Hezbollah’s capabilities pose serious problem to Israel
DUBAI - The heavy and escalating Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian war is seen by many, inside and outside Israel, as a blessing because it has kept the arch-enemy of the country preoccupied in a war of attrition that has been draining its resources and undermining its popular base domestically and regionally.
However, Israeli military and defence analysts have been watching with increasing concern the valuable experience Hezbollah fighters are picking up in Syria, especially in conducting offensive operations.
Hezbollah has led massive assaults on positions of Syrian rebels in different parts of Syria, especially in the areas along the Syrian-Lebanese borders such as Qalamoun and Quneitra.
Recent battles led by Hezbollah reveal that it has vastly improved its capabilities in the following areas:
– Hezbollah formations are no longer confined to small squadron-size groups. They are deployed in platoon- and battalion-size formations in coordinated attacks. Hezbollah has succeeded in structuring its fighting units and rotating them regularly in a way that combatants are not left on front lines for more than a few months.
It is believed that Hezbollah has, at any given time, at least 5,000 fighters in Syria. This number spiked in the Qalamoun confrontations to about 10,000. This includes the hard-core fighters and support units.
– Hezbollah has been using artillery cover in a better and coordinated way. The group used to use its arsenal of missiles to bombard Israeli settlements and military positions for defensive purposes. However, in Syria Hezbollah is using artillery as well as missiles to provide firepower to cover the advances of its attacking forces.
– Hezbollah is using drones more effectively in reconnaissance and surveillance operations to gather vital intelligence needed to protect the advancing forces and to pre-empt rebel attacks. The party has reportedly used drones to attack enemy positions.
– Hezbollah has considerably improved its logistical operations to support big offensives. It has demonstrated good capability in maintaining a steady flow of supplies and ammunition to front lines to keep up the momentum of the attacking formations. Some battlefronts are deep in Syrian territories in remote and mountainous areas. It has used its engineering corps to open roads and build bunkers.
– Hezbollah has demonstrated good capability in training foreign fighters and fighting alongside them. This is particularly true with the Iranian-backed Shia militias recruited from Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are scores of Shia militiamen in Syria and, according to Iranian sources, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) intend to have an army of 50,000 fighters in Syria to fight alongside thousands of Hezbollah troops to support Syrian regime forces. Hezbollah is building good experience in handling large numbers of casualties — killed and wounded. This is essential in offensive operations to keep high moral among troops and confidence in their command.
Hezbollah has reportedly lost nearly 1,000 fighters in Syria with about 7,000 wounded.
Israel has so far watched Hezbollah from a distance but with apparent two red lines:
First, it will not tolerate the transfer of any advanced strategic weapons, such as ballistic missiles and anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, from Iran to the group via Syria. Israeli warplanes have raided convoys along the borders believed to be carrying weapons to Hezbollah.
Second, Israel will not allow Hezbollah and the IRGC to set up bases in Quneitra province along the Golan Heights. Israeli jets struck a convoy killing Hezbollah and IRGC commanders a few months ago in Quneitra in a clear message to the party and Tehran that it was willing to use military force to counter their plans to link up the south Lebanon front with Golan and place Iranian missiles along Israeli borders.
It is not clear how long Israel will tolerate the situation in which not only is Hezbollah gaining valuable offensive operational experience but also building with Iran a large army of Shia militias along its borders. By early next year Iranian-backed militias and Hezbollah will have at least ten combat-hardened divisions along Israel’s northern borders. Although it is widely believed that forces being built by Iran and Hezbollah will likely be used to help establish an Alawite state for the Syrian regime between the Syrian west coast and Damascus, these forces can quickly deploy to south Lebanon via Hezbollah controlled lines from southern Syria and across Lebanon. Israel is likely to keep its guard high on Hezbollah’s army and continue to worry about its growing offensive military capabilities despite the party’s involvement in the bloody Syrian war.
The question is what additional redline Israel might impose on Hezbollah and what would be the trigger point that would lead to the breakout of a new war with Hezbollah that would most likely include IRGC units and Shia militias?