Where will Syria stand in an all-out Israel-Hezbollah war?

In 2006, when Hezbollah and Israel last waged all-out war, Syria had just left Lebanon. Its army was intact, and it had reason to intervene, not least politically. These days, things are different.

Where will Syria stand in an all-out Israel-Hezbollah war?

From the smoke and dust from Israel’s south, where Gaza lies in ruins, Israel’s military focus has shifted north to Lebanon and its troublesome Iran-backed militia. With Hamas dealt with, Hezbollah appears to be next.

Back-and-forth of statements, threats, leaks, and strikes between Israel and the Lebanon-based militia augurs a possibly full-scale war, the first between these two bristling enemies for almost 20 years, one that could involve new ‘rules of engagement’.

Timing is everything. While now would not be the right time for Hezbollah to take the fight to Israel, this certainly feels like a politically opportune moment for Israel’s bitterly unpopular Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his trigger-happy far-right cabinet to keep Israel (and Israelis) on a war footing.

The summer months are when Israel traditionally wages war. Going to war now allows Netanyahu executive wiggle room owing to the summer recess ‘window’ of both the Israeli Knesset (parliament) and the US Congress. He will also know that, during the US presidential election campaign run-in, neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump would want to be seen criticising Israel for fighting its enemies.

If Hezbollah and Israel do wage war in 2024, analysts ask what Iran’s stance would be given that, in April, Iran and Israel broke the taboo and attacked one another directly. They also wonder where Syria would stand, given that it serves as a corridor for the flow of weapons and expertise from Iran and Iraq to Hezbollah.

Wary of war

Like Hezbollah, President Bashar al-Assad will know that now is not a good time for Syria to get dragged into war with Israel. The Syrian and Lebanese economies are battered, their people are weary, and neither country can defend itself.

If Hezbollah and Israel went to war, what would Iran do, given that, in April, Iran and Israel broke the taboo and attacked one another directly?

When Israel went to war in Gaza in October 2023, al-Assad's public reaction remained curiously muted, triggering much comment from the Arab world. Would he react differently if Israel went into Lebanon? How would July 2024 differ from the July 2006 war? Most think Damascus will keep its counsel and stay out of it, but al-Assad will face Iranian pressure to intervene, even if that is only by helping weapons flow to Hezbollah.

When Israel and Hezbollah last went to war in July 2006, it was under very different circumstances. The Syrian army had withdrawn from Lebanon a year earlier following the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005. At the time, Damascus faced Arab and international isolation. The war was a test for al-Assad to show that Syria still had influence in Lebanon despite its withdrawal.

It later emerged that Syrian smugglers were released from jail to send rockets and ammunition over the border to Hezbollah via tunnels and rough paths that only they knew. Five years later, in 2011, it was Hezbollah that intervened in Syria to repay the favour and protect the al-Assad regime from armed groups demanding the regime's overthrow.

Hezbollah offered political, media, and military support. Thousands of their hardened fighters entered Syrian battles and made a difference. Afterwards, they kept a presence in Syria, as did Iranian military 'advisers'.

Their expulsion is now Western demand. Israel, with the backing of Russia (which has significant military influence in Syria), began attacking Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria several years ago, escalating in recent months. Several very senior Iranian generals were killed in Damascus in April, triggering the first direct Israeli-Iranian strikes.

Unable and unwilling

Damascus has been a mere observer in the proxy Israel-Iran war being fought on Syrian soil. This continued during the current Israel-Hamas war. Some wanted Syria to open another front over the Golan Heights in support of Hamas, but it refused. 

In 2006, Syria helped supply Hezbollah with weapons to fight Israel. In 2011, Hezbollah repaid the favour, helping to protect the al-Assad regime.

This led to tension with Iran, exacerbated by al-Assad's absence at the recent funeral of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (he visited Tehran after the funeral).

Unlike in 2011, the survival of al-Assad's regime no longer relies on Iranian and Hezbollah intervention, so he will not feel as vulnerable, yet their help is still crucial to countering American and Turkish ambitions in Syria's north and north-east.

In July 2006 and in June 2024, Damascus faces regional isolation. Then, as now, it is keen to 'come in from the cold'. In July 2006, it did so by helping get Hezbollah weapons. Conversely, in 2024, it could make friends by not helping to supply Hezbollah with weapons. This would signal that it had distanced itself from Iran.

Reasons to do nothing

The Syrian regime will hope that war means Hezbollah formations leave Syria of their own accord. This will save Damascus from having to kick them out. If Hezbollah and Israel fight a full-blown war, with the ultimate destruction of Hezbollah being Israel's aim, Tehran would likely throw its full weight behind Hezbollah—the main guarantor of Iran's regional penetration and nuclear programme—and twist Syria's arm to join the battle, either directly or indirectly.

There is no doubt that Damascus has less room for manoeuvre in an Israel-Hezbollah clash than it has over the Gaza war. Contacts with the United States, either directly or through intermediaries, have helped maintain its neutrality.

If the well-greased Israeli war machine jerks its barrels north, analysts' eyes will be on the various carrots and sticks dangled and waved by external parties for Syria's involvement or distance.

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