In a meticulously calculated forecast of the future battlefield -- supplemented by original maps and graphics -- White outlines the capabilities and operational objectives of the two sides, the potentially game-changing roles played by Syria and Iran, and the possible impact on the region's postconflict military and political environments.
White concludes that
- this is the war the IDF must win -- the consequences may be fateful, and
- Washington should be developing its own concrete plans and preparatory steps now.
…If war does in fact come to Israel’s northern border, it would bear little resemblance to the 2006 conflict in Lebanon. Instead, it would in all likelihood be a transformational, even fateful, event for the region...
…In all probability, it would be a major conflict, one fought over extensive areas of Lebanon, Israel, and probably Syria, featuring large military forces executing complex operations and resulting in substantial casualties (military and civilian) as well as major infrastructure damage in all of the countries involved. …the fighting would be intense and would likely escalate and expand. Israel and Hizballah would feel great pressure to win such a war, and that need would drive the hostilities to a new level, likely pulling in Syria and pushing Iran to become involved as well. The conflict would be a severe test for decisionmakers and warfighters on both sides, and a challenge for key external actors, especially the United States.
… Although the challenge of a war with Hizballah and its allies should not be underestimated, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are much better prepared today than they were in 2006. …Israel would aim to fundamentally alter the military equation, with great consequences for the political situation.
… it would likely be decisive in the military operational sense. Israeli military strategy would center on the use of large-scale joint air, ground, and naval operations to rapidly eliminate Hizballah’s rocket and missile forces, destroy its ground forces in southern Lebanon, severely damage its command and control systems, and destroy its infrastructure throughout Lebanon.
Israel would probably attempt to prevent the conflict from escalating into general war with Syria …
… Hizballah’s military efforts would center on the following strategies:
■■ Offensively, to launch massive rocket/missile attacks on military and civilian targets with the intention of inflicting significant casualties and damage
■■ Defensively, to oppose Israeli air, ground, and naval operations inside Lebanon with aggressive action, slowing any advances while inflicting as many casualties as possible ...
For their part, Syria and Iran would at minimum provide communications, command, control, intelligence, and resupply assistance in an effort to keep Hizballah in the fight. Syrian air defense elements would oppose “penetrations” of Syrian airspace and perhaps engage Israeli aircraft over Lebanon, given the small operational area involved and the proximity of Damascus to the combat zone. Beyond basic support (e.g., advice, arms, intelligence), Iran’s potential role is unclear. But in a large-scale conflict, Tehran could decide to participate more directly by providing light infantry or special forces in Lebanon, and perhaps missile and air defense forces within Syria. And both Damascus and Tehran would likely feel pressure to increase their roles as the war escalated, due in part to their connections with and commitments to Hizballah.
If Syria became directly involved in a conflict with Israel during a war in Lebanon, its goals would include:
■■ Preserving the regime and its key assets (security, military, economic)
■■ Preserving Hizballah’s position in Lebanon and its ability to threaten Israel
■■ Reestablishing a Syrian military presence in Lebanon
■■Inflicting a defeat on Israel sufficient to create the conditions for regaining the Golan Heights
In Iran, the regime could decide to take one or more of several steps, on an escalating scale of involvement:
■■ Providing more arms to Hizballah and Syria
■■ Providing advisors, technicians, or light combat forces
■■ Carrying out asymmetric attacks on Israeli interests (e.g., terrorist-type actions)
■■ Engaging in regional troublemaking (e.g., raising tensions in the Strait of Hormuz)
■■ Conducting missile strikes on Israel
In the Palestinian arena, Hamas leaders would likely limit the group’s participation to token actions accompanied by supporting rhetoric. At the same time, no one should be surprised if a new war in the north included a “Gaza excursion.” Hamas could decide to enter the conflict in serious fashion, employing heavy rocket fire and long-range weapons. Alternatively, Israel could decide to finish the job begun with Operation Cast Lead in 2008–2009.
Escalation and Uncertainty
The war outlined here would present a dangerous situation— various pressures and dynamics would push it toward escalation. The course of the fighting, the combatants’ offensive strategies and doctrinal approaches, the depth of their preparations for war, their expectation that the other side will use massive force, and the perceived advantages of preemption would all foster a broader and more serious conflict. …
Decisionmakers on all sides would be under great pressure to act quickly in order to achieve their goals and protect their assets and populations…
… it would be a large-scale, intense conflict waged between Israel and some combination of Hizballah and its allies, fought in and over Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, and lasting weeks. In the end …The IDF would be occupying some, perhaps substantial, parts of Lebanon and potentially all of Gaza…
…It would certainly be Israel’s most serious war since 1973, and one that the IDF would have to win. …if Israel acted decisively, were willing to pay the costs in casualties and damage, and enjoyed military success, then a new war could substantially weaken its opponents in the following ways:
■■ Hizballah would be broken as a military factor in Lebanon and weakened politically.
■■ The Syrian regime would be weakened by military defeat and the loss of important military and security assets.
■■ Iran’s activities in the region would be circumscribed by the defeat of its allies; and if Tehran failed to aid them during the conflict, it would lose influence as well.
■■ Hamas (assuming it became involved directly) would lose its military power in Gaza and at least some of its political power.
The U.S. Role
… the United States should not necessarily take immediate steps toward ending it quickly.
Several important objectives would be at stake in such a scenario: breaking Hizballah’s military capabilities and reducing its political power; disabusing Syria of the notion that it can act in Lebanon to further its own interests without significant cost; and removing the potent Hizballah proxy from Iran’s foreign policy arsenal. Only successful IDF operations can achieve those goals.
Accordingly, the United States should consider giving the IDF both the time and the political space it needs to carry out those objectives.
Washington should also be prepared for associated Iranian troublemaking in the Persian Gulf. The United States must demonstrate that it will use force if necessary, thwarting any attempt by Tehran to take advantage of the situation created by a Lebanon war.
Whether hostilities will erupt soon or ever is uncertain; both sides have good reason to avoid it. But if war does come once again to Israel’s northern border, a renewed confrontation between Israel and Hizballah will not resemble their inconclusive 2006 encounter.
The new war will likely be wider in geographic scope and more destructive, with high-intensity operations from the beginning. The dynamics of the fighting will produce rapid escalation, possibly pulling in Syria and even Iran.
Where the war goes badly for either side, significant military and civilian casualties, disruption of economic activity, and damage to infrastructure are probable. Although Israel will most likely prevail in this scenario, victory for either side will carry substantial costs. And for the losing side, the consequences may well be fateful. As the war deterrent appears to weaken, both Israel and Hizballah are preparing for a serious confrontation that neither can afford to lose.
Download the full, 60-page report (a 1.4MB pdf)
Notional Israeli Air Force Operations against Hizballah
Notional Israeli Offensive Operations in Southern Lebanon
Selected Rocket and Missile Coverage of Israel from Potential Launch Areas in Lebanon
Notional Hizballah Offensive Operations in Northern Israel
Notional Hizballah Defense Concept
*Jeffrey White is a defense fellow at The Washington Institute, specializing in the military and security affairs of the Levant, Iraq, and Iran. A thirty-four-year veteran of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), he participated in DIA operational and policy planning and wrote extensively for senior defense officials, including the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.