transferring its assets from Syria into Lebanon for over a year now.

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Israel has said that it was tightly monitoring this activity, watching closely for the transfer of strategic, or "game changing" weapons. For the most part, this has meant specific ballistic missiles or perhaps anti-aircraft systems that could complicate Israeli air operations and maneuvers in future conflict with Hezbollah. Although most reports following the strike, including the abovementioned statements of US officials as well as of other "regional security officials," identified the cargo as anti-aircraft systems, it cannot be discounted that the shipment may also have included other weapons, such as certain ballistic missiles that Israel considers "game changers."

Why Hezbollah chose to smuggle these systems at this moment is unclear. It could simply be that, having engaged in such transfers of its assets in Syria for a good year now without any Israeli interdiction, it thought it might be another routine operation. That Israel was able to obtain such detailed intelligence is a testament to its penetration of the organization.

What's more, although Israel prepared itself for possible retaliation, the lack of hesitance in taking out the convoy, on Syrian soil, underscores Hezbollah's predicament. With its Syrian strategic depth in shambles, the Party of God is not in a position to start a major war with Israel.

For Lebanon, however, the incident is foreboding. The immediate precedent to this strike was Israel's bombing of the Yarmouk arms complex in Sudan last October, after obtaining intelligence about a shipment of Iranian Fajr-5 rockets bound for Gaza. This should give the Lebanese pause. Like the targeting of the complex in Sudan, striking the convoy in Syria shows that Israel can go after the smuggling routes and distribution facilities before the weapons reach their destination. However, following the Yarmouk operation, Israel ended up going after targets in Gaza as well. The message is clear: next time, Israel could attack targets inside Lebanon.

The more the situation in Syria forces Hezbollah to smuggle assets it previously thought were best kept in Syria, the higher the risk that it will cross Israeli red lines. Not only has Israel shown that it will have no misgivings about taking action, but more importantly, both this strike and the campaign in Gaza before it did not elicit a word of protest from the US, Europe or even the major Arab states. Israel, in other words, will have a free hand.

At present, Lebanon was spared in part due to Hezbollah's weak strategic position, which constrained its ability to retaliate. And that's precisely why any hope for abiding stability in Lebanon lies in Hezbollah's permanent debilitation.

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Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. Originally published on NOW Lebanon, republished with permission.

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