Blog - September 30, 2019
On September 1, at 4:15 PM, a Hezbollah cell dubbed the “Martyrs Hassan Zbeeb and Yasser Daher Group” fired Anti-Tank Guided Missiles at an Israeli military patrol and base near Moshav Avivim. The group claimed the strike was a revenge attack for Israel killing the eponymous Zbeeb and Daher, two low-ranking operatives, in Syria a week earlier.
Despite insisting on carrying out the attack, Hezbollah went to great lengths to signal its lack of desire for escalation to Israel, possibly even leaking the timing of its retaliatory operation to Kuwaiti Al-Rai. Nonetheless, the group still knew it was taking a risk, and that matters could unintentionally escalate into a larger conflagration or war.
Given this danger, Hezbollah’s September 1st operation didn’t make much sense. Zbeeb and Daher – two 23-yr-old aeronautical engineers who had joined the group’s fighting ranks only a year prior – were not worth risking a premature war with the Israelis. They were thus neither militarily important, like Mustafa Badreddine, nor even symbolically significant to the group, like Jihad Mughniyeh or Samir Quntar.
Moreover, their deaths occurred within the “rules of the game” prevailing between Israel and Hezbollah since the start of the Syrian civil war: they were killed in Syria, en route to carry out an attack against Israel no less. The group had quietly absorbed similar deaths of its operatives in the past.
Hezbollah was thus acting against its own singular interests by taking the risk in retaliating for Zbeeb and Daher. However, the group’s actions are more understandable when placed in another context: Hezbollah was acting in its capacity as a member of Iran’s broader “Resistance Axis” – not to avenge its fallen fighters or protect Lebanese sovereignty, but to safeguard Iran’s regional interests and enforce its red lines against the recently emergent threat of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian proxies in Iraq.
Iran Fails to Draw its Own Red Lines on Iraq
Israel has wanted to carry its fight against Iran’s regional expansionism into Iraq since at least 2018, but was warned off at the time by the United States. Much to Washington’s consternation, Israel began disregarding America’s advice this past July, extending its clandestine aerial campaign against Iran’s allies – until then confined to Syria – into Iraqi territory. Since then, several attacks attributed to Israel have targeted Iran’s Iraqi proxies.
The most recent strike appears to have occurred on last Sunday, when unidentified drones targeted the Popular Mobilization’s 13th (Al-Tofouf) Brigade Al-Marsanat Airport base, 70 km west of Al-Anbar Province’s city of al-Rutba, and the 7th (al-Muntathar) Brigade near al-Therthar Lake, north of Fallujah. Though a PMF spokesman attempted to deny that the attacks had occurred, other PMF and unnamed Iraqi military sources confirmed their occurrence.
For its own reasons, Iran was also predictably displeased. Beginning in 2013, Israel had similarly forced an overextended Iran – battling to save the Assad regime – to gradually acquiesce to strikes on its forces and proxies in Syria. Iranian inaction now would allow Israel to replicate that situation in Iraq. Moreover, Iranian acquiescence would set a new precedent allowing Israel to continuously unilaterally revise the status quo in the future, gradually expanding the ambit of its airstrikes threaten all of Iran’s regional holdings. Most critically, Israel could begin gradually breaking the taboo of targeting Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Iran attempted to draw a red line when the rate of Israel’s attacks in Iraq in increased in late August. First, several PMF factions began threatening to hold the United States responsible for the airstrikes on their positions and attack American targets in response. This was perhaps a bid to pressure Washington into using its influence over Israel to end its incursions into Iraq.
When that failed, on August 25, Iran deployed Daher and Zbeeb’s cell – which the Israelis claim was led by IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani – to attack Israel with explosive-laden drones, to send the message that Tehran would not accept the new status quo that Jerusalem was trying to impose in Iraq.
Israel foiled the attack, and if accounts from Lebanon are to be believed, responded by raising the stakes further by attacking Iran’s partners in Lebanon. Either that, or Hezbollah was fabricating the story to provide further justification for its future attack against Israel.
Hezbollah alleges that Israel deployed two explosive-laden drones of its own to carry out a kamikaze-style mission against an unspecified Hezbollah target in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Soon after, Al-Manar reported that the Israel Air Force struck a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) camp in Qousaya, a Palestinian faction closely allied with Tehran. The message was clear: Israel had violated the unspoken understanding between the two foes that it would not conduct strikes in Lebanon, and Hezbollah could no longer remain silent.
Enter the Resistance Axis
As in past instances when Hezbollah has acted to safeguard purely Iranian interests, it has sought a Lebanese justification for its actions, to placate its base. It was in this context that Hezbollah exaggerated Zbeeb and Daher’s importance, and fixated on the crashed drones. It used these incidents to justify its impending attack against the Israelis, which was actually meant to convey Iran’s refusal to accept Israel’s airstrikes in Iraq, not safeguard any Lebanese interest.
Hezbollah may not have been working alone. Palestinian factions in Gaza – where Iran has several proxies, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al-Sabireen, Popular Resistance Committees, and Hamas – also fired rockets into Israel, almost coinciding with the Zbeeb and Daher’s cell’s failed attack. Pro-Iran Gazan factions later also threatened to fight the Israelis alongside Hezbollah if war broke out in response to the group’s September 1 retaliation.
Iran’s regional proxies have long declared their intention to work in unison against their common foes. Beyond mere words, they have actually done so for decades. Hezbollah sent fighters and experts to Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion in 2003 to train local militias and fight Americans, and the group’s experts are reportedly also present in Yemen to train the Houthis. Iraqis, for their part, fought Israel alongside Hezbollah against Isral in south Lebanon in 2006 and, along with the Houthis, have vowed to do so again in a future war. Most prominently Iran and its proxies from the Levant and beyond worked in unison in Syria to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime from demise. In this instance, Iran’s proxies worked in tandem transnationally, without having to deploy fighters to each other’s local territories, to enforce Tehran’s interests, indicating increased coordination between these territorially non-contiguous factions.
If reports from last weekend are accurate, and the IAF is continuing to conduct drone strikes against PMF militias, then Israel appears to have prevailed in this contest over red lines in Iraq, at least for now. But as it continues to contest Iran’s regional expansion, Jerusalem may now be facing a more coordinated, transnational foe with several proxies positioned on its borders.