On the overnight hours of July 20, 2020, Israel’s Air Force reportedly struck multiple military sites in Damascus. Syria’s state news agency (SANA) said seven Syrian soldiers were wounded in the attacks, but according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), five pro-Iranian soldiers were killed and four were wounded in the airstrikes.
The attack came a week and a half after Iran and Syria signed an agreement that would see Tehran upgrade the Syrian military’s air defenses, in response to ongoing Israeli strikes in the country.
Less than 24 hours later, the website Central Military Media, an official source for Hezbollah and Axis of Resistance related news, confirmed the killing of a Hezbollah fighter, Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad, during the reported Israeli airstrikes in Damascus.
Hezbollah accused Israel of killing Jawad, raising the possibility of retaliation. Hezbollah-linked social media accounts are mourning Jawad and vow revenge against Israel.
This is the latest incident in which IDF targeting of Hezbollah operatives led to threats by its leaders and then retaliation attempts by the organization.
In August 2019, the IDF killed Hezbollah fighters Hassan Yousef Zabeeb and Yasser Ahmad Daher, who planned an attack against Israel using a drone-laden with explosives. After the deaths, Hezbollah vowed to retaliate and did so eight days later by targeting an IDF military ambulance with two ATGMs. The attempt was unsuccessful, avoiding a wider escalation of conflict in the region. “If Israel kills any of our members in Syria, we’ll respond from Lebanon and not in the Shebaa Farms, and we tell the Israeli army on the border to be very cautious and to wait for us,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech at the time.
More recently, after an airstrike on a vehicle in Syria on April 15, near the Lebanese border, in which there were no casualties, Hezbollah blamed Israel. Hezbollah cut five holes in the fence along the Israel-Lebanon border in retaliation.
Serious constrains hamper Hezbollah’s decision making
First and foremost, the dire economic and social situation in Lebanon and the political pressure on Hezbollah.
Sounding the alarm over the crippling impact of “growing economic shocks, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic” in Lebanon, the UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called at the beginning of July for a unified response by politicians and the people to overcome the worsening socio-economic crisis there. She painted a picture of hundreds of families unable to “afford to put food on the table”, saying “their situation will only get worse as food and medical imports dry up as the depreciated Lebanese pound has greatly increased the cost of imported goods”. Since last October, chronic mismanagement, corruption and political stalemate boiled over into street protests and now the country is teetering on the brink of economic collapse. The international community needs to increase its assistance to the Government to support these efforts, she added.
The Hezbollah-supported government in Beirut has asked the International Monetary Fund for an aid package of $10 billion, so local officials understand the repercussions of defying U.S. law and the broader international community at this critical moment. US officials have repeatedly signaled that aid would be conditional on Iran-backed Hezbollah's exit from government.
Pressure comes also from the United Nations. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres issued his latest assessment of UNIFIL on June 1, in which he recommended transforming the international monitoring force in Southern Lebanon into “a more agile and mobile force with improved monitoring capacity,” equipped with high-mobility light tactical and reconnaissance vehicles in order to foster “better situational awareness” and “a lighter footprint.” Hezbollah for its part, continued its anti-access campaign against UNIFIL. Since early May, at least three more incidents have been reported between UN patrols and locals in the southern village of Blida. Lebanon’s government decided to extend UNIFIL’s mandate by another year without amendment on May 29, soon after Prime Minister Hassan Diab insisted on maintaining its current size. When the Security Council takes up UNIFIL’s renewal next month, the US could ask to implement the secretary-general’s latest recommendations and unfulfilled parts of previous resolutions.
Hezbollah has lately suffered several operational local and international setbacks.
On April 5, Hezbollah commander Ali Mohammed Younis was killed by unknown assassins in southern Lebanon. Younis was “responsible for pursuing spies and collaborators,” according to unofficial statements, the Iranian Fars news agency reported. Hezbollah sources said Younis was found stabbed to death in his vehicle. He was a “close associate” of former IGRC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, Sputnik reported. Lebanese and Iranian media claimed that the Mossad "and its mercenaries" were suspects in the assassination.
In April, the United States offered up to $10 million for information on Sheikh Mohammad al-Kawtharani, a senior military commander of Hezbollah in Iraq who also was an associate of the late Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Kawtharani was branded a global terrorist by the United States in 2013, accused of funding armed groups in Iraq and helping transport Iraqi fighters to Syria. The State Department is offering the sum for information on Kawtharani’s activities, networks and associates as part of an effort to disrupt the “financial mechanisms” of Hezbollah.
