All eyes were on Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in anticipation of his first speech since the start of the latest Israel-Hamas war on October 7. To the surprise of some, Nasrallah balanced his November 3 speech relative to the typical language defining the bombastic head of Iran’s strongest proxy group in the region, testing the limits of fiery rhetoric with efforts to distance his group from Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel. Yet, while some experts conclude that anything short of Hezbollah’s declaration of war against Israel is a signal of re-established deterrence against the group and the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance,” this victory lap fails to consider the escalatory risks still prevalent in this context. Nasrallah’s November 11 follow-up speech is indicative of this reality.
Indeed, Nasrallah included a particularly telling comment indicative of the first speech’s overall theme: “On the Lebanese front, all options are on the table.” This rhetoric coincided with calls for ongoing resistance against both Israel and the United States, which he connected to the fight for Palestine. However, he also indicated that the resistance already had opened a second front, referencing the actions of his group and other Iran-backed militias in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen against Israel and the United States.
This point is critical as it could indicate Hezbollah’s preferred level of involvement in this conflict. While it is true that daily and ongoing military exchanges are occurring along the disputed Lebanon-Syria-Israel border—strikes that have increased considerably relative to normal times—Nasrallah’s signal could also indicate his disinterest in deepening the conflict in this setting. Ultimately, by highlighting its active efforts to combat Israel since October 7, Hezbollah could be attempting to balance its efforts to retain its legitimacy as a supposed major backer of Palestine without trapping itself in a brutal escalatory spiral.
This consideration likely stems from the understanding that Israel would apply its current military strategy in Gaza to large parts of Lebanon at a time when Hezbollah can ill afford domestic setbacks. Tel Aviv appears to be implementing the Dahiya doctrine—a military strategy first publicly disclosed during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war that resulted in the widespread destruction of southern Lebanon. In short, this doctrine essentially calls for disproportionate force against the enemy to establish a degree of deterrence so strong that another full-scale conflict would not possibly arise.
Given Lebanon’s ongoing political, economic, and social collapse—one Hezbollah is intricately involved in—Nasrallah could assess that the risks of a full-scale war with Israel outweigh the benefits. The 2006 war certainly informs this conclusion as, while ending in a stalemate, it was incredibly destructive and painful for Lebanon. As the Lebanese street increasingly blames establishment political entities for its suffering, Hezbollah likely does not want to be viewed as worsening that plight by instigating another war with Israel.
Yet even with these considerations at play, the risk of escalation remains high regardless of public statements by all parties rejecting the war’s expansion. The Palestinian cause is engrained in the psyche of the Arab and Muslim street, just as Israeli security is arguably the defining aspect of its citizenry’s political ideology today. Heightened rhetoric amid the worst violence this region has witnessed in decades produces the perfect scenario for tactical mistakes and misunderstandings that could result in an uncontrolled spiral up the escalatory ladder.
This escalatory pattern is already present. Hezbollah, alongside military segments of both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), continues to strike northern Israel with missiles. In parallel, Israel has gradually increased the scale and frequency of its missile and artillery strikes on southern Lebanon, hitting civilian and military targets. One telling component of Israel’s strikes is their depth into Lebanon, which has gradually increased from 2 km to 16 km since October 7. Hezbollah has matched this escalation while also increasing the lethality of the weapons used—including one-way suicide drones and new missiles—as Nasrallah confirmed in his second speech on November 11.
Hezbollah’s decision to reportedly return roughly 1,500 fighters from Syria to Lebanon raises additional concerns in this context. This decision coincides with a previously reported effort to shift air defense assets from the Syrian army to Hezbollah. Whether these moves are strictly precautionary or indicative of future Hezbollah plans remains an open question.
Ultimately, the war in Gaza and other efforts to ethnically cleanse Palestinian communities in the West Bank risk forcing the Axis of Resistance’s hand. Expanding military actions such as troop redeployments and deeper attacks on Lebanese and Israeli territory suggest that both sides are trying to signal their limits. Yet, while Israel is likely facing pressure from Washington to avoid a broader conflict—which Tel Aviv likely also prefers to avoid outside of the more hawkish elements of the current government—it is difficult to see if the same applies to Iran and its proxies.
While Iran does not prefer an open conflict, it and its proxies face a real legitimacy question as Palestinians die in the thousands at the hands of Israel and its Western weapons. After his first speech, some in the crowd hurled insults at Nasrallah, demonstrating the pressure these groups face from their membership and the street to act. How might other regional actors view the group and, by extension, Iran’s strength and willingness to fight? Furthermore, how far can the Axis of Resistance tolerate the war before it must act to retain its legitimacy and sense of deterrence? Can Iran hold its proxies back from the precipice?
This concern is likely why Nasrallah balanced both speeches. Iran views Hezbollah as the crown jewel of the resistance and the critical factor in its broader regional deterrence strategy against its enemies. Tehran will not risk this group if it does not have to for its survival. Yet it may also struggle to control the group, just as it does with its proxies in Iraq. As such, Nasrallah portrayed an active fight against Israel and the chance of escalation to depict his group’s efforts to fight the enemy, likely hoping to subdue criticism for perceived inaction.
Whether this stance is sustainable remains to be seen. The hope is that a broader regional conflict can still be avoided. The reality may be far more complicated as the world continues to see images of dead children and pummeled Gazan neighborhoods for a second month.
Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him at @langloisajl and @langloisajl.bsky.social.
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