Hezbollah’s Tenure in Syria: Tactical and Strategic Implications

Photo Credit: NationalSecurity.com

By: Sarah Gilkes, Columnist

In a televised address on May 25, 2013, Hezbollah Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah formally announced the organization’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.[i] In the weeks and months that followed Nasrallah’s address, commentators declared Hezbollah’s engagement in Syria the group’s Vietnam: a high-risk conflict that was likely to drag on for years, deny clear victory, and degrade Hezbollah’s political and military standing in Lebanon and across the region.[ii]

In the almost three and a half years since Nasrallah’s announcement, the Syrian conflict has continued unabated and peaceful settlement seems more elusive than ever. During this period, Hezbollah has undoubtedly been under political, military, and financial strain. Yet, despite these pressures, the conflict is far from Hezbollah’s Vietnam. Fighting alongside Russian and Iranian forces in Syria has bolstered Hezbollah’s military capacity, facilitating the acquisition of and training in advanced weapons systems, and providing the opportunity to battle-test new tactics and military strategies. Despite suffering significant losses, Hezbollah’s public image and recruitment efforts may actually be improving. Taken together, Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria will likely lead to a much more sophisticated and dangerous organization in the future.

Enhanced Military Capabilities

Under Iranian and Russian guidance, Hezbollah has undergone a dramatic military evolution in the previous three years. As a result of their involvement in Syria, Hezbollah fighters have acquired a considerable amount sophisticated weapons and learned how to operate some of the most advanced armaments available today.[iii] As a consequence, Hezbollah today is more akin to an army than an insurgent organization.

Speaking in April this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced fears of Hezbollah acquiring “sophisticated weapons” possessed by the Syrian and Iraqi governments.[iv] Further, Israeli intelligence estimated last November that Hezbollah had amassed approximately 150,000 rockets, including “a number of long-range Iranian missiles capable of striking Israeli cities from north to south”—a 50 per cent increase in Hezbollah’s stockpiles in five months[v] and a much larger stockpile than the roughly 4,000 rockets the group launched at Israel in 2006.[vi]

More recently, on November 11, Hezbollah held a military parade in Qusair—a Syrian city near the border with Lebanon, controlled by Hezbollah since June 2013[vii]—in celebration of “Martyrs Day,” an annual celebration on the anniversary of the organization’s first suicide bombing in Israel.[viii] During the parade, Hezbollah fighters touted a range of Soviet military equipment, including tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and anti-tank missiles, as well as American-manufactured M113 armored personnel carriers—the same model the U.S. provided the Lebanese Armed Forces in January 2013.[ix]

Fighting side by side with one another for years, Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have improved their capacity to work together in combat operations. While Hezbollah has enjoyed a close relationship with the IRGC in respect to training, strategy, and tactics, in the Syrian conflict the two forces have fought side by side for a sustained period. Additionally, Hezbollah has forged close ties with Russian forces, taking Syrian villages with the assistance of Russian air support.[x] This cooperation has far-reaching implications: Hezbollah is forging deeper alliances with two powerful backers that could ensure the organization’s long-term sustainability.

All of these developments indicate that Hezbollah’s military capacity has grown considerably as a result of the group’s involvement in Syria. Not only has the organization acquired advanced armaments, fighters have been trained—and in combat, not peacetime training regimens—to use these weapons.

