Following a bipartisan congressional tour of the Middle East, including Israel, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) stated that “southern Lebanon is where the next war is coming.” He also revealed that Israeli officials requested from the congressional delegation diplomatic support if Israel were to strike civilian targets under the pretext of targeting Hezbollah’s alleged rocket factory.
If Israel were to attack Lebanon, it would not just embark on a new showdown with Hezbollah. It would likely come up against a regional Shiite army.
Although Hezbollah’s participation in the war in Syria may have lowered its standing in the Sunni world, the organization’s reputation in the Shiite world has skyrocketed in recent years.
For instance, just a few weeks ago the tenth anniversary commemoration of the death of Hezbollah’s former top military commander Imad Mughnieh took place not just in Lebanon but also in Tehran, which featured an hours-long speech by the commander of the Quds force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Major General Qassem Suleimani.
Even more interesting and significant was the ceremony held on this occasion in Baghdad, where the speakers included the head of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis (also known as the leader of the Iraqi “Hezbollah brigades”), and the leader of the Iraqi Shiite Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq group Sheikh Qais al-Khazali. Meanwhile, the secretary general of the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba movement—an Iraqi Shiite group that participated in the fight against the Islamic State—said at this year’s commemoration in Lebanon that “the Iraqi resistance will stand with Hezbollah in any Israeli attack or action against it.”
Iraqis even earlier showed signs of their readiness to come to the aid of Hezbollah in any future war with Israel. In December last year al-Khazali visited the southern Lebanese border overlooking northern Israeli settlements. Dressed in military uniform, he stood with two other unidentified uniformed men and declared his “full readiness to stand with the Lebanese people” and his support for “resistance fighters.”
All of these developments greatly boost the credibility of statements made by Secretary General of Hezbollah Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. An Israeli attack, he warned back in June, “would open the door for hundreds of thousands of fighters from all over the Arab and Islamic world to participate in this fight—from Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan.” It was indeed the first such warning of its kind made by Hezbollah’s secretary general to Israel, and a clear sign of the regional clout Hezbollah has attained.
It is difficult to overestimate the strength of the ideological bonds between Hezbollah and its regional Shiite allies. The Lebanese movement was the first to send fighters to Syria to protect the shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab in Damascus. The Sayyidah Zaynab shrine is one of the most cherished and sacred shrines for Shiites. Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria also allowed it to interact directly with Shiite fighters coming from Afghanistan and Pakistan to join the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), Al-Nusra, and other Wahhabi-inspired terrorist groups trying to topple the Syrian government. Such interaction has even further strengthened the bonds.
In Iraq, meanwhile, Hezbollah played a very important advisory and training role for the Iraqi groups that fought and defeated IS terrorists. In Iraq, too, the Lebanese movement helped protect shrines considered sacred by the international Shiite community. Unlike Syria, where the battle against Wahhabi-inspired terrorists rages on, the Iraqis have actually succeeded in defeating the terrorists (militarily at least). Hence, the Iraqis are not preoccupied with their own battles and seem keen on returning the favor to Hezbollah if another war breaks out with Israel.
Given that Israel failed to defeat Hezbollah in its war in Lebanon in 2006, it’s difficult to imagine Israel succeeding in a war against both Hezbollah and its newfound regional network of Shiite allies. And at the same time not only is Hezbollah’s missile arsenal a lot larger and more dangerous than it was in 2006, but it has also gained vast experience alongside its allies in offensive operations against IS and similar groups.
The Trump administration and Congress for their part would do well to pay attention to the fact that an Israeli war in Lebanon could put the lives of US troops in danger this time. Unlike 2006, Hezbollah’s Iraqi allies may very well target US troops stationed in Iraq in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel. The US also now has around 2,000 troops stationed in northeastern Syria that also represent a valuable target for Hezbollah and its regional allies if Israel were allowed to embark on another military operation in Lebanon.
Ali Rizk has been working in the field of journalism since 2003 including five years in Iran. He is a contributor to Al-Monitor and Al-Mayadeen and has written for other outlets including the Lebanese dailies Assafir and Al-Alakhbar. He is the former Beirut correspondent for Iranian PressTV. Photo: Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.