Likely as a response to the effective Israeli interdiction of convoys delivering high-quality arms from Iran to Hezbollah, Tehran and Hezbollah have decided to build the capability to produce advanced weapons in Lebanon rather than ship them there. The arms set for production reportedly include precise surface-to-surface missiles that can travel long distances and inflict significant damage on Israeli forces and infrastructure, thus crossing a red line set by Israel. The latter’s most preferable strategy is to halt Hezbollah’s production of advanced weaponry in Lebanon by means that do not unnecessarily risk provoking a war. The question that Israel now faces is how to proceed in a way that ensures its red line is enforced, while minimizing the risk for uncontrolled escalation.
On the diplomatic front, Israel has already used several methods to relay the message that it will not accept Hezbollah’s production of high-quality weaponry in Lebanon. Behind the scenes, Israeli officials asked European diplomats to pass Jerusalem’s warning about its red line in Lebanon to Iran, which sponsors and manages the arms project. In the public view, Israel and the United States have cooperated in international bodies and public forums to promote multilateral efforts to oppose Hezbollah’s continued acquisition of advanced weaponry. Senior Israeli officials like the minister of defense have also made unequivocal public declarations that such activities are unacceptable. Public statements are important because they relay to Iran the message that these actions will not be tolerated, at the same time as they demonstrate to the international community that any future use of force on Israel’s part will be a last, rather than first, resort. Although threats and declarations did not dissuade Iran from moving forward, and had a low probability for doing so, Israel was right to exhaust its diplomatic options for resolving this issue before turning to military escalation.
Therefore, in early September 2017, Israel allegedly sent a stronger message to Iran by launching an unprecedented strike from Lebanese airspace on an Iranian-run weapons-production facility in Syria that tested the limits of the current “rules.” This single attack delivered several messages. First, Israel is broadening its actions against Hezbollah weapons acquisition to include production facilities. Second, the strike was reportedly launched from Lebanese airspace into Syria, and this was probably meant as a warning shot regarding the weapons production facilities on the Lebanese side of the border. Third, Israel demonstrated that it will confront Iran as necessary. And fourth, the attack highlighted the fact that Russian air defenses will not protect Hezbollah-Iranian activities that violate Israel’s red lines.
First, Israel may opt to launch a preemptive strike on the production facilities in Lebanon. Doing so constitutes a blatant violation of the unwritten “rules of the game,” and its ramifications are accordingly difficult to predict. In responding militarily to this violation, Hezbollah would likely seek to preserve the existing understanding by punishing Israel’s violation while trying to avoid escalation to full-scale war. In delivering a limited response to the Israeli strike, the group would simply attempt to control the escalation as it has in the past. Unfortunately, escalation control is hardly an exact science; miscalculations have cost many lives along this border in the past, and are liable to do so again in the future. Recalling a previous error that led to the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War, Hassan Nasrallah lamented, “You ask me, if I had known on July 11 . . . that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.”