Mustafa Fahs

The Assassination and The Rules of Engagement

Israeli wartime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaped over every rule of engagement. His attacks went beyond the southern and northern borders of the Litani River, reaching the southern suburbs of Beirut. The strike that saw Hamas suffer its first security breach since October 7th occurred outside the Gaza Strip, in the stronghold of Hezbollah, in a high-risk attack that broke with all restraint. The Israeli war cabinet had probably assessed the retaliation risks of the two operations before deciding to assassinate the senior Hamas official Sheikh Saleh al-Arouri, and Quds Force Major General Reza al-Mousavi in Damascus a few days before that.
After the assassination, all eyes were on the southern suburbs again as everyone tried to make out what Hezbollah's Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah would say in his speech on the fourth anniversary of the killing of Qassem Soleimani on Wednesday. However, the speech was no different from the few that had preceded it, meaning that Hezbollah remains committed to the rules of engagement. Since Israelis have crossed the limits of this conflict, Hezbollah will cross them too, “later,” but retaliation is tied to the expansion of the conflict, and it has not crossed them in response to the assassination as of yet.
The assassination broke Hezbollah’s deterrence, which the party needs to rebuild in order to prevent future Israeli transgressions. Israel crossed the line on two levels: first, the attack hit the capital. Second, it targeted a senior figure, and Tel Aviv will likely do so in Beirut again if it begins to implement its security plan to eliminate everyone it believes bears responsibility for the Al-Aqsa Flood operation, as it had those it accused of planning the famous Munich operation. This means that Lebanon will be particularly vulnerable in this wave of assassinations, which creates security concerns for the party and demands a grave response that rebuilds the balance of deterrence. That cannot happen overnight. It will be a while before we see a response as severe as the Israelis’ attack. As for direct deterrence on the field, any intense bombardments at the border that do not transcend the agreed-upon geographical parameters fall within the rules of engagement.
Netanyahu decided to assassinate Arouri in Beirut after failing to achieve any of the strategic objectives he had set nearly three months into his war on Gaza. Schisms between him and the US administration are beginning to emerge. Most notably, we saw leaks about sharp disagreements between him and the US President in their last phone call, and two days ago, the number two in the US National Security Council, John Kirby, said: “(Hamas) still have enormous capabilities. We don’t believe that military attacks alone are going to eradicate an ideology... you still have to reconcile yourself with the fact that there may still be some Hamas around”. Thus, his attack is akin to a mutiny against the US administration, which remains somewhat committed to the two-state solution, and Netanyahu is pushing the conflict to new levels that could be difficult to contain, especially on the Lebanese front, where Israel is now prepared for any eventuality.
On the other side, unknown perpetrators attacked the Iranian city of Kerman, the hometown of former Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, on the fourth anniversary of his assassination. They carried out an operation by detonating two bombs placed among the mourners. A US State Department official likened the attack to ISIS bombings.
Tehran vowed to respond and take vengeance against the perpetrators. So far, however, it is exercising what it calls “strategic patience - a pretext that spares Iran from sliding into a harsh confrontation with Tel Aviv and Washington. Indeed, Iran seeks to maintain its negotiating gains with the US administration and avoid escalation, regardless of the sacrifices and losses. That was leaked by the New York Times, which has reported that Ayatollah Khamenei has sent orders to limit attacks on US bases in Iraq and Syria and to avoid direct confrontation with Washington at any cost. His statement also applies to the Lebanese front.