Monday, January 19, 2015

Nasrallah: more noise than an empty vessel

From Times of Israel, 19 January 2015, by Avi Issacharoff:

Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah speaking in southern Beirut on November 3, 2014 (photo credit: AP Photo/ Hussein Malla)
Nasrallah: full of bluster and threats, but anything else?

At the end of the day, the key to what happens on the northern border in the wake of the [alleged] Israeli attack in Syria on Sunday lies in Iran’s hands.

If Ali Khamenei and the Iranian leadership want an escalation, then an escalation there will be. If Tehran isn’t looking for one, then it simply won’t happen.

In contrast to earlier incidents, the midday attack near Mazrat Amal in in the Quneitra district didn’t end with only Lebanese casualties. Yes, initial reports gave the name of Jihad Mughniyeh, thought of as a symbol because of his father Imad Mughniyeh, as the most senior official killed in the attack.

But Colonel Ali Reza al-Tabatabai, commander of the Radwan force of the Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon, was also killed. 

This force, seen as a special operations unit, is responsible for planning attacks against Israel. These operations range from kidnappings and tunnel attacks to capturing territory.

It’s not likely Muhgniyeh and Tabatabai were on their way to a picnic when they were struck from the air, and it is very possible they were examining various ways to carry out attacks against Israel from the Syrian Golan Heights.

Still, it’s not clear how urgent this attack was for Israel. Iran’s and Hezbollah’s activities in the sector are not exactly secrets, and neither was the presence of the younger Muhgniyeh, the Hezbollah commander responsible for the sector.

...Iran’s dilemma right now is whether or not to allow Hezbollah to respond with force, which could well lead to a general escalation. A Hezbollah response is not necessarily what Iran wants, especially when the White House is pressuring Congress not to enact new sanctions on Iran. Tehran does not want to be seen as responsible for a regional deterioration, which could bring about new sanctions. In addition, it doesn’t want to get Hezbollah stuck in another active front while the drop in oil prices has left Iran with less and less money to fund its operations in Syria. What’s more, Hezbollah continues to lose men fighting the Islamic State and other jihadist organizations.

On the other hand, ignoring the incident will be taken as weakness, even cowardice.

Hezbollah itself will want to respond, of course, even though it has an even more difficult dilemma. It may be that the decision would be easier were it not for the stupid, arrogant interview Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gave on Friday to the friendly Al-Madayeen channel. As he usually does, Nasrallah explained how strong Hezbollah is, and how its ability to strike Israel is limitless. He described his advanced Fateh-110 rockets as outdated, and claimed that his organization already had those weapons in 2006, and that today it has much more advanced weapons.

What’s more, Nasrallah promised that any Israel attack on Syria would lead to an attack by Hezbollah, in a time and place of its choosing.

And now, only two days after the interview was aired, Israel has made clear how high is the tree that Nasrallah has climbed. Israel assassinated one of his senior commanders, and a major symbol no less: Jihad Mughniyeh’s father founded Hezbollah’s military wing, and was considered for more than two decades one of the Middle East’s biggest terrorists.

Now, Nasrallah is seemingly bound to respond, at least to show he stands behind his word. One third of his organization’s fighting force is in Syria today, caught up in daily battles against radical Sunni groups. According to Israeli estimates, Hezbollah has lost around 1,000 men in Syrian fighting, with many more injured.

Hezbollah’s political situation is not much better, to say the least. Even Sunday after the results of the attack were made public, Lebanese critics continued to attack the Shiite organization. One called it a “terrorist organization,” while former president Amine Gemayel chose to focus on Nasrallah’s arrogant interview from Friday. “Whoever wants to protect Lebanon doesn’t need to attack Bahrain,” Gemayel said, referring to Nasrallah’s harsh verbal attack on Bahrain during the same interview.

But Nasrallah’s and Hezbollah’s decision will ultimately be made in Tehran. The commander of the Al-Quds Force, who was close to Mughniyeh and Tabatabai, according to reports, will be the one to decide the tone of the Shi’ite organization’s response.

And it may be that, for the time being, Hezbollah and Iran will be satisfied with a minor response, and at another time, in another place, they will try to carry out a much more dramatic strike.

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