Military Exercises Along The Lebanese Border: Is This The Prelude To A New Conflict In The Middle East?

Several branches of the Israeli military have gathered along the Lebanese border to participate in the largest military exercises in decades, leading to fears of renewed conflict with the Lebanese-based militant group, Hezbollah. These actions represent only one aspect of the wider Israeli-Iranian proxy war, with both nations vying for economic, political and cultural dominance in the region.

Deemed “The Light of Grain,” these military exercises have organised amidst increasingly elevated tensions in the region, indicating that conflict between Israel, their allies and Hezbollah may be imminent. Israeli military commanders have stated these exercises are necessary to combat an increasingly capable Hezbollah, whose numbers, arsenal and influence are at an all-time high. These events are all part of a wider regional conflict sparked by the Syrian Civil War. Hezbollah, an Iranian ally, entered the Syrian theatre in support of the Assad regime, enabling their forces to be combat tested and allowing them to siphon Iranian military hardware back into southern Lebanon. According to Kessem Kassir, a Lebanese journalist, participation in the Syrian conflict has transformed the face of Hezbollah from a guerrilla force into a professional-scale army with international ties. This has not only bolstered Hezbollah’s strength domestically but also Iranian influence regionally, a result that has the Israeli government concerned. To prevent the spread of Iranian influence, Israel has attempted to attack Hezbollah and Iranian positions within Syria. Actions of both Israel and Hezbollah have only contributed to destabilisation in Syria.

Israel and Hezbollah last came into open conflict in 2006, when Israeli forces entered southern Lebanon in response to Hezbollah-led border intrusions that killed several Israeli soldiers. The conflict lasted 34 days, claiming over 1,500 lives and displacing over 1.5 million civilians on both sides of the border. The Lebanese government’s refusal to enter the conflict precluded Israel from penetrating further north—an act that would have likely furthered civilian damages. Since conflict resolution, both sides have focused on strengthening their militaries in an attempt to destabilise the other. This has resulted in rapid expansion of Hezbollah and Israeli military presence, a trend suggesting that future conflicts between the two will supersede anything that happened before. In addition to a buildup of Israeli military installations on its northern border, Hezbollah has developed its military capabilities, adopting sophisticated missile and drone technology into their arsenal and developing more effective tactics against national-scale forces. Even domestic and international support for Hezbollah has intensified since 2006. Hassan Nasrallah, the ideological leader of the group, affirmed this sentiment saying that, in the event of a renewed conflict with Israel, “[…] hundreds of thousands of fighters from all around the Arab and Islamic world [would] participate […].” Israeli politicians have contributed to the warmongering rhetoric. Naftali Bennet, head of the Jewish Home Party, the third-largest party in the current ruling coalition, stated that the military will, “[…] not use tweezers to search for a needle in a haystack: We will neutralize the haystack.” These operations would result in an “unrestrained bombing of all Lebanese infrastructure and ‘supportive’ civilian populations,” as quoted by the Independent.

Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations stated that “[…] the Israelis are concerned that the Iranians and Hezbollah will exploit the subsequent vacuum.” This fear stems from an increasingly emboldened Iran, which has gained international legitimacy from its nuclear agreements with Western powers. This paradigm shift from enemy to an ally of the West has led Israel to believe that the expanding Iranian sphere of influence will go unopposed. Thus, Israeli views Hezbollah as a gateway for Iranian military presence on their borders, a threat that destabilises the strength of their borders. Because of this, Israel has begun to forge closer ties with Sunni Muslims—a group previously regarded as an enemy. Despite fighting several wars against one another in the last century, Israel and the Sunnis have begun viewing one another as allies in the struggle against growing Iranian influence. According to the former head of Israeli military intelligence, Israel and Sunni-majority nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have allegedly started working “behind the scenes” to combat Hezbollah and Iran. While the nature of these strategies has yet to be discussed with the public, they are likely accomplished through the funding and training of Sunni militants in Syria—the primary opponent to Iran and its regional allies.

This growing divide between Iran and the remainder of the countries in the region is concerning. Its rivals—whether it be Israel or the Sunnis—are responding through military preparations, rather than diplomacy. The recent Israeli-conducted military exercises, though likely a means of intimidation, reveals the looming threat of large-scale conflict. The international community should thus increase its presence in the region, not by assembling militaries but through discourse. This has worked in the past, even in scenarios where intervention was believed to be the only viable solution. Through diplomacy, the nations of the Middle East can avoid large-scale conflict and a humanitarian disaster that would scar the region for decades to come.