Hezbollah 2020: Nasrallah's Complex Challenges

Commentary: The assassination of Soleimani, economic difficulties and the internal affairs of Lebanon influence Nasrallah's steps against Israel. At the start of a new year and decade, Hezbollah faces both internal and external challenges that will influence its actions in 2020

 

Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah. Archive photo: AP

The challenges facing Hezbollah at this juncture are the result of several processes and events in the local and regional arenas. The assassination of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, by the US was quite a blow to Hezbollah and to Nasrallah personally. The organization's precision missile program, which is aided by Iran, was attacked last August 24, according to foreign reports, by Israel. Thus, Hezbollah's main effort to increase its military abilities suffered a setback.

Operation Northern Shield, which took place more than a year ago and revealed Hezbollah's attack tunnels into Israeli territory, as well as the IDF's deployment of advanced systems to detect the digging of tunnels along the northern border, dealt a blow to Hezbollah's strategic abilities in the short and long term. The continuation of the organization's aid to Iran's entrenchment effort in Syria is in doubt considering the strike against its members during the thwarting of the drone attack from Syria on August 24.  

At the same time, the organization faces internal problems in the form of the political and social crisis in Lebanon despite the formation of a new government. In addition, Hezbollah is facing the continual shrinking of its financial capabilities due to the reduction of Iran's financial support (because of the international sanctions imposed on Iran) and additional sanctions on the organization itself.

The recent death of Qasem Soleimani, Nasrallah's patron and friend, was both an operational and personal blow. The two had cultivated a relationship for years, ever since Soleimani was appointed as commander as the Quds force in 1998. He was the leading figure in the Iran-Hezbollah axis and contributed to the strengthening of the organization.

It should be pointed out that in 2008 Nasrallah had already lost Imad Mughniyah, head of Hezbollah's military wing and the organization's top military commander. There are those who claim that even to this day, Hezbollah has yet to recover, and has yet to find someone from the organization to fill his large shoes. Soleimani's replacement, Ismail Qaani, the late commander's deputy, is not as knowledgeable as his predecessor in the Lebanese arena (his "expertise" is in Iran's eastern front – Afghanistan and Pakistan).

Soleimani's Replacement for Hezbollah Affairs

This issue was apparently a concern of senior Iranian officials, and was one of the reasons for the appointment of Mohammad Hossein-Zadeh Hejazi as deputy commander of the Quds force. He is very familiar with the Lebanese arena and is involved in Hezbollah's precision missile project. In Iran and Hezbollah's judgement, he can continue to speed up the effort for development of the capability considered to be strategic, crucial and a source of increased power for Hezbollah. This effort is the organization's top military priority, especially following Israel's negation of Hezbollah's other crucial strategic capability, namely its attack tunnels into Israeli territory.

Hezbollah aspires to maintain the relative quiet on the Israeli border and is not interested in a conflict with Israel. In this context, it seems, the organization is not willing to take part in an additional Iranian retaliation, if one takes place, against the US for Soleimani's assassination. Nasrallah even expressed such a view in two recent speeches, one on January 5 and another on January 12.  On the other hand, in Hezbollah's understanding, the rules of the game have changed following Soleimani's assassination, and it cannot be ruled out that even the risk to Nasrallah's life (who is still hiding in a protected bunker and avoids public appearances) has grown. Based on this concern, those close to Nasrallah have advised that the security measures for him be boosted.

Avoidance of the Syrian Arena

Another point of conflict with Israel, which Hezbollah will try to avoid, is Iran's attempts to improve and strengthen its presence in Syria. In this context, it should be pointed out that the organization's response, which was expressed by the firing of antitank missiles at an IDF vehicle on Israel's northern border near the moshav of Avivim on September 1st of last year, was in response to the drone attack in Beirut attributed to Israel, not to the strike against the organization's members in Syria. Those members were targeted when they tried to carry out a drone attack on Israeli territory led by the Iranian Quds force.

Nasrallah made a point of mentioning this in his declaration that the organization will respond to Israel's attack on Beirut at any possible location along the border fence. The attack would be carried out "in a measured manner, according to our considerations", Nasrallah said at that time.

Lebanon's new government, in which Hezbollah maintained its power and even strengthened its political stature in the country, will not necessarily alleviate the Lebanese political and social crisis. The so-called "government of experts" that was established does not represent all the factions and communities in Lebanon, or all the Shiite organizations. Hezbollah and Amal are the two most powerful forces in the administration. This government will have difficulty dealing with the fundamental problems that sparked the protest - corruption, the national debt, and unemployment. Hezbollah will make every effort to try to stabilize the political situation and to silence those opposing the government and the organization in order to continue to hold onto the centers     of power in the country.

The Different Challenges Deter Nasrallah

The internal and external challenges facing Hezbollah will influence the steps it takes when considering initiation of action against Israel, or its response to an Israeli action that damages the organization's security and/or standing. The organization's recent response to Israel's offensive action against it made clear that Hezbollah is not interested in a conflict, despite the military capabilities it has acquired, particularly the 150,000 missiles and rockets at its disposal that threaten the majority of Israel's territory.

Hezbollah will continue to build its power, and will try to speed up the precision missile project, help the new Quds force commander and his deputy fully assume their posts, try to calm the internal arena and stabilize the new government that was established under its auspices. The organization's economic difficulties negatively influence its functioning. Hezbollah, which is still deterred by Israel, will avoid unnecessary adventures and thus the probability of it initiating a significant attack against Israel is low. At the same time, if Hezbollah is forced to respond to attacks attributed to Israel in Lebanon, the response in its view will be measured, and not impulsive, in order not to cause an escalation of hostilities with Israel.