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Hezbollah's Syrian chessboard amid Israel's war on Gaza

Hezbollah's Syrian chessboard: Navigating retaliation against Israel without war
6 min read
23 January, 2024
Analysis: Hezbollah might view Syria as a strategic option from which to retaliate against Israel without entangling itself in a larger conflict.

Concerns of a regional conflict have significantly heightened due to intensified Israeli attacks against Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon.

The recent assassinations of Hamas' deputy leader, Saleh al-Arouri, and senior Hezbollah commanders pose a significant risk of unravelling the fragile understanding of the rules of engagement between the neighbouring rivals.

This implicit understanding has, until now, effectively prevented escalations between the two sides from getting out of hand.

The significance of these targeted figures and the expansion of attacks into the Hezbollah-controlled southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh may compel the party to respond more forcefully to deter future attacks, risking a point of no return.

Most speculation in this regard has centred on the nature and extent of counterattacks that will be launched from Lebanon.

However, it is imperative to acknowledge that Lebanon might not be the sole arena from which the party can retaliate. Syria, where Hezbollah maintains a robust presence and significant alliances, presents a viable alternative that should not be overlooked.

On 3 January, an Israeli drone strike killed al-Arouri and six other Hamas members. While tit-for-tat skirmishes have occurred along the border since October, the assassination marked the most notable attack against Hezbollah to date. It was also the first assault on Dahiyeh since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

Despite its significance and the risks it posed, the high-profile assassinations continued with the targeting of senior Hezbollah commanders in southern Lebanon. The most notable of these was the senior commander in the group’s elite Radwan force, Wissam al-Tawil, who was killed in a drone attack on his car in Khirbet Selm in southern Lebanon on 8 January.

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In response to Arouri's killing, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vehemently vowed that the incident would not go unanswered. Shortly after, the group reportedly targeted a crucial Israeli military post with a barrage of 62 rockets, framing it as a mere "preliminary response".

Following Tawil's killing, the group also attacked an Israeli army base with explosive drones deployed from Lebanon on 9 January. However, these attacks are unlikely to be the last, given the unwillingness of either side to shy away from further retaliation.

Notably, Hezbollah made it clear that they are not averse to war if Israel pursues such a course. However, its leader Nasrallah underscored a measured strategy, stating, "For now, we are fighting on the frontline following meticulous calculations".

Fundamentally, the group is navigating a retaliatory course while endeavouring to avoid provoking a full-scale conflict with Israel.

People carry the coffin of Hamas deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri, assassinated by an Israeli drone strike in Beirut on 4 January 2024. [Getty]

Retaliation without war

In this context, the group might view Syria as a strategic option that provides a way for retaliation without necessarily entangling itself in a larger conflict. Lebanon’s neighbouring country has already been in a state of war for nearly 13 years.

Syria, too, has been a frequent target of Israeli attacks over the years. The frequency of those incidents have increased significantly in recent months, reducing concerns about further Israeli offensives against Syria should Hezbollah choose to retaliate from that front.

The presence of numerous Iranian-backed forces, both local and foreign, within the country grants Hezbollah a form of plausible deniability. Thus far, the Syrian government's official response to Israel's conflict with Gaza has primarily involved issuing condemnatory statements and collaborating with regional and international entities to mitigate tensions.

This restrained stance is attributed to Assad's lack of resources and, perhaps more crucially, his reluctance to engage in a direct confrontation with Israel.

Despite this, Syria's frontlines with Israel have experienced heightened activity. In this domain, it is Tehran, not Damascus, that dictates the course of action. Iran’s dominance became apparent through the frequent assaults on Israel-held territories launched by Iranian-backed groups operating from Syria, despite Assad's apparent hesitation.

A notable development in this complex landscape is the recent decision by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group encompassing pro-Iran militias active in both Iraq and Syria, to launch attacks against Israel from Syrian territory.

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This strategic move further allows Hezbollah to mask its involvement. Since the onset of the Israel-Gaza conflict, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq has focused primarily on targeting US bases in Iraq and Syria. Conversely, most of the assaults against Israel from Syria have remained unclaimed, fostering suspicions of Hezbollah's engagement.

However, the situation has recently grown more complex. On 27 December, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq claimed responsibility for a drone attack on an Israeli settlement in the occupied Golan Heights. Israeli sources indicated that the drone attack originated from Syria, marking the first “physical” (real) strike after several earlier claims by the group targeting Israeli interests.

Following this incident, Iraqi militias claimed responsibility for additional attacks against Israel. This development potentially enables Hezbollah to assign the responsibility of launching a retaliatory strike from Syria to the Islamic Resistance in Iraq or collaborate with them to mitigate any repercussions.

People attend the funeral of Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil who was killed in an Israeli airstrike in Nabatieh, Lebanon on 9 January 2024. [Getty]

Equally noteworthy is Hezbollah's and allied groups' capacity to launch attacks from Syria with significant impact on Israel. Initial assaults from Syria were modest, involving mortar shelling across the border into unpopulated areas. However, on 9 November, a drone was launched from Syria and flew over Jordan, hitting a school in Eilat, more than 400 kilometres away from the nearest Syrian territory.

Beyond its remarkable long-distance reach, the drone's ability to operate undetected and deliver a precise strike indicates the involvement of a well-trained operator. The message conveyed by this attack is equally significant - it underscored the potential capability to target any location in Israel from Syria.

While enhanced security measures may mitigate risks posed by such drone attacks, Israel's engagement on multiple fronts and the Iranian-backed groups' capability to deploy numerous, more advanced drones diminishes the possibility of Israel completely neutralising this threat.

While Syria may offer strategic advantages, it is unlikely to shield Hezbollah or Lebanon from Israel's retaliation. Moreover, such a move could have severe repercussions for Syria, potentially placing it at the brink of a regional conflict instigated by Iran’s allies.

Despite the unwavering support of the Syrian people for Palestine, being used as pawns in the conflicts of others doesn't align with how they would choose to express solidarity.

Dr Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and a Senior Consulting Research Fellow at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Programme. He holds a PhD in war studies from King’s College. His work centres on conflict, political economy, governance, and violent extremism in the MENA region.

Follow him on Twitter at @haidhaid22