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There are fears of militant groups in Hezbollah entering the war

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S. State Department has warned U.S. citizens to leave Lebanon. It comes amid growing fears of a major escalation between the militant group Hezbollah and Israel. The U.S. sent warships to the region last week, hoping to deter Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, from launching a full-scale attack. Mohanad Hage Ali is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, and he joins us now from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

MOHANAD HAGE ALI: Thank you for hosting me.

SIMON: There have already been deadly exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel in recent days. Do you foresee an escalation?

ALI: For Hezbollah, there are two factors from there and in terms of an escalation. The first one is that they've built an alliance in the past few years. It's called the unity of fronts alliance. And that alliance entails any of the members of that alliance, whether Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, others - are under kind of an existential threat that the organization step in and help and try to provide support militarily and join the war. So it's a kind of a NATO for militant groups. And that would - at some stage of Hamas is under an existential threat. I would suppose that Hezbollah would find it difficult not to intervene, although it's - it remains a kind of a challenge given the cost of the conflict and what it means for Lebanon.

SIMON: Well, let me follow up on all of that because Israel and Hezbollah fought a war in 2006. There was no clear victor. Is Hezbollah's military strength much greater now?

ALI: Of course. Hezbollah has built many layers of deterrence and military power in the past 17 years since the end of the 2006 conflict. On one hand, firepower is at a much higher level. They estimate about 150,000 rockets. So their ability to launch missiles is at a much higher pace. Secondly, they have precision rockets, something like the cruise missile, which can target installations, respond to the Israeli targeting of Lebanon's infrastructure. They can respond to that. And I think that would have a higher toll on the Israeli side than it had in 2006. And also, Hezbollah has developed its drone capabilities in the past decade. It's put them into use in Syria. And we've seen some use of that drone capabilities in southern Lebanon. They do have an advanced level of that that is definitely at a higher level than Hamas's.

SIMON: What you described could be a much more devastating conflict than anything we've seen so far.

ALI: Yes, of course. The Israeli assessment of Hezbollah's capabilities is whatever you've seen from Hamas, it's tenfold that. So definitely, this will be a wider conflict. And it will see not only Hezbollah but also other actors step in.

SIMON: Does anyone in Lebanon have the stomach for more war while they're going through such a devastating economic collapse?

ALI: A definitive no here. And I think that's one of the considerations why Hezbollah has to think deeply before going to war. This is a country which has seen devastating crisis since 2019. The exchange rate has plummeted. The inflation is unprecedented levels. I mean, the level of the crisis that Lebanon is going through now is as big as basically anyone would've anticipated.

SIMON: What about the possibility of the war widening even more because, of course, Iran's support of Hezbollah?

ALI: On one hand, Iran has built all of these alliances and sponsorships of these groups and proxies just to avoid getting into conflict itself, you know, to have a kind of a first line of defense rather than having to fight this conflict in Tehran. So I wouldn't suppose that Iran is ready to join in. And there's not much that Iran can contribute from a distance in such a war.

SIMON: Mohanad Hage Ali, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, thanks so much for being with us.

ALI: Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.