Israel has been beefing up its defensive capabilities along its borders with Syria and Lebanon since one of its helicopters attacked a vehicle in the Syrian province of Quneitra on Monday, killing a high-level Hezbollah commander and an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general. Setting up a deterrent against — or a counter to — potential retaliation is the logical next step after an airstrike that becomes part of the long-winding narrative of assassination and retaliation between Israel and Hezbollah. The limited ability for either side to escalate the situation to the point of direct engagement, however, is likely to keep the immediate repercussions contained.
The story of how the attack took place, according to unnamed Israeli sources, is that the vehicle was spotted near the Israeli-held Golan Heights and identified as an enemy vehicle, then destroyed by an Israel Defense Forces helicopter. Based on available information, it is unclear whether this account is accurate or whether the attack was in fact a targeted assassination of high-value targets. It would not be the first time an Israel Defense Forces helicopter was involved in the assassination of a Hezbollah leader. For example, an Israeli Apache helicopter strike in 1992 killed Hezbollah Secretary-General Abbas al-Musawi as he was traveling in a vehicle in southern Lebanon.
Regardless of what led up to the airstrike, Israel has since denied that the incident was an assassination and has said it was not aware of the presence of a high-ranking Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps member. Through these claims Israel hopes to avoid an escalation that could draw it into the conflicts that have already engulfed Syria and Lebanon, something it does not desire and that would require it to juggle resources while maintaining a basic capacity to respond to other potential threats in other parts of Israel.
Nevertheless, Israel has spent the past 24 hours preparing for retaliation. Israel Defense Forces deployed an Iron Dome air defense battery on Israel's northern borders, called up reserve units to support the battery's deployment and canceled other units' leave. Elsewhere there are reports of increased Israeli Air Force activity over southern Lebanon and of transport trucks carrying tanks and armored personnel carriers to northern Israel — areas where Hezbollah would be expected to respond.
A typical element of a retaliatory attack by Hezbollah would be the launching of artillery rockets into Israel. While the newly deployed Iron Dome battery would intercept rockets threatening specific locations, a broader presence of air assets, including drones, fighter aircraft and helicopters, will seriously deter any rocket-launching crews in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah will be reluctant to attempt rocket launches, knowing Israel has an intensive surveillance capability and the immediate availability of aircraft to conduct airstrikes in response to an observed launch, or even the preparation for one.
With these factors in mind, as well as the involvement of Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Syrian conflict, a significant retaliation is unlikely in the short term. Unnamed Hezbollah members reportedly told a Hezbollah-affiliated news outlet in Lebanon that a response would occur but it would be limited so as to avoid an escalation to war. With the amount of manpower and resources Hezbollah has set aside for operations in support of Bashar al Assad in Syria, as well as its operations in Lebanon itself, the group simply cannot afford to be stretched so thin by a confrontation with Israel. Iran may have more room than Hezbollah to push for retaliation, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is also actively involved in conflicts in both Syria and Iraq and is devoting considerable attention to defending its position back home.
Although Hezbollah or Iran may not retaliate immediately or directly, that does not mean there will be no response. In the long back and forth between Israel and Hezbollah, retaliatory attacks have been delayed or have taken place in other parts of the world. For instance, in response to the al-Musawi strike, Hezbollah and Iran attacked the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.
The current situation could play out in much the same way. There could be a terrorist-style attack against any Israeli presence anywhere Hezbollah operates — something like the 2012 bus bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria — perhaps after the mourning period has passed. While the Israeli military braces to shield northern Israel from immediate retaliation, Israeli security services will also be focused on potential threats to Israeli interests abroad.