Hezbollah’s ties with Russia in Syria alarm Israelis
Beirut - Hezbollah’s importance in Syria has been enhanced by the role its battle-hardened forces and its patron, Iran, are playing in reshaping the badly battered Syrian Army from a conventional force structured to fight Israel to one more suited to the largely asymmetric Syrian conflict.
The Lebanese group’s own development in the Syrian war from a guerrilla organisation to a force more akin to a conventional army with tanks, artillery and drones is expected to expand further through growing tactical ties to Russian forces in Syria.
This has not gone unnoticed by Israel, which is concerned that Russian influence on improving Hezbollah’s combat capabilities could have ramifications for the Lebanese group’s enduring confrontation with the Jewish state.
While Hezbollah is passing on its own skill set to Syrian military formations, it is also looking to augment its martial prowess by association with Russian special forces units such as the elite Spetsnaz.
Lebanon’s Al Akhbar newspaper reported on November 24th that Russian officers and Hezbollah field commanders had met for the first time a week earlier at the Russians’ initiative. Previously, interaction between Russia’s military and Hezbollah was limited to the operations rooms in Damascus and Baghdad, Al Akhbar said.
The Russians have been impressed with Hezbollah’s performance in Aleppo and now want to coordinate on a tactical level.
Abu Khalil, a veteran Hezbollah fighter, said it and “the cream of the Russian army”, specifically special forces and anti-tank missile teams, have been fighting together in Aleppo.
“If you play with a good football team, you’ll learn something from them. We’re learning from them and they’re learning from us,” he observed.
Israeli military officials are concerned that the battlefield experiences a new generation of Hezbollah fighters are accruing in the Syrian cauldron and the operational lessons they learn from Russian forces could be used against the country.
A report by Israel’s National Security Council warned that Hezbollah could develop skills from the Russians in electronic warfare, training and commando operations.
“Massive training in the techniques of Spetsnaz could considerably improve the general readiness of Hezbollah and its ability to deal with Israeli special units that penetrate into different theatres,” the report said.
It is not clear how Iran, Hezbollah’s patron and paymaster, views the tactical cooperation between Russia and the Lebanese group, a move that supposedly would expand Moscow’s control of the Syrian battlefield. But it must be assumed that Tehran has approved the development even though Russia and Iran have divergent strategic objectives in Syria. So the emerging Russia-Hezbollah partnership may be limited.
Nonetheless, if Hezbollah learns new war-fighting techniques that one day might be used against Israel, Tehran should have no reason to object to the new arrangement even if it adds another layer of complexity to an already bewildering conflict.
Hezbollah is helping Syria rebuild its battered army, whose armoured and mechanised divisions have largely disintegrated after nearly six years of casualties, desertions and exhaustion.
What has emerged is a leaner amalgam of military units fighting alongside foreign paramilitary forces, such as Hezbollah and Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shia militias and some Russian infantry and special forces units.
Hezbollah’s well-trained fighters have spearheaded many successful offensives but relations between Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters have never been strong and appear to be deteriorating further even as the regime is making major battlefield gains.
Hezbollah men have long grumbled about ill-disciplined and untrustworthy Syrian troops.
“A Syrian soldier will happily take $10 and shoot us in the back,” Abu Khalil said.
Today, Syrian units often take orders from Hezbollah commanders and this is breeding resentment among Syrian officers. Sources close to Hezbollah said that in late November, Hezbollah fighters and Syrian soldiers fought each other in Aleppo using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The dispute was triggered by a Syrian officer embarrassed at being given orders in front of his men by a young Hezbollah fighter.
These intra-loyalist tensions probably do not pose a long-term risk to the durability of the pro- Assad military alliance but they do illustrate Hezbollah’s growing battlefield influence.
To ameliorate the perceived unreliability of the Syrian Army and its chronic manpower shortage, Iranian forces and Hezbollah have built a parallel military structure that falls largely under their command.
Iran helped establish, train and fund the National Defence Force militia, thought to number 80,000 volunteers and used mainly to garrison areas conquered by the regime.
In November, the Syrian Army announced plans to form a new commando force, the Fifth Attack Troops Corps of Volunteers. Lebanon’s As Safir newspaper reported that Hezbollah field commanders would play a major role in leading this unit.
Over the past year, Hezbollah has trained a new 50,000-strong unit of Syrian volunteers in Qusayr in Homs province, which has become a major military base for the movement since it defeated rebels there in June 2013.