By Girish Linganna
Along the border between Lebanon and Israel, a missile expert from Hezbollah is currently preparing for a war situation with a level of intensity and readiness he has never experienced before. Dressed in black tactical pants, green camouflage attire, and armed with a pistol, the officer from the Iran-backed Shiite militia wears a weary expression that alternates between moments of excitement and anxiety. He expresses unwavering high morale and a strong belief in the imminent battle.
Because he interprets the surprise raid by Hamas on October 7th, resulting in 1,400 Israeli casualties and prompting an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, as a signal for a broader and long-anticipated conflict against Israel and its strong American ally. This conflict would involve every regional armed faction associated with Iran’s self-proclaimed “Axis of Resistance.”
On October 7th, we can label it as the day when the decline of Israel commenced, and this significantly boosts our morale,” states Hassan, a Hezbollah veteran with 22 years of experience. Hassan from Hezbollah assures that when they receive the order to support Hamas against the Israelis, you will witness a significant change. Their goal is to put an end to the Israeli actions resulting in massacres against the Palestinians.
Certainly. From Yemen to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, the Iran-backed factions, which have been nurtured and armed for decades by the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have already been put into action.
The most prominent component of this “axis” is Lebanese Hezbollah, which has gained extensive combat experience during a decade-long involvement in the Syrian conflict. They are believed to possess a formidable arsenal of over 150,000 missiles, which has maintained a state of mutual deterrence with Israel for years.
However, during Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s long-awaited public statement on Friday, there were no instructions given for a full-scale Hezbollah attack on Israel, despite the anticipation. While Mr. Nasrallah’s passionate language criticized American “hypocrisy” and emphasized the paramount importance of the fight against “these Zionists,” it concealed a deliberate attempt to balance and address the conflicting objectives and motivations of Iran, Hezbollah, and the other factions.
Hezbollah has been steadily increasing its operations on a daily basis, strategically taking calculated risks to engage Israeli troops and support Hamas. Mr. Nasrallah emphasized their readiness for any situation and called on the Americans, or anyone else who wishes to prevent a regional war, to swiftly cease the aggression on Gaza.
Iran has praised the Hamas assault, which utilized years of covert Iranian assistance, including arms, funding, and weapons technology, to carry out the most significant attack on the state of Israel since its establishment in 1948.
The brutal attack led to an intense Israeli retaliation, with over 10,000 airstrikes and missile strikes, accompanied by a ground offensive aimed at eradicating Hamas entirely. The conflict has resulted in a reported death toll of around 9,000 people in Gaza since October 7.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are of the Shiite faction, have launched three separate volleys of missiles and drones, covering a distance of over 1,000 miles towards Israel. Additionally, Shiite militias supported by Iran in Syria and Iraq have carried out numerous assaults on American military forces deployed in those regions.
Hezbollah has intensified its confrontations with Israel, resulting in a growing loss of life on both sides and an expansion of hostilities into each other’s territories. This escalation includes a recent series of coordinated strikes on Thursday, targeting 19 Israeli locations.
Fabian Hinz, an expert on Iranian and regional missile capabilities at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Berlin, suggests that if Israel does not succeed in ousting Hamas from Gaza during a ground incursion and instead withdraws, it could represent a significant victory for the broader ‘Axis of Resistance.’
According to him, Iran-backed militias have historically assessed their advancements based on previous conflicts that led to the development of enhanced deterrence and capabilities against Israel, while avoiding actions that could jeopardize the existence of any particular group.
However, Mr. Hinz believes that the sheer magnitude of the Hamas attack could turn out to be a significant misjudgement. It may disrupt the gradual course of events and trigger such a robust Israeli retaliation against Hamas that no subsequent action, not even from Hezbollah, might be able to halt it.
This meticulously developed deterrence, which allowed Hamas to accumulate tens of thousands of rockets and maintain the capability for a ground incursion, was essentially risked and lost by Hamas in that attack,” Mr. Hinz remarks. According to him, if the ‘axis’ cannot dissuade the Israelis from entering Gaza, it represents a significant setback in a high-stakes scenario.
The Palestinian cause and Iran’s strong opposition to Israel have been fundamental elements of Iran’s leadership ideology since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranian officials proudly point out that Palestinian fighters, who once relied on rudimentary tools like stones, knives, and slingshots, now utilize rockets, ballistic missiles, and drones supplied by Iran, illustrating a transformation that Iran has replicated among its proxy militias.
Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian issued a warning, emphasizing that all parties in the region have their fingers on the trigger, coinciding with the movement of Israeli tanks into Gaza.
Iran has consistently disavowed any direct involvement in the Hamas raid. However, in the ongoing conflict, Hamas leaders have appealed to Hezbollah and Iran for increased support. Nicholas Blanford, a Hezbollah expert based in Beirut affiliated with the Atlantic Council, suggests that the Iranians are unlikely to put Hezbollah in a precarious position for the sake of Hamas. Ultimately, Hezbollah plays a pivotal role in Iran’s deterrence strategy.
According to Mr. Blanford, the author of “Warrior of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel,” instructing Hezbollah to engage with Israel without regard to the consequences could lead to significant damage to Hezbollah’s capabilities, and there’s no assurance that they could rapidly reequip and rearm as they did after the 2006 conflict, jeopardizing their role as a deterrent force for Iran.
Mr. Blanford observes a prevailing sense of restraint at the moment, but he believes that’s a rational assessment. He suggests that the Iranians typically approach situations logically, but the circumstances in Gaza might alter their calculus.
He also anticipates increased activity along the Lebanon-Israel border, including drone attacks, minor incursions, and ambushes, to maintain ongoing tensions. Mr. Blanford highlights that Hezbollah has various options before committing to an all-out war, ranging from subtle strategies to more overt actions.
Yemen’s Houthi forces have seen their rockets and drones intercepted and shot down, whether by American warships in the Red Sea, Israel, or having them land in Egypt or Jordan. However, Abdelaziz bin Habtour, the prime minister of the Houthi government in control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, stated this week that Houthi forces would persist in their strikes as part of the broader ‘Axis of Resistance.’ He emphasized the existence of a unified ‘axis,’ indicating coordination among the involved parties, a joint operations room, and a shared command structure for these activities.
According to Nadwa al-Dawsari, a Yemen specialist at the Middle East Institute in Washington, this represents Iran’s support for the Houthis coming to fruition. The Houthis were originally guerrilla fighters in the remote northern regions of Yemen, but they have received training and support from the Iranians for at least the past two decades. This assistance has included the presence of IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and Quds Force commanders on the ground to help them advance their missile and drone technology. According to her, Iran has played a crucial role in shaping the capabilities and strength of the Houthi group.
Simultaneously, engaging in the conflict against Israel as part of Iran’s broader “axis” also benefits the Houthis within Yemen, where they have faced increasing criticism for their ineffective governance during a period of relative peace over the last year and a half.
Internally, the Houthis find the need for war to justify their control over the population without effective governance. In this context, the current situation is seen as an ideal opportunity, as it allows the Houthis to enhance their popularity and bolster their recruitment of fighters.
Nearer to Israel, along Lebanon’s southern border, a missile expert from Hezbollah named Hassan, known as a “true believer” by friends, remembered sharing with the Monitor in Beirut back in August his deep concern: “My biggest fear is to pass away without witnessing the liberation of Palestine – but it seems to be drawing nearer.”
After the events of October 7, what did Hassan convey to his family as he departed for the southern front?”I told my family: Please pray for me. If it’s God’s will, I might become a martyr on the path to Palestine.” (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)