An Israeli minister’s warning that Tel Aviv would take out Bashar Assad if he continues to allow an Iranian military presence in Syria followed a similarly bellicose remark by another minister, who said that Israel would not differentiate Lebanon from Hezbollah in the event of war. Mideast expert Umer Karim shares his thoughts on the comments.
Sputnik: What are your thoughts about the Israeli education minister’s statement equating Hezbollah to Lebanon, and Israel’s treatment of Lebanon as such? What will it mean in practice?
Umer Karim: I think the confrontation [in the] relationship between Lebanon and Israel will further deteriorate. The statement is kind of a signal or sign of things coming in future; specifically after the resounding success of Hezbollah [in elections] in Lebanon.
I think it’s very much clear now how significant Hezbollah’s level of influence is over the Lebanese state. You can see it now coming from statements by the Israeli side. But even without these statements it was very clear that for the Lebanese state, it’s probably very difficult to do something against Hezbollah or Hezbollah’s interests.
Sputnik: Mr. Karim, how can you account for the support Hezbollah has in Lebanon? Why are Western-backed parties losing popularity?Umer Karim: I think we have to look at a number of things. There is the issue of governance by the ruling parties and by the government. It has reached a disastrous limit. So basically the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri has not really done enough for its constituents.
Regardless of the election results, if you focus on voter turnout, it’s pathetically low. This means that from all sections of Lebanese society there has been an expression of distrust toward politicians of all stripes, and especially politicians backed by the West.
Sputnik: What about Syria? Israel has expressed its readiness to go after the country’s president Bashar Assad if the latter continues to allow Iran to operate from his country. How likely is such a scenario?
Umer Karim: The issue is that Israel now considers its inaction in the Syrian civil war as a strategic disaster, because it not only allowed the survival of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, but also the establishment of Iranian military efforts within Syria.
But the thing [to remember] is that we are hearing different statements from different Israeli officials. This statement is from one official, but the deputy defense minister of Israel says that the country is not interested in any war with Iran in Syria or anywhere else. So what they are trying to is to give a signal, or try to communicate to Iran that ‘we have our options, and can hit you at this or that point’…But for now this is more or less posturing, because how can they do this without communicating or coordinating this with Russia? So this is more or less rhetoric, but not practical rhetoric. The signaling is toward Iran that ‘we have our options open, so don’t think about any strike inside Syria or using your presence in Syria to carry out any strike in Israel or target Israeli military efforts.’
Sputnik: Do you think that a full-blown confrontation between Iran and Israel is possible?
Umer Karim: It’s definitely not off the table, but both sides will think a lot before going to such an extent.
We also have to consider: Will this confrontation be a full-blown one, or a limited one, with Iran or Iranian-sponsored militias attacking Israeli military targets in Israel, and then Israel responding with some limited airstrikes against these specific targets? Or will this develop into a bigger, full-blown war, with Israel targeting Iranian-sponsored militias all throughout Syria, and also targeting Hezbollah, with Hezbollah in Lebanon attacking Israel and Israel hitting back toward Hezbollah in Lebanon?
I don’t think that all of these actors want such a confrontation, but even on the ground they are following a very delicate path. The issue for Iran is its home constituency. If Israel is hitting it again and again, it puts a question in the minds of [Iranians] of ‘why are we not responding to Israel when they are attacking us?’ So for some sort of legitimacy, perhaps Iran will act.We still have to see how things develop, but I would say there is a grave danger of such a confrontation, if not a full-blown or grand-scale one then a limited one.
Umer Karim is a doctoral researcher focusing on Saudi foreign policy at the University of Birmingham. The views and opinions expressed by Mr. Karim are those of the observer and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.