Israel Is the New Front in the Syrian War

Israel Is the New Front in the Syrian War

On the afternoon of Jan. 28, two Israeli soldiers were killed during a Hezbollah missile attack in Shebaa Farms, a disputed strip of land in the Golan Heights abutting southern Lebanon. Israel Defense Forces positions along the border in Mount Hermon were also mortared. Earlier in the day, following a Jan. 27 rocket attack launched into an Israeli section of the Golan, the Israeli Air Force hit Syrian Army artillery positions.

After the fatal Hezbollah attack, Israel responded again, shelling southern Lebanon and accidentally killing a Spanish U.N. peacekeeper. To some analysts, the possibility of another Hezbollah-Israel conflict, à la 2006, raised its head once more. Yet the current tit-for-tat fighting hides larger moves on the strategic chessboard of the Middle East.

The current conflagration has roots in a Jan. 18 Israeli helicopter gunship missile strike near the Syrian city of Quneitra, in the Golan Heights. The attack delivered perhaps the highest-profile blow to Hezbollah and Iranian interests in Syria since the outbreak of war there. The casualties from the attack, which reportedly surprised even Israel, included an Iranian general and several Hezbollah commanders. The deaths of this group shed light on Hezbollah’s geostrategic machinations, and illustrate just how closely the Lebanese paramilitary organization operates with its Iranian masters.

Among the Hezbollah commanders killed was Muhammad Ahmed Issa, also known as Abu Issa, the only “martyr commander” officially announced by Hezbollah. According to the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, Abu Issa had been a member of Hezbollah since 1985, during the group’s early developmental stages. There were also claims that Abu Ali Tabatabai was killed in the strike. Tabatabai has been described as either an Iranian or as a leading Hezbollah commander in control of one of the group’s major rapid reaction/special forces units, responsible for operations within Israel and Syria.

It was claimed by Hezbollah and repeated by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation that the group was on a “field inspection.” In the Golan, elements attached to Lebanese Hezbollah had engaged Syrian moderate rebels and Sunni jihadi groups such as al-Nusra Front. It was reported in mid- to late-2014 that some rebel elements had launched offensives in the area. Nusra, in particular, had been advancing near the town of Quneitra. In areas directly abutting the Golan, widely known as the “southern front,” moderate rebel advances have been increasingly billed as a potential alternative model to Bashar al-Assad or jihadi rule. For Hezbollah, the rebel advances in the southern front were another thorn in its side in the mission to bolster Assad and craft a new secure front against Israel.

The strategic importance of this region was further underlined by the presence of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, who, along with five other Iranians, was among those killed in the Jan. 18 Israeli strike.

Tehran had promised to respond to the attack; a day before the Jan. 28 retributive strike it even reportedly went through “diplomatic channels” with the United States to once more threaten Israel with a response. The killing of a high-ranking Iranian military leader who was directly cooperating with Hezbollah commanders comes on the heels of increasing reports of open IRGC activity in Lebanon. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have been active in the Syria campaign, coordinating operations with Hezbollah against moderate Syrian rebel forces and Sunni jihadis, but they have continued to lose members in Syria. As far back as August 2012, Syrian rebels claimed to have kidnapped over 40 Iranians associated with the Revolutionary Guards. Losses aside, Iran and its proxies have larger strategic aims than simply winning territory back from Sunni rebel and jihadi groups.

The youth brigade

A particular casualty illustrates these goals. The most well-known and well-publicized Hezbollah member to die in the Jan. 18 attack was Jihad Imad Mughniyeh, the son of Hezbollah’s terror mastermind Imad Mughniyeh. Jihad’s father, who likely involved in the 1983 bombing of U.S. and French peacekeepers in Beirut and the 1983 bombings in Kuwait, and was indicted in the United States for his involvement in the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, was killed in a murky Damascus car bomb assassination in early 2008. Like his father before him, Jihad Mughniyeh’s funeral was held in the Hezbollah-dominated neighborhood of Dahiyeh, south of Beirut, and was attended by thousands. Mourners shouted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” as the casket was carried through the throngs of Hezbollah supporters.

Jihad’s pedigree was a key element of his rise within Hezbollah, but nepotism was not the sole reason. While the younger Mughniyeh had the wasta, he seemingly followed in the path of other Hezbollah fighters. As a child he was a member of Hezbollah’s Imam al-Mahdi Scouts, an organization that serves as an incubator for youths to later become full Hezbollah members and fighters. Reportedly, photos emerged on Hezbollah-linked social media showing Jihad taking part in parades for the group. Still, claims of his military prowess have remained elusive.

While little confirmable information exists regarding how Jihad moved up the ranks within Hezbollah, a number of reports had surfaced claiming he was active within Syria. In late 2013, Free Syrian Army intelligence sources claimed Jihad was presented with command over Hezbollah’s developing “Golan file.”

