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Dec 4, 2014 | 10:15 GMT

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Analytic Guidance: The Tenuous Balance Between Israel and Hezbollah Is at Risk

Analytic Guidance: The Tenuous Balance Between Israel and Hezbollah is at Risk
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's Note: The following is an internal Stratfor document produced to provide high-level guidance regarding Hezbollah's alleged acquisition of Fateh 110 missiles. This document is not a forecast but rather a series of guidelines for understanding and evaluating events, as well as suggestions for areas of focus.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is in an increasingly difficult position as the Syrian civil war rages on next door, consuming resources and threatening strategic supply lines. Access to advanced weapon systems, including surface-to-surface missiles and rockets, is key if Hezbollah hopes to hurt Israel enough to deter military action. The conflict between the two actors is in an incredibly precarious stage: Hezbollah must threaten Israel enough to prevent an attack, but if the group poses too acute a threat, Israel may decide to preemptively conduct an offensive strike. Complicating matters are the interests and relations between Iran, the principal supporter of Hezbollah, and the United States, an important ally of Israel. It is within this dynamic context that we are examining various reports that emerged in November that Hezbollah has acquired Fateh 110 short-range ballistic missiles from Iran.

Hezbollah Areas of Operation

On the surface this looks to be a provocative move by Hezbollah and Iran that thoroughly threatens the core of Israeli territory. Israel's small size affords it no ground to fall back to or cushion with which to insulate its critical places or populations. The reported range and accuracy of the Fateh 110 would give Hezbollah the ability to strike critical targets across most of the country. Israel often answers threats to its defensive imperatives with preemptive offensive action, and Hezbollah's acquisition of Fateh 110s could easily serve to trigger such action.

U.S.-Iran negotiations also play a role. Though the talks are focused on Iran's nuclear program, tangential concerns inevitably become points of negotiation during any such process. The negotiations have created tension within all levels of the various relationships, but any potential rapprochement between Iran and the United States will not necessarily end the perpetual conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. It is in this morass that we must parse out what has happened so we can understand this standoff and how it will play out.

What to Watch For:

We must first determine how many of these missiles, if any, were transferred from Iran to Hezbollah. As noted, the range and accuracy of the weapons matter to Israel, but the size of the transfer matters as well. Israel has systems such as David's Sling and Arrow 3 that provide defense against ballistic missiles, but this technology is still new and expensive relative to other offensive systems. Defensive technology could mitigate the threat of a few Fateh 110s in a future conflict but would not protect Israel against large volleys.

Israel has targeted weapons transfers from Syria to Hezbollah while they were still within Syria, but striking in Lebanon could ignite a totally different, more serious reaction. Israel must be aware that any conflict with Hezbollah could encourage militants in Gaza (the most active security threat to Israel), rapidly expanding the conflict. Such an expansion to multiple fronts would severely strain Israel's limited resources.

Hezbollah has a different set of constraints to consider. The group is engaged in the Syrian civil war and has even more limited resources than the Israelis. It is essential for Hezbollah that Syria's government survives because it provides the group with supplies and protects their flank more generally. Hezbollah cannot afford to have a hostile actor lead Syria, but committing resources to the country weakens their position toward Israel. In terms of Hezbollah's strength, this is an opportune time for Israel to strike and destroy portions of the organization. In fact, it is this vulnerability that may have prompted the group to acquire Fateh 110s. For Hezbollah, such a move may have been the best way to counter its perceived weakness.

The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States could also be motivating the alleged transfer of weapons. The reports of the Fateh 110 sale followed U.S. proposals to expand the nuclear negotiations into inspections on Iran's missile programs. The transfer could be a direct message from Iran that the programs are off the table. It also shows the United States and Israel the implications of failing to reach a deal with Iran. In other words, the move may be simple leverage for Iran in these larger talks.

Stratfor will continue to monitor this situation to determine how all of the involved actors, especially Israel, react to the reports. If Israel were planning to retaliate, we could expect military activity in their northern sector to accelerate at some point. When conducting any comprehensive strike or assault on Hezbollah, Israel must assume that there will be a serious level of retaliation and position forces accordingly. However, the transfer is likely a political message meant to avoid conflict rather than provoke it. Still, weapons are complicated because they represent a potential threat, regardless of the owner's intention. There is ample room for miscalculation from all sides, which could jeopardize the delicate military balance that Israel and Hezbollah have maintained since 2006.

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