By Dr. Makram Rabah
The writer is a history lecturer at the American University of Beirut. He is the author of 'A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975'
As the world anxiously watched the unfolding of the Western punitive strike against Bashar al-Assad, much speculation has risen about the repercussions of such a move and to what extent this military action would trigger a wider regional conflict involving Israel and Iran.
Shortly after the recent chemical attack on Douma, four Israeli fighter jets used Lebanon’s airspace to launch an attack against the T4 Syrian air force base near Homs, killing 14, including seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG). This somewhat anticipated sortie might have gone unnoticed if U.S. President Donald Trump had not issued statements in which he held both Russia and Iran responsible for the actions of the Assad regime.
The helpless Lebanese state, on its part, through President Michel Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, condemned the use of its airspace to attack any Arab state. Yet the most striking element of these developments is the ominous reminder that the real confrontation, which many are dreading, including the Lebanese, is an open conflict that would align Iran and its subsidiaries against Israel.
Coincidentally, the primary reason for both Israeli and the western coalition’s use of Lebanese airspace to launch their strikes is an implicit understanding, not to say synchronization with Russia to avoid any confrontation with its troops stationed across Syria. Yet this same diligence does not apply to the Iranian positions, which do not have the sophisticated Russian air defense, nor the protection of the Russian bases, which is a reality extremely troubling for Iran and its ever-growing militias across the region, and particularly Hezbollah.
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah threatened Israel for its attack on the T4 base, claiming that such “a historic mistake and great folly” would bring it into direct confrontation with Iran. Interestingly, Nasrallah deliberately chose to exclude his own outfit, which has been the target of successive attacks by the Israeli air force.
Hezbollah, a quasi-Iranian entity that reports directly to the IRG command, has become a more menacing threat to Israel after it expanded its bases of operation to Southern Syria with reports of it establishing ammunition and missile factories to supply and augment its existing arsenal. In response, Israel has routinely targeted Hezbollah positions, ammunition caches and even cash convoys, in an attempt to curb and ultimately demolish the corridor that Iran and its various Shiite militias have established, stretching from Tehran to the coast of Lebanon.
Grippingly, both Israel and Iran have kept their side war on the low mainly because neither side wishes for this confrontation to escalate nor do they want to cross their mutual ally, Russia. Simply put, Iran prefers to disregard the fact that, without the close Israeli-Russian coordination, the hundreds of Israeli raids would not have been possible or as effective. In the same evening the Western coalition launched its missiles at Assad, Israel seized the opportunity to bomb Iranian militia positions near Aleppo, a raid that, according to Hezbollah, never happened.
This turn of events naturally burdens Lebanon and its failing economy, whose government wagers on a period of stability in order to implement some of the reforms and steps essential to acquire the funds of the recent donor conference in Paris. While Hezbollah has no interest nor intention to see a strong Lebanese state, it nevertheless wants to avoid an economic collapse and to continue to use Lebanon as a cover. Consequently, Hezbollah prefers to restrict its military actions, at least for the moment, to Syria, while Israel has a hit list of Iranian targets in Syria before they turn to their border with Lebanon.
Until and if such a time comes, the Lebanese as well as all parties concerned have to understand that the current U.S.-led strike against Assad came not as a change to Trump’s Syria policy but rather despite the lack of it. While Trump wished to widen this attack to target Iranian and possibly Russian positions, his hawkish-turned-dovish Defense Minister James Mattis warned him of the repercussions of an Iranian reprisal. Therefore, when the Trump administration does decide to step up its engagement in Syria, their overhauled plan will surely aim to contain and neutralize the Iranian threat despite the repercussions.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah will persist on suppressing and denying the Israeli attacks, and just like it denied the occurrence of the Douma chemical attack as well as the many other crimes they were complicit in, it hopes that the West will continue to live on the legacy of Obama and his apathy towards the plight of the Middle East.
*Opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency