With eye on Israel, Hezbollah ‘smuggles in missile parts by air’
Beirut - Recent Israeli air strikes against a suspected arms convoy and depot in Syria and accusations that Iran is flying military material destined for Hezbollah through Beirut airport illustrate that, despite its intervention in the Syrian war, the Party of God remains heavily focused on its southern front with Israel.
The Syria war is Hezbollah’s most extensive military engagement, dwarfing its past conflicts with Israel, but the movement’s leaders are concerned that Israel may take advantage of the party’s preoccupation with Syria to launch an offensive in Lebanon to degrade Hezbollah’s military assets.
An unprovoked, unilateral attack by Israel, however, is highly unlikely as it would risk triggering a devastating war that could see Hezbollah’s guided missiles with 500-kilogram warheads crashing into Tel Aviv and other cities.
Nevertheless, Hezbollah maintains close watch on Israeli behaviour and continues to prepare for the next conflict with the Jewish state, even as it fights in Syria.
On November 30th, Israeli jets operating in Lebanese airspace fired long-range missiles into Syria, striking an arms depot in Saboura, 10km west of Damascus, reportedly a base for the Syrian Army’s elite 4th Armoured Division.
A second strike was reportedly against an arms convoy on the Damascus-Beirut highway. A security source in Beirut said the convoy consisted of 30 vehicles carrying weapons, including unspecified rocket systems, and was destroyed in the attack.
Since January 2013, the Israeli Air Force has carried out at least 13 air raids in Syria and one in Lebanon against stockpiles of what it considers game-changing weapons, such as guided missiles and advanced air-defence systems, destined for Hezbollah.
Although Israel stays silent after each attack, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu admitted in April that the Israeli Air Force had staged “dozens of strikes” in Syria. However, the rate of attacks has slowed significantly since Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015 and installed long-range S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems.
The Russian and Israeli militaries established a hot line to ensure there are no mishaps between their respective air forces and Moscow appears to turn a blind eye to Israel’s anti-Hezbollah operations in Syria.
Nevertheless, in the three or four suspected Israeli air strikes against Hezbollah-related targets in Syria since September 2015, Israeli aircraft did not breach Syrian airspace but launched missiles from Lebanese skies.
Israeli aircraft, out of respect for the dense Syrian air defence network around Damascus, have previously used this cautious procedure against targets in Syria that lie close to the Lebanese border. The presence in Syria of advanced Russian anti-aircraft systems may have persuaded the Israelis to be even more prudent.
If the arms convoy was a Hezbollah attempt to smuggle more weapons into Lebanon, it demonstrates that the party is eager to amass more weaponry even after ten years of almost uninterrupted arms inflows.
While the land route from Syria is the most common means of moving weapons into Lebanon, using graded tracks that cross the border in the Zabadani area, Hezbollah may well use air and maritime routes as well.
In November, Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, accused Iran of ferrying weapons to Hezbollah using commercial flights to Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport.
He claimed that arms and “related material” were packed into suitcases and flown by Iran’s Mahan airlines to Beirut or Damascus. The claim was vigorously denied by Lebanese and Iranian authorities.
It is not the first time that Iran has been accused of flying arms to Hezbollah via Beirut airport. In the 1990s, when Hafez Assad was president of Syria and Hezbollah was battling Israeli occupation forces in south Lebanon, the delivery of arms via Damascus allowed the Syrians to monitor and control the flow of weaponry in terms of quantity and quality.
Assad supported Hezbollah’s resistance campaign but was reluctant to allow the Lebanese militants to acquire advanced weapons, such as air-defence systems, that could cause an escalation with Israel and potentially drag in Syria.
However, in October 1999 when Syria and Israel were preparing to resume peace talks after a hiatus of more than three years, an Israeli newspaper claimed that the Iranians were flying weapons directly to Beirut airport because Assad had banned arms shipments via Damascus.
The Iranian move must have had the nod of approval from Damascus even as Assad was indicating to Israel that he could rein in Hezbollah if his peace demands were fulfilled.
However, the peace talks collapsed in March 2000. Assad died three months later and his son Bashar became president.
Since then, not only has Hezbollah continued to receive arms from Iran, it also acquired Syrian-manufactured rockets and missiles. The curbs on Hezbollah’s weaponry during the rule of Assad senior ended with his death.
Today, if Iran and Syria possess, or can acquire, any weapon system that is suitable to Hezbollah’s mode of warfare against Israel, there is a more than reasonable chance it can be found in the party’s hidden arms depots.