Local circumstances limit the extent to which Iran and its proxies can retaliate against the US in Lebanon and Syria.
On January 3, a US drone strike killed Iranian General Qassim Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), shortly after he landed in Baghdad followinga visit to Lebanon and Syria. On January 8, the Iranian regime retaliated by firing ballistic missiles at military bases in Iraq housing American and Iraqi forces.
While direct confrontation between Washington and Tehran remains improbable in the foreseeable future, there are questions about what implications the current escalation might have for Lebanon and Syria, especially since Soleimani was the main architect of Iranian expansion in the Levant. However, Iran might face limitations for any retaliatory actions in Lebanon and Syria it may consider.
Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who had a close relationship with Soleimani, was the first proxy leader within the Iranian orbit to speak publicly after the assassination. When officials came to offer condolences, an image of Nasrallah was seen on display at Soleimani’s home, which speaks of the status he enjoys within the Iranian regime compared to leaders of other Iranian proxies.
In his January 5 speech, Hezbollah’s leader said it is time for US forces to leave the region and the way to accelerate that is to attack its military positions (rather than civilians). He also made it clear that members of the Iran-led “axis of resistance”, which includes Hezbollah, will decide themselves how to respond to the US, regardless of what Tehran does. In his second speech, on January 12, Nasrallah took this matter further by urging that “it is time for the axis of resistance to start working” on driving out US forces.
Since 2006, Hezbollah has acquired some form of autonomy from the Iranian regime in handling issues related to Lebanon even though the Lebanese armed group became more dependent on the Iranian regime for funding as a result of US sanctions against Lebanese banks and businesses that deal with Hezbollah. It remains to be seen if that autonomy will remain in place after the killing of Soleimani as Iran would expect more from its allies.
In a January 9 speech, IRGC Air Force commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh made it clear that Iran expects its proxies to take action. Speaking in front of the flags of Iranian backed-armed movements, including Hezbollah, he said that the next phase of retaliation will be undertaken by what he called “the resistance front”.
Although Hezbollah has the capabilities, experience and internal structures – led by Samer Abdallah, son-in-law of former Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh, assassinated in a 2008 CIA-Mossad operation in Syria – to carry out clandestine activities abroad, it stands to lose more than gain from any operation that is seen as a retaliation for Soleimani’s killing. Taking military action against the US or Israel in Lebanon or on its border also seems far-fetched at this point, given the dire economic crisis in the country and the growing frustration among the Shia community which was on display during the ongoing protests.
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