Will Iran and the US clash in Lebanon and Syria?

Local circumstances limit the extent to which Iran and its proxies can retaliate against the US in Lebanon and Syria.

Lebanon Nasrallah
Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses a funeral ceremony to mourn Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in Beirut's suburbs on January 5, 2020 [Reuters/Aziz Taher]

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 following a 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.

The Lebanese protests might have a lasting impact on Lebanon more than the killing of Soleimani. Political changes they triggered managed to break apart the 2016 presidential deal backed by a tacit US-Iranian understanding that led to the selection of Michel Aoun as president and Saad Hariri as prime minister. Although Hariri resigned on October 29 under public pressure, he has not cut ties with Hezbollah and appears hopeful of making a comeback at some point.

It is not clear whether the latest round of US-Iranian tensions will change his calculus and force him to revert to anti-Hezbollah rhetoric, but his lack of funding and his political weakness could make him less inclined to go down that route. Saudi Arabia, supposedly the main regional backer of Hariri, does not seem invested in playing a major role in Lebanon, nor in escalating tensions with Iran in the foreseeable future.

The renewed US-Iranian tensions, however, might complicate the cabinet formation process, as the country faces a looming financial crisis.

Hezbollah and its allies might become keener on placing veteran politicians in key ministerial posts instead of technocrats – as the protesters have demanded – since emerging regional developments would require certain foreign policy positions from the Lebanese government. This might trigger political tensions in the country if Hariri or the US perceived the new cabinet as pro-Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, any retaliatory action in Lebanon’s neighbour, Syria, might also be restrained.

While Hezbollah has significantly reduced its role in Syria, partially due to increasing frustration among its constituents in Lebanon, the group could re-emerge and potentially exploit weak points of the US forces either in northeast Syria or around al-Tanf military base near the Iraqi-Jordanian-Syrian border but this might come at a cost of US retaliation through airstrikes.

Iran too could take action in Syria, especially in the face of continuing airstrikes on its positions by Israeli jets – most recently on January 10 in the Bukamal area on the Iraqi-Syrian border. Israel’s emboldened operations in Syria might prompt Tehran to reinforce deterrence by switching to an offensive posture.

But both Hezbollah and Iran will be limited in what they can do by Russia’s dominant presence.

On January 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Syria before his trip to Turkey, which was meant as a reminder that Russia will not allow the US and Iran to move their confrontation to Syria. If Iran decides to target US forces in Syria, this might complicate its coordination and competition with Russia.

Even though Moscow wants to ultimately have US forces leave Syria, for now it does not want this to happen by force under its watch. Moreover, an Iranian move against the US in Syria might also antagonise Turkey given the current arrangements in northeast Syria, and this does not serve Iranian interests since Ankara was supportive of Tehran, in rhetoric at least, after the killing of Soleimani. Iranian-backed groups in Syria are also not prepared and disciplined enough (compared to Hezbollah) to carry out a major offensive.

The assassination of Soleimani, who helped nurture close relationships with the leaders of Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, is a setback for Iranian influence in the region. However, his leadership of the Quds Force was not a one-man show and Iranian institutions will carry on his legacy even if the frequency and intimacy of communications with proxy leaders may no longer be the same.

At the same time, despite the fiery rhetoric coming out of Tehran, a military response against the US or US interests in Lebanon and Syria seems less likely. In fact, both the US and Iran have little wiggle room to manoeuvre in these two countries where they may opt for less aggressive tactics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.