Syria, Lebanon and Israel in a Changing Geopolitical Environment
Professor Habib Malik
Lebanese American University, Beirut
The question arising these days is about all of this talk of war and conflict between Lebanon and Israel, and in the broader Syrian theater. Thankfully, it’s all still talk and most likely to remain that way, unless some unforeseen unilateral action or human error occurs.
The situation is actually somewhat altered by the fact that Russia has entered militarily into Syria two years ago, in September 2015. And that has introduced some constraints on both Iran and Israel in very different ways. For Iran, who might have thought they have a free hand in Syria, they have discovered that that’s not going to be the case that easily. Especially now, that Russians, in agreement with the United States, have declared the ceasefire in southern Syria, near the Jordanian-Israeli border. Israel now finds itself having to constantly ensure the deconfliction parameters with the Russians in order for Israel to conduct its interdiction of weapons coming through Syria to Hezbollah and Lebanon. And that is also a constraint – Israel has never had to clear these things in the past with anyone.
Now, given all of this and the high rhetoric on both sides of the border – Syria, Lebanon and Israel – the sense that one gets is that the way to avoid war and conflict would be for Israel and Russia to cooperate. And recently the Russian defense minister Sergey Shoygu was in Israel, and he got an ear fall of Israeli concerns about the security situation. And essentially his response was down to: if Israel was just to address Iran’s presence in Syria, that would be best done either through or in coordination with the Russians, rather than taking any unilateral actions.
There was a slightly disturbing incident couple of days ago when a Syrian anti-aircraft battery opened up on an Israeli plane flying over Lebanese airspace. Nothing happened, of course, and the Israelis retaliated against that particular site. But this is indicative of how things can spiral out of control if that coordination doesn’t take place.
I guess one last point on this has to do with Hezbollah and Lebanon. The Israelis constantly repeat that Hezbollah is really in control of the Lebanese army. That cannot be accurate, because how is then that the US continues to supply weapons and training and sharing intelligence with the Lebanese army, if in fact what the Israelis are saying is true? That would be impossible for the Americans. So one has to temper all these statements down a bit, bring them down to reality. I guess the answer to the two questions, “Has Hezbollah swallowed Lebanon?” and “Can Hezbollah swallow Lebanon?”, the answer to both of these questions is “No”, and “No”. Moreover, I would add Hezbollah knows this, and they steer clear of the attempt.
Lebanon is a complicated sectarian can of worms. And it’s very difficult for any group, no matter how powerful or strong, to actually dominate and control a place like Lebanon.