Is Hezbollah preparing to be struck or preparing to strike?
Ynet quotes a Lebanese newspaper which says Hezbollah has gone to full alert following the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus, ordered 50,000 of its fighters to high alert, and evacuated most of its openly used buildings in south Lebanon in order to prepare 'to curb any Israeli aggression.'" VOA reports Syrian and Iranian officials met Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal and Ramadan Abdullah of Islamic Jihad presumably do discuss a response to Mughniyeh's death. Hezbollah itself has filled Mugniyeh's vacancy by appointing a new commander in secret.
In the meantime the FBI and DHS warned state and local law enforcement authorities to watch for retaliatory strikes by Hezbollah. The joint bulletin said that "while retaliation in the U.S. homeland is unlikely, Hezbollah has demonstrated a capability to respond outside the Middle East to similar events in the past". This, while Israel's chief of staff has "ordered land, air and naval forces on alert to ensure the defense of the northern border and of other Israeli interests," and its facilities abroad hunkered down.
The question on both sides of the line is who is going to move next. Judging by reactions Mughniyeh's death was both a tactical and strategic surprise. Internal investigations into security breaches indicate Syria, Iran and Hezbollah themselves ares still trying to figure out how Mughniyeh was hit. But the secret appointment of a new Hezbollah head and evacuation of their buildings in South Lebanon suggests they also haven't decided why they were hit. There is palpable uncertainty in Damascus over whether Mughniyeh's death was a one-off or the first blow of a wider campaign against them.
Syria in particular must be nervous, following the recent destruction of a mysterious facility in the Syrian desert in which Israeli cyberwar played a large part and the suspicious outage in undersea fiber optic cables serving the Middle East.
The problem facing Syria and Iran (together with the terrorist menageries based in their capitals) has two aspects: where to strike back and how quickly. In deciding the terrorist leaders must calculate whether their response will provoke a full-scale attack by Israel and or if their return blow will come too late to prevent yet another blow upon them.
The terrorist dilemma is compounded by the 2008 Presidential elections in the US. An attack on an American target would re-energize the conservative base. A war with Israel would force every American Presidential candidate to take a definite stand in the conflict. Either could doom Barack Obama's bid for the White House -- as well as efforts by Congress to defang the surveillance of terrorist suspects. Of course if Syria had any problems estimating possible effects on American politics, Assad could ask his guests. As the NY Sun observed on Feb 15, "one of Mr. Obama's foreign policy counselors, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a long-time critic of Israel, and one of Mrs. Clinton's national finance chairs, Hassan Nemazee, were meeting with President Assad".
It is also complicated by the situation in Lebanon itself. Hezbollah's efforts to take over Lebanon politically could go up in smoke if it provoked a wider war with Israel. At the same time neither Damascus, Teheran or it terrorist minions could afford to appear helpless. They must strike back without being sure how hard or how quickly.
The fear in both Damascus and Teheran today is probably that some other unexpected and unattributed blow will descend on it from out of the blue. A blow hard enough to hurt but a short of war; a blow likely to have come from either America or Israel but not for certain. One that will leave them exactly where they are now, but with a few more teeth missing.