Hezbollah unveils its military might in Syria
BEIRUT - A military parade on November 11th by Lebanon’s Hezbollah to mark the Shia organisation’s annual Martyrs’ Day revealed the extent to which the war in Syria has augmented the Iranian-backed Party of God’s military capabilities.
The parade in the Syrian town of Qusayr, 20km south of Homs, involved dozens of armoured vehicles, including tanks, personnel carriers (APCs), self-propelled artillery guns and communications-jamming vehicles, visual confirmation of year-old reports that Hezbollah has built an armoured brigade in Syria.
The addition of an armoured force underlines how much Hezbollah’s military capabilities have expanded in the last decade in quantity and quality. By admission of the party’s leaders, its missiles and rockets could reach any point in Israel.
Israel estimates that Hezbollah’s arsenal contains 130,000-150,000 missiles, compared to about 13,000 during the 2006 war with the Jewish state. Some of the missiles held by Hezbollah carry guidance systems and 500-kg warheads.
Hezbollah also possesses Iranian anti-ship missiles, a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles — some of which may have missile-carrying capabilities — with ranges that cover all of Israel.
Much of Hezbollah’s arsenal, let alone its sophisticated communications assets, would not look out of place in a European army.
The Lebanese daily As Safir quoted Hezbollah Deputy Secretary- General Sheikh Naim Qassem, as saying: “We now have a trained army and the Resistance (Hezbollah) does not need to rely on guerrilla tactics” — a statement retracted later by the group.
Hezbollah’s traditional military doctrine is rooted in small unit, hit-and-run guerrilla-style warfare adapted to confront the powerful Israeli Army but, since Hezbollah began intervening in Syria in the latter half of 2012 to defend the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the organisation has evolved into something more closely resembling a conventional army.
Hezbollah now fights in relatively large formations, alongside other military units, such as the Syrian Army and Shia paramilitaries from Iraq and elsewhere, operates armoured vehicles and artillery and calls in air strikes. It has deployed in a variety of terrains — from barren mountains to cramped urban neighbourhoods — previously unfamiliar to the Lebanese combatants — and has learned how to sustain a logistical supply line far from its core areas in Lebanon.
Some Hezbollah fighters have even parachuted from high-flying helicopters into combat zones, specifically the besieged Shia villages of Kefraya and Fouaa in Idlib province.
In September 2015, Kuwait’s Al- Rai daily reported that the Syrian Army had handed over 75 Soviet-era tanks, including T-55s and T-72s, so Hezbollah could build an armoured brigade. The parade in Qusayr provided confirmation of that report. Some of the armoured vehicles carried the new unit’s emblem.
Among the vehicles displayed were T-54, T-55, T-62 and T-72 tanks, BMP-1 armoured fighting vehicles, T-55 tank chassis mounted with 57mm anti-aircraft guns (used by
Hezbollah in a ground support role) and what appears to be R-330P electronic warfare vehicles that detect and jam radio communications. The parade included several all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) mounted with Russian Kornet anti-tank launchers, each carrying four missiles, and a large number of pick-up trucks, some fitted with twin-barrelled 23mm or 57mm anti-aircraft guns.
Curious additions were several US-made M113 APCs armed with 23mm anti-aircraft guns.
The Syrian Army does not possess M113 APCs, which suggests that the vehicles must have come from Lebanon as they are in use by the Lebanese Army. Some commentators indicated that the M113s may be the result of collusion with the Lebanese Army, the world’s fifth largest recipient of US military assistance, but no evidence of this has emerged. Hezbollah’s weaponry often surpasses the army’s.
Another possibility is that the APCs in Hezbollah’s possession were taken from southern Lebanon following Israel’s military withdrawal from its occupied border strip in May 2000. The defunct Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia used M113s and many were abandoned.
The parade in Qusayr was attended by Sheikh Hisham Safieddine, head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, who gave a speech to the assembled combatants.
Photographs of the event were released on Hezbollah-supporting social media sites. Qusayr was the scene of one of Hezbollah’s first major engagements in Syria when it overran the town in a 17-day battle in May-June 2013.
The mainly Sunni population of the town fled and has not returned. Instead, Qusayr has become an important military base for Hezbollah. The ruins of the town are used as an urban warfare training site in which company-sized Hezbollah units, armed with paintball guns, learn to attack and defend, according to a Hezbollah fighter who has served in Qusayr.
Hezbollah’s conventional-style military tactics in Syria are well-suited against the generally lightly armed rebel forces but it would be a mistake to assume that Hezbollah has abandoned its guerrilla origins in the context of a future war with Israel.
If Hezbollah and Israel come to blows again, the dozens of armoured vehicles paraded through Qusayr recently will stay on the Syrian side of the border.