New Tactical Skills

Hezbollah has engaged in an array of military operations in Syria—including “joint actions with airplanes, helicopters, drones, artillery, tanks and advanced intelligence capabilities”—permitting fighters to develop new tactical skills.[xi] The combat experience Hezbollah fighters have gained in Syria is invaluable, dwarfing the impact of training in peacetime. Further, guided by their Iranian, Russian, and to a degree Syrian, counterparts, Hezbollah has become “more proficient at mass force maneuvers” and joint operations integrating a variety of battle groups.[xii] As Amos Heral contends, “the continuous supply of high-quality weaponry and the battlefield experience [they are] accumulating in Syria have also given Hezbollah independent capability in essential areas like commando fighting and operating drones, including attack drones.”[xiii]

After viewing raw footage of Hezbollah’s spring 2015 offensive in Qalamoun, Hezbollah expert Nicholas Blanford—who has reported on the organization for decades—was left with “an indelible impression of professional, motivated, well-knitted and disciplined army using an array of weaponry and logistical equipment to prosecute the offensive in the most efficient manner possible.”[xiv] This description—widely shared among experts studying the group—paints the picture of a strong, battle-tested, and determined Hezbollah, a far cry from prognostications of being dragged into a Vietnam-style conflict in Syria.

Anything But Vietnam

The combination of enhanced military capabilities, new tactical skills, and Iranian and Russian support has led Israeli security officials to declare that the country’s next war with Hezbollah will be far deadlier and challenging than the 2006 Lebanon War.[xv] The Hezbollah of today is vastly different than the insurgent organization Israel faced in 2006: over the previous ten years, Hezbollah has evolved into a regional military power hardened by over three years of battlefield experience.[xvi] Consequently, Hezbollah poses a much greater threat to the region today. In fact, earlier this year, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot deemed Hezbollah the country’s “main enemy.”[xvii]

Further reinforcing this idea, in early 2016 a Hezbollah special forces commander told a Voice of America reporter that, “in some ways, Syria is a dress rehearsal for our next war with Israel.”[xviii] Hezbollah is unlikely to pursue a major confrontation with Israel in the near future, as the organization is not capable of launching a major offensive against Israel while engaged in Syria. Yet, Hezbollah is likely to continue to push into the Syrian portion of the Golan Heights in order to establish a strong foothold in the historically contested and strategically important area.

Losses in Syria

All of this is not to say that Hezbollah has not paid a steep price for its involvement in Syria. So far, in November 2016 alone an estimated 40 Hezbollah fighters have been killed around Aleppo. These losses raise total battlefield fatalities since the beginning of Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict to over 1,500,[xix] a major blow for an organization believed to have about 5,000 full time fighters and between 10,000 and 20,000 reservists.[xx] These fatalities include a number of high profile Hezbollah commanders, including Mustafa Badreddine, Ali Fayyadh, Samir Kuntar, Hassan Hussein al-Haj, and Jihad Mughniyeh.[xxi] Yet, despite these losses, Nasrallah has continually resolved to carry on the fight in Syria,[xxii] and recently vowed to bolster the organization’s position inside Syria.[xxiii] Further, these losses have had little impact on recruitment: as Hezbollah expert Matthew Levitt contends, in recent months the organization has seen “higher recruitment levels and more people being drawn to the cause.”[xxiv]

Additionally, Hezbollah’s sustained presence in Syria has made the organization and traditionally Shi’a areas within Lebanon targets of Salafi jihadists in the region, chiefly the Islamic State (IS). Perhaps the starkest example of the risk posed by IS was the November 2015 double suicide bombing in the Shi’a neighborhood of Bourj al-Barajneh in southern Beirut. IS claimed the attack, which killed 43 and wounded over 200, citing sectarian issues and Hezbollah’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.[xxv] Yet, rather than discouraging support for Hezbollah’s activity in Syria, IS has been Hezbollah’s “saving grace,” bolstering the organization’s image as the protector of Lebanese Shi’a from radical Sunni jihadists.[xxvi] That being said, if attacks like Bourj al-Barajneh bombings occur at regular intervals, Hezbollah could be faced with a public relations problem within Lebanon.

