Senior Hezbollah militant Samir Kantar was killed Dec. 21 in an alleged Israeli airstrike against his home on the outskirts of Damascus. Israel Defense Forces declined to confirm the strike and Hezbollah has vowed to retaliate. Both Israel and Hezbollah are seeking to avoid an all-out war, and they will likely be able to do so. However, the assassination highlights the long-simmering conflict between the two sides and the risks of potential escalation.
In spite of Israel's decision not to confirm Hezbollah's allegations of an airstrike, Israeli forces were likely responsible for the killing. A Syrian rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, has issued claims that it conducted the attack itself. But the strike, which involved four long-range missiles targeting an apartment building and yielded minimal collateral damage, was well beyond the capability of the rebels. Israel had a motivation to take out Kantar as well: According to Western intelligence sources, he was planning a major terror attack against Israel in the Golan Heights.
Kantar is a Lebanese Druze militant who spent 30 years in an Israeli prison for his role in a kidnapping and killing in a town near Lebanon during a Palestine Liberation Front attack in 1979. He was released in a 2008 prisoner exchange and joined Hezbollah soon after. Kantar became a prominent member of Hezbollah and has been fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government as well as building terrorist infrastructure in the Golan Heights to attack Israel. Recently, Kantar became involved with the more extreme Syrian National Defense Forces, a volunteer military service organized by the Syrian government and trained by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is also personally overseen by Quds Force leader Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Another target of Israel's strike, Farhan al-Shaalan, was also linked to the Syrian National Defense Forces.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Syrian government loyalists have condemned Israel for the attack, promising retaliation at a time of their choosing. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command), the Syrian splinter of the Palestinian group of the same name, retaliated by firing three Katyusha rockets. Israeli forces immediately responded with artillery rounds fired into southern Lebanon. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command) supports the Syrian government alongside Hezbollah, but the group's principal objective is to attack Israel. It therefore likely supported Kantar's preparations to strike in the Golan Heights. These plans were Israel's primary motivation in targeting Kantar, despite his Hezbollah membership and support of the associated Syrian National Defense Forces.
Kantar's death may spur a reaction from other Palestinian militant groups, but Hezbollah is keen to avoid opening a second front with Israel alongside the militant group's weighty commitment in Syria. That said, Hezbollah's goal has long been to deny Israel the ability to strike the group at will. In effect, Hezbollah has sought to establish a level of deterrence that forces Israel to weigh the costs of potential retaliation. There are signs that Hezbollah has partly succeeded in this goal. Even though Israel has continued its strikes in Syria, it has mostly avoided targeting Hezbollah stockpiles in Lebanon or increasing the rate of its assaults against the group in Syria.
With the latest attack, Hezbollah has pledged vengeance and there is a distinct possibility that the group will seek to retaliate to maintain a credible deterrence. Despite the promises of revenge, the militant group will calibrate any retaliation to avoid triggering a wider conflict with Israel. Rather than risking an all-out counterattack against Israel, Hezbollah is much more likely to stage a limited operation. This could be similar to the January Shebaa farms incident in which militants attacked an Israeli patrol with anti-tank guided missiles, killing two Israelis in the process. This was in response to an Israeli attack that killed Hezbollah and Iranian officers in Quneitra 10 days before.
For its part, Israel also appears to want to avoid escalation. Otherwise, the Israelis would have already struck at Hezbollah while the group is stretched thin in Syria. Even so, Israel has prepared for retaliation by moving an extra Iron Dome battery to the north and has maintained its counterstrikes against militant targets with artillery and air assets. In the midst of all these movements and calculations, the danger remains that attacks could spiral out of control and lead to a wider conflict, even as both sides work to avoid one.