Israel has launched strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria for years, and now its activity against Iran in the region is expanding. Mysterious drone incidents in Beirut have given rise to the question of whether Israel is expanding its target set to Hezbollah in Lebanon, increasing the risk of a broader conflict in the process.
Two drones crashed under unclear circumstances Aug. 24 in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah claims the drones were Israeli; the commercially available aircraft were in fact of the same type that Israel has used before. Whether the drones malfunctioned, were disabled or were intentionally sent to crash remains unclear. Israel has not claimed the drones, but it commonly refuses to acknowledge operations abroad.
In an Aug. 25 speech, Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah threatened to retaliate against Israel for the incidents, which he described as the first Israeli attack on Lebanon since the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war there. Nasrallah added that Hezbollah would shoot down any other Israeli aircraft flying over Lebanon in the future. Notably, even Lebanese President Michel Aoun said the incident represented an "act of war." Meanwhile, Hezbollah media reported an Israeli attack on the Syria-linked Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command on Aug. 26 near Qusaya in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon, an area where the militant Palestinian group was not previously known to operate.
Why It Matters
The activities in Lebanon over the weekend stand out from Israel's recent approach to its northern neighbor and adversary. While Israel and Hezbollah have engaged in border skirmishes and other isolated clashes since 2006, this is the first suspected Israeli-related incident in Beirut. Israel has avoided striking at Hezbollah directly in Lebanon in large part because of the inherent risk of triggering a serious escalation: Hezbollah could well assume that any strikes are merely the first wave of a surprise attack that could knock out its key missiles and other infrastructure, compelling it to respond quickly.
Regardless of whether the drones were Israeli, Nasrallah's charges indicate the militant group may be more willing to attack Israel than it has been recently. Hezbollah has long been careful not to be too aggressive against Israel out of its own fears of triggering an all-out conflict. At the same time, it wants to deter Israel from any repeat incursions and wants to satisfy its supporters' desire for revenge against Israel. This plus the willingness of Lebanese government officials to call the incidents an act of war mean the threshold for a Lebanese response is lower than it typically is.
Hezbollah-Israel tensions alone carry the risk of erupting into open conflict, but now they are combined with rising U.S.-Iran tensions and Israeli-Iranian tensions, increasing the chances of a regional conflict. The Beirut drone incidents came amid a handful of other attacks attributed to Israel against Iranian-linked groups. Israel conducted airstrikes on Iranian-affiliated targets Aug. 24 in the Syrian town of Aqraba, which Israel said were to thwart an Iranian drone attack on Israel. The next day, Israel struck a convoy of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a largely Shiite umbrella group of militias, in Qaim, Iraq, near the Iraqi-Syrian border.
All three incidents represent preemptive strikes on Iran-linked targets that pose a threat to Israel, and they suggest that Israel has detected serious, potentially imminent threats to its security. It also suggests that Israel believes it can safely expand upon its existing campaign against Iranian interests in Syria without incurring a major risk of a backlash or becoming overextended. Israel also probably feels emboldened to expand its aggressive activities due to the firm backing it enjoys from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, backing that could extend to military support should Iran attack Israel.
The risk of Hezbollah retaliatory strikes on Israeli targets is significant, especially given the strong statement by Aoun condemning the incident.
And while not necessarily as important of a motivation, impending parliamentary elections in Israel doubtless factor into these developments. Such strikes make Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look like a strong defender of national security as he faces a major corruption scandal and has faced criticism for not moving firmly enough against the threat of attack from Palestinian militant group Hamas.
What to Watch for
The risk of Hezbollah retaliatory strikes on Israeli targets is significant, especially given the strong statement by Aoun condemning the incident. When Israel has previously attacked a prominent Hezbollah target in Lebanon, the militant group has responded by striking Israeli army targets in northern Israel, killing several military personnel in 2015, for example.
But Hezbollah might instead mount any retaliation from Syria, where the rules of engagement between Israel and Iran and its allies are already relatively well-established; this could keep Lebanon out of play in any subsequent cycle of Israeli and Hezbollah counterstrikes. Hezbollah might well prefer this option given Lebanon's poorly performing economy and Hezbollah's shortage of funds. Any large-scale conflict with Israel in Lebanon would devastate the latter country, and Iran would be much less able to help rebuild it or resupply the militant group than it was after the 2006 war in Lebanon.