Sun Tzu, the 6th-century b.c.e. Chinese military strategist, argued that battles are won before they are fought. Israel decided to channel some of that wisdom in the first week of December, launching an operation dubbed “Northern Shield” to root out Hezbollah tunnels along the Israel–Lebanon border. One of the tunnels, underneath bucolic farmland, stretched 40 meters into Israel and targeted the border community of Metula. Israel’s operation is not just about finding tunnels. It seeks to preempt the next war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which would likely be a much larger conflict that would drag in Iranian-backed militias in Syria and potentially accelerate Iran’s collision course with U.S. forces in Syria.
Since the 2006 Lebanon War, both Israel and Hezbollah have been preparing for the next round. Hezbollah boasts annually that it “won” the 2006 war and said in August that it was more powerful than Israel. Iran arms and funds Hezbollah and has worked closely with the terrorist group in Syria to support the Bashar al-Assad regime. Iran believes Hezbollah can challenge Jerusalem. In late November, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that there is “growing weakness of the Zionist regime,” using Israel’s “failure” to defeat Hezbollah in 2006 as an example.
Israeli officials, including former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, have warned that the next war with Hezbollah will target Lebanon’s infrastructure and will be the “final northern war,” implying that Hezbollah will be totally obliterated if it tests Jerusalem’s resolve. This was the context in which Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of a NATO conference in Brussels on December 3 to discuss Iran and Hezbollah. Hours later, Israel launched Operation Northern Shield.
I drove up to Israel’s northern border to see the operation. Military jeeps and Humvees made their way through the formerly quiet communities overlooking Lebanon. Military police cordoned off sections of road as they carried out their work round-the-clock.
There is a web in the Middle East that connects the anti-tunneling operation on Israel’s northern border with Jerusalem, Washington, Beirut, Damascus, and Moscow. Russia and Iran are the Syrian regime’s key allies. Iran wants to use the Syrian conflict, which is winding down, to carve out a corridor of influence through Iraq and Syria to its Hezbollah ally.
Israel has sought to prevent this by launching up to 300 airstrikes in the last seven years. In September, one of those airstrikes caused Syrian air defenses to mistakenly shoot down a Russian warplane near Latakia as the Syrians wildly targeted the attacking Israeli aircraft. In response, Moscow was livid and sent its S-300 air-defense system to Syria to ward off Israel from any further “hot headed” attacks. Since then, reports of Israeli airstrikes in Syria have diminished.
Iran thinks it has a free hand now in Syria and the region. It continues to test new ballistic missiles, which Pompeo says are a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. In addition, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have sent 3,000 personnel to Syria and constructed ten bases and 40 other positions in Syria, according to a U.S. Department of Defense study review in August. They also support 9,000 Hezbollah members and 10,000 other Shi’ite fighters in Syria.
The U.S. and Israel both want Iran and the forces it supports to withdraw from Syria. How to get Iran to do that is not so simple. Washington is concerned about increasing Iranian “provocations” against both Israel and U.S. forces based in southern and eastern Syria. At the same time, Russia has ramped up its criticism of the U.S. role in Syria, frequently pushing stories in pro-Moscow media excoriating Washington’s war on ISIS or accusing the U.S. of supporting ISIS. The State Department responded on December 7, claiming the stories were Russian and Assad-regime inventions.
The Middle East, like a giant chessboard waiting for an opponent to make the wrong move, is quickly careening towards its next conflict as the civil war in Syria winds down and ISIS is defeated. That conflict is multifaceted. It pits the U.S. against Iran and its proxies in both Syria and Iraq. On another front Israel and Hezbollah are squaring off. The battlefield is not contained in one country. Because Iran’s network of allies, militias, proxies, and Republican Guard bases stretches across Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, any conflict between Israel and Hezbollah will likely involve Syria as well. Russia could be drawn into the potential conflict as well because its air-defense systems in Syria challenge both the U.S.-led coalition and Israel.
Sun Tzu thought that by anticipating the enemy’s next move or bringing such overwhelming force to the field that the enemy is deterred, you can win a battle before it is fought. So far Iran’s regime, despite its bragging, has only carefully tested the U.S. and Israel. As these two alliance systems — the U.S. and Israel on one side, and Iran and its allies on the other — watch each other, the anti-tunnel operation is a smart play by Jerusalem. It is the opening salvo in Jerusalem’s attempt to win the next battle before it’s fought.
Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, this article has been emended since its original publication.