Despite his youth — he was reportedly born in 1989, placing him in his mid-20s — Jihad had a long history of publicly advocating for Hezbollah with high-profile patrons. Promoted in social media and other news sites, the younger Mughniyeh was photographed with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, IRGC Quds Force leader Qassem Suleimani, Iranian generals, diplomats, and even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Following his father’s assassination in Damascus, Jihad cultivated a decidedly more public image than his late father. He was active in Hezbollah’s student wing at the Lebanese American University and graced Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV, praising martyrs like his father. In a 2008 speech, dressed in military fatigues during the memorial ceremony for his father and other Hezbollah leaders, Jihad took to the stage, chanting, “At your service, Nasrallah.” And during 2013’s annual memorial for martyr leaders, Jihad once again ascended to the stage.

Regardless, Jihad Mughniyeh — whose name was reportedly later scrolled across mortar shells lobbed into Israeli positions — was likely more important in death than he was operationally, particularly for Hezbollah’s youth. It’s worth noting that many of the Hezbollah figures killed alongside Jihad were just as young as him: Ali Hassan Ibrahim (reportedly born in 1993), Ghazi Ali Dhawi (reportedly born in 1988), and Muhammad Ali Hassan Abu al-Hassan (reportedly born in 1985). It’s likely that these all were lower-level Hezbollah ground commanders in charge of smaller units or geographic zones in the Golan Heights.

A shift in power along the Syrian border

While the Jan. 18 attack represents another saga in the long-running war between Israel and Hezbollah, it also underlines a strategic power shift between Iran and the Assad regime. Hezbollah’s success in opening a new front in the Golan has been a major accomplishment. With greater access to the Golan — or at least sections of it — Hezbollah has a new, non-Lebanese zone it can utilize to target Israel. This may have been Hezbollah’s primary goal all along. Long before Syria’s brutal civil war, it was Hafez and Bashar al-Assad who used Lebanon, and often Hezbollah, as a front to exact their military goals against Israel. Now the tables have turned, and it is Hezbollah and its masters in Tehran who can choose areas of Syria to use against Israel.

For Iran and its Hezbollah proxy, this success is a step in a process to militarily encircle the Israelis. Tehran is currently re-solidifying its relationship with Hamas in Gaza, addressing a push for a southern front against Jerusalem. If needed, the Golan’s near-anarchic conditions also provide Hezbollah with plausible deniability (in the odd case it wishes to deny it had a role in attacking the Jewish state). Geographically, the domination of the Golan potentially creates a Hezbollah-dominated zone stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordanian border.

Tensions have already occurred between Hezbollah and Israel in the Golan and on the Israel-Lebanon border. As early as May 2013, Bashar al-Assad had announced that the Golan would become a “resistance front.” This was followed by threats made by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), Assad’s Palestinian proxy, claiming that it would send fighters to battle the Israelis in the area. Hezbollah also followed up with calls that it would “liberate Syria’s Golan.” On March 5, 2014, Hezbollah fighters attempted to plant an improvised explosive device (IED), an operation thwarted by Israeli forces. But fewer than 10 days after that attempt, Hezbollah claimed responsibility for an IED attack near the Israel-Lebanon border that wounded four Israeli soldiers in the northern Golan. And another Lebanon-based IED attack occurred in October 2014, which Hezbollah was accused of organizing.

Reportedly, Hezbollah has also created proxy groups in the region: In the words of one Israeli general, “Hezbollah gives [these groups] the IEDs and the Iranians give them the inspiration.” In early 2014, photos emerged of Abu Shahed al-Jabbouri, the leader of Liwa Dhulfiqar, an Iraqi Shiite-manned militia bolstering Bashar al-Assad’s rule, posing in the Golan near the border with Israel. Hezbollah had assisted in the creation of Liwa Dhulfiqar and had operated with the group in Syria. For Israel, it seems, enough is enough. If the Jan. 18 airstrike on Jihad and company was an attempt to eliminate some of the more high-profile planners of these attacks, then the Jan. 28 shelling of Syrian artillery positions can been seen as a signal to Damascus, Hezbollah, and Tehran: The opening of a Golan front would not be tolerated.

Israel is understandably worried about encirclement. But this development is not simply limited to Israel. With the Houthi victory in Yemen, increased tensions in Bahrain, and Iran’s numerous Shiite militia proxies projecting their power in Iraq, Saudi Arabia is also facing a more fractious but similar predicament to the Israelis in Tehran’s new geographic arc of influence.

But Hezbollah — and Tehran — are not easily cowed. The attack on Jan. 28 that killed two Israeli soldiers has demonstrated that the price of not retaliating outweighed the risks of sparking a broader regional war. Hezbollah hardly wants to appear as if its hands are tied fighting Sunni elements in Syria. With four anti-tank missiles fired in the Shebaa Farms, and mortars launched at Mount Hermon (and possibly coordinated with Tuesday’s rocket attack), Hezbollah seems intent on revenge — and showing Israel that the Jewish state is still Target No. 1.

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