Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :
Mustafa Fahs
TT

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : Southern Lebanon and Difficult Scenarios 

The unprecedented recent escalation on Lebanon's southern front comes amid domestic and international fears of the situation deteriorating further. Everyone is worried that an open-ended confrontation, which seems possible, or a full-scale war, which remains unlikely, could break out between Israel and Hezbollah.

On the Israeli side, it is said that the top brass has agreed on waging a war, but not its timing or scale. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, where the state does not make decisions of war and peace, acting Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri recently made a visit.

The real objectives of the trip to Beirut differed from those shared with the public. Publicly, the Iranian diplomat reaffirmed the commitment of his government and other Lebanese allies to preventing escalation or a slide into a war sought by the enemy. Behind closed doors, however, in his talks with those who are directly concerned, he took a different posture, suggesting that the eruption of a war is becoming increasingly likely. Several factors have made it more likely, including considerations tied to upcoming political deals in Gaza, Lebanon, and the region. In his speech on the 35th anniversary of the death of his predecessor and “Islamic Republic” founder Khomeini, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made his position on this matter clear.

Most analyses of Israel’s stance on the outbreak of war are based on the assumption that, because they are preoccupied with Gaza, Israeli military chiefs cannot open a second broad front. Burdened by the war in Gaza, these analysts claim, the army cannot fight two wars simultaneously; thus, the Israeli army command prefers to keep things in the north as they are until the battle in Gaza is decided, as this approach achieves Tel Aviv's objectives with minimal losses. Since October 7, Tel Aviv has been systematically destroying Lebanese villages south of the Litani River, effectively implementing UN resolution 1701 through its strikes.

It has continued to assassinate Hezbollah fighters. So far, it has killed 342 of them without engaging in direct clashes. Israel has also been taking the party's military infrastructure apart, both south and north of the river. Its strikes have even targeted areas that are as far as can be from the border, reaching as far as the city of Hermel in northeastern Lebanon. This approach to war, which the Washington Post has called "slow motion warfare," is not opposed by Israel's international backers. However, for the more extreme political leaders in Israel, it does not suffice for eliminating what they perceive as the threat from the north, whose eradication, they claim, requires a full-scale war on Lebanon.

After Israel assassinated its highest-level Hezbollah target so far, Taleb Abdullah, in the southern city of Jouaiyya a few days ago, and the intense rocket barrage Hezbollah launched as it expanded its targets in occupied Palestine, we are once again hearing talk of a miscalculation by either side potentially leading to an escalation that takes the confrontation to a dangerous and destructive place. It seems that Israeli politicians and the broader public want to see a large-scale military operation in Lebanon.

Such an operation might precipitate an open-ended but not fully-fledged war. That is, Tel Aviv could expand its operations to include all Lebanese territories and hit targets in the capital, Beirut, without actually striking Beirut itself. This would make things difficult militarily and economically, disrupting public life in most Lebanese cities. In response, Hezbollah would likely expand the scope of its strikes, hitting targets deeper inside Israeli territory and using larger and more advanced weapons. Indeed, Hezbollah has recently hit Israeli aircraft with surface-to-air missiles, which suggests that it is ready for any outcome.

Politically, Washington has expressed concern about the situation on the northern front, and it is exerting pressure to de-escalate tensions. The US has openly communicated with Tehran to avoid escalation, but it has done nothing to indicate that it is exerting genuine, serious pressure on Tel Aviv to contain the situation. Moreover, Washington has failed to convince the Lebanese to untie Beirut and Gaza.

As a result, attention is turning to President Biden's plan to end the war in Gaza. Both parties have welcomed his initiative but expressed reservations regarding several matters, and the devil in the details could potentially derail the current round of talks. Netanyahu could exploit this situation to obstruct the second phase of Biden's plan, leading to the collapse of the truce and a resumption of the conflict.

Operationally, this would impel the Israeli leadership to vent its frustration in Lebanon. Nothing would make the situation more perilous, however, than the plan being rejected from the outset. This scenario could potentially plunge the entire region into a major crisis that could drive the leading actors into a full-scale war that is not confined to Lebanon alone.