Looking Forward: A Tactically and Strategically Superior Threat

While Hezbollah’s losses are significant, the organization’s tactical and strategic gains are likely to enhance its position over the long-term. As a result of its involvement in Syria, it is estimated that Hezbollah has military capabilities roughly equal to that of a “mid-size army.”[xxvii] Contrary to claims that the Syrian conflict would “bleed Hezbollah dry,” the organization is poised— barring any major developments—to emerge from the conflict battle-hardened and in a better strategic position.[xxviii]

[i] Bassem Mroue, “Hezbollah Chief Says Group is Fighting in Syria,” Associated Press, May 25, 2013.

[ii] Michael Young, “Hezbollah’s Vietnam?” NOW Lebanon, July 6, 2013; Donna Abu-Nasr and Alaa Shahine, “Hezbollah’s ‘Mini-Vietnam’ in Syria Worsens on Beirut Bombs,” Bloomberg, March 6, 2014.

[iii] William Booth, “Ten Years After Last Lebanon War, Israel Warns Next One Will Be Far Worse,” The New York Times, July 23, 2016.

[iv] Associated Press, “Israel Worried Hezbollah Group Will Obtain Syrian Weapons,” Yahoo! News, April 21, 2016.

[v] Avi Issacharoff, “Israel Raises Hezbollah Rocket Estimate to 150,000,” The Times of Israel, November 12, 2015.

[vi] Booth, “Ten Years After Last Lebanon War.”

[vii] Anne Barnard, “In Syrian Victory, Hezbollah Risks Broader Fight,” The New York Times, June 5, 2013.

[viii] Alex Rowell, “Hezbollah Flaunts American Equipment in Syria Parade,” NOW Lebanon, November 14, 2016.

[ix] Ibid; Reuters, “U.S. Gives Unstable Lebanon 200 Armored Vehicles,” January 7, 2013; Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Hezbollah Has U.S. Armored Personnel Carriers. Where How Did They Get Them?” The Washington Post, November 16, 2016.

[x] Booth, “Ten Years After Last Lebanon War.”

[xi] Amos Harel, “Israel’s Military Now Sees Hezbollah as an Army in Every Sense,” Haaretz, March 4, 2016.

[xii] Jamie Dettmer, “Hezbollah Develops New Skills in Syria, Poses Challenges for Israel,” Voice of America, April 27, 2016.

[xiii] Harel, “Israel’s Military Now Sees Hezbollah as an Army in Every Sense.”

[xiv] Nicholas Blanford, “Hezbollah Acquiring New Tactics in Syria,” The Daily Star (Lebanon), May 29, 2015.

[xv] Booth, “Ten Years After Last Lebanon War.”

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Dettmer, “Hezbollah Develops New Skills in Syria.”

[xix] Nazih Osseiran, “November Proves Deadly for Hezbollah,” The Daily Star (Lebanon), November 15, 2016; Issacharoff, “A Third of Hezbollah’s Fighters Said Killed or Injured in Syria.”

[xx] Matthew Levitt, “Hezbollah: Pulled Between Resistance to Israel and Defense of Syria,” Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel 8, no. 2 (February 2015).

[xxi] Associated Press, “A Look at Senior Lebanese Hezbollah Figures Killed in Syria,” July 12, 2016.

[xxii] John Davison and Laila Bassam, “Despite Heavy Losses, Hezbollah Vows to Continue Fight in Syria’s Aleppo,” Haaretz, June 24, 2016.

[xxiii] Agence France Presse, “Nasrallah: Hezbollah to Bolster Syria Presence After Commander Killed,” The Times of Israel, May 20, 2016.

[xxiv] Dettmer, “Hezbollah Develops New Skills in Syria.”

[xxv] Anne Barnard and Hwauda Saad, “ISIS Claims Responsibility for Blast the Killed Dozens in Beirut,” The New York Times, November 12, 2015.

[xxvi] Dettmer, “Hezbollah Develops New Skills in Syria.”

[xxvii] Harel, “Israel’s Military Now Sees Hezbollah as an Army in Every Sense.”

[xxviii] Daniel Nisman and Daniel Brode, “Will Syria Bleed Hezbollah Dry?” The New York Times, January 30, 2013.

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