Preparations on both the Syrian and the Israeli side for a possible retaliation for Imad Mugniyah's killing have brought about a "cold escalation" on the northern border that could lead to an open military confrontation.
Since Hizbullah's leader's assassination in Damascus in February, Syria and Israel have gradually boosted deployment on the ground, while at the same time sending out covert and overt warnings to the other side.
Arab news outlets recently reported that Syria has already started reinforcing its forces on the Lebanese border, called up the reserves for training and raised alertness of its missile, rocket and anti-aircraft systems. Hizbullah has also boosted preparations for a potential Israeli tank offensive, while making last-minute efforts to have its heavy rocket systems north of the Litani River ready.
The recent escalation emanates from Israel's assessment that Hizbullah – with the aid of Syria and Iran – is planning a big terror attack, or a rocket and missile attack, as revenge for Mugniyah's death. Officials also estimate the Syria might join forces with Hizbullah in such an attack, to retaliate for Israel's strike on its alleged nuclear facility last summer.
Meanwhile, Syria, Hizbullah and Iran are aware that such an attack could lead to a "hard and disproportionate" Israeli response, which Israeli officials have already threatened to deliver. Israel's enemies believe that such a response would include a large-scale airstrike on Lebanon and Syria that would help Israel rebuild its deterrence following the Second Lebanon War.
Hamas to aid Hizbullah?
While revenge for Mugniyah is currently the most obvious cause for the rising tension on the border, Israeli intelligence officials also believe that if the IDF launches a wide-scale operation in Gaza, Iran could instruct Hizbullah to aid Hamas by firing rockets at Israel.
A reverse scenario, in which Hamas launches rockets, missiles and terror attacks on Israel in a bid to help Hizbullah in the north is also plausible.
A third scenario that should be taken into account is that Syria may take advantage of a retaliatory attack by Hizbullah, and a consequent Israeli response, to regain its control over Lebanon and crown the Shiite organization as the dominant political force in the country.