- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.
On Monday, Lebanese media reported that Israeli warplanes bombed a target near the town of Nabi Sheet, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley along the border with Syria. Then, subsequent reports offered conflicting information about which side of the Lebanon-Syria border had been hit.
Israeli jets have only begun striking so close to the Lebanese border within the past month. Lebanese media reported at the end of January that an airstrike had hit a Hezbollah communications post in southern Lebanon, but Hezbollah officials denied the attack. Israeli officials have refused to comment on any of the air force’s sorties into Syria and Lebanon.
Since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Israel has conducted at least six airstrikes in Syria, which have targeted military research facilities and advanced missile systems that Israeli officials believe could be transferred to Hezbollah. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said it believes Monday’s strike targeted a Hezbollah rocket installation.
Anywhere else in the world, bombing a neighboring country would amount to a significant escalation — but not so along the rapidly fading Lebanon-Syria border.
The border — to the extent that it even exists — has done little to stop the flood of Lebanese fighters pouring into Syria and fighting on both sides of the conflict. Hezbollah has sent thousands of their paramilitary forces to assist the Assad regime. Portions of Lebanon’s north, from Tripoli and east to the border, have become conduits for Free Syrian Army fighters and supplies. The border bleeds both ways: Syrian jets and artillery have frequently targeted Lebanese towns like Hermel and Arsal, going after Syrian rebels. With a rash of bombings in Beirut and recurring gunfights in the streets of Tripoli, the Syrian civil war has also made itself felt far behind the border.
Syria has a long and complicated history with Lebanon. The two countries were once part of the same Ottoman province, and some Syrian leaders still feel wronged by the province’s enforced division after World War I. Syria has remained a looming presence in Lebanese politics since the two countries’ independence from France in 1943. Following the conclusion of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, Damascus managed the government in Beirut until popular protests ousted Syria from the country in 2005. Since then, the Syrian government has continued to maintain close ties with Hezbollah and other Lebanese political groups. But diplomatic relations have remained strained — it took four years for the countries to exchange embassies — and, as a result, the border became more real.
The Syrian civil war has changed that once more, and the Lebanese government seems unwilling or unable to regain control of the border — or what was the border. Whether Israeli bombs hit Hezbollah targets a few hundred feet inside Lebanon won’t matter much.