The Israeli Security Service revealed in June that it thwarted an attempt by an Arab Israeli woman living in Lebanon, Beirut Hamoud, and her Lebanese husband to recruit two residents of her hometown of Majd al-Krum as operatives for Hezbollah. Hamoud was questioned by Israeli security in 2013 over suspicions she met with Hezbollah operatives in Morocco in 2008 and in Tunisia in 2012, after which she left Israel for Lebanon. There, she married Bilal Bizri and now `works as a journalist at the Hezbollah-linked Al-Akhbar neswspaper.
Several weeks ago, the Israel Security Agency arrested 10 members of a cell of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) over a plot to attack Israelis in the West Bank and kidnap a soldier to seek release of jailed terrorists. The plot had been backed by Iran and Hezbollah, which provided the terrorists with funds and trained the cell members. The cell reportedly operated under the guise of a civilian welfare organization known as "Al-Shabab Al-Alumi Al-Arabi."
On July 17, Brazilian authorities extradited Hezbollah financier Assad Ahmad Barakat to Paraguay, dealing a key blow to the terrorist group. Barakat, now awaiting trial, belongs to a powerful Lebanese Shiite family affiliated with Hezbollah and, until his arrest in Brazil in 2018, served as the terrorist group’s leader in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay (TBA). Barakat, along with his three brothers, has a lengthy history of raising funds for Hezbollah in the TBA via illicit means.
Moreover, at the beginning of July, the federal judge Miguel Ángel Guerrero of El Dorado, in Misiones, Argentina, ratified the freezing of funds and assets of Hezbollah, of other entities and of people for their alleged connection with the terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish community building in Buenos Aires, which occurred in July 1994 and that killed 85 people. The measure reaches assets of Hezbollah, the Barakat clan and Salman El Reda, accused of participating in the AMIA attack.
Also, in July, Ghassan Diab, a Lebanese accused of laundering drug money for Hezbollah has been extradited from Cyprus to the United States. He faces charges dating back to 2016 in the state of Florida, with two counts of money laundering over $100,000. Diab was arrested in Cyprus in March 2019 upon his arrival from Beirut, Lebanon. U.S. law enforcement agencies in recent months have stepped up crackdowns on the Iranian-backed group and its financial networks.
On the international political level, the situation has not been better for the organization.
On April 30, 2020, Germany banned Hezbollah from operating on German soil and designated it as a terrorist organization. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer instructed the security forces to conduct searches in mosques, in gathering places of Hezbollah followers and in a number of suspects’ homes in several cities (including Berlin, Bremen, Münster and Dortmund). Following the decision, it has been decided that all Hezbollah’s assets in Germany will be confiscated. There are 1,050 Hezbollah followers in Germany who usually meet secretly in mosques or cultural clubs but, at the same time, carry out overt activity on the Internet. According to Lebanese news website Lebanon Debate, the German decision constitutes a major economic blow to Hezbollah, as Germany is a significant stop in the transfer of funds to Hezbollah.
Recently, Great Britain, Argentina and Paraguay have also outlawed Hezbollah’s political wing. However, most of the EU countries have outlawed only Hezbollah’s military wing. There is pressure on other European countries to convince them to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Hezbollah’s retaliation options
Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad, the killed Hezbollah fighter, is not presented in the pro-Hezbollah media as some operative of importance who could induce the organization to a major attack, like in the case of Imad Mughniyeh, the famous terrorist and military leader killed in February 2008 in Damascus, or even his son Jihad, killed in January 2015 while building with Iranian officers a terrorist platform in Southern Syria.
Hezbollah sources told the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the organization had made a decision to respond to the Israeli attack in Damascus. The sources added that the response is subject to an equation set by the secretary general Hassan Nasrallah last year, according to which there will be a response from Lebanon in any case of killing one of its operatives in Syria.
However, El-Walid Sukkarieh, Hezbollah MP in the Lebanese parliament, said that on the backdrop of the country's economic conditions and attempts to disarm Hezbollah, it is inappropriate for the organization to respond from Lebanese territory, especially since the dead died in Syria.
Taking Hezbollah’s Nasrallah’s past threats at face-value, the retaliation could be an attack with light weapons, a suicide drone or IEDs from southern Lebanon or from the Syrian Golan against an Israeli military target. There is a low probability that such an attack would target civilians as the Israeli retaliation would be harder and could lead to an uncontrolled escalation.
It seems this is also the evaluation of the IDF commanders who have decided to deploy a Golani infantry battalion on the Northern border. It can be assessed that if Israel, which did not acknowledge responsibility for the attack near Damascus, had good intelligence about a major attack, it would send stern political messages through international channels to Hezbollah and the Lebanese government.
There is however a slim possibility that Hezbollah, under orders from Tehran, will try to use the pretext of this minor incident to escalate the situation in northern Israel, in the framework of a larger retaliation move by Iran, after a string of mysterious fires and explosions across Iran, culminated with the destruction of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant on July 2, 2020.