by Ari Lieberman
Rising enemies in a volatile region.
Last Friday, a senior Iranian general confirmed that the Islamic Republic was manufacturing weapons including rockets in Aleppo and that some of those rockets were transferred to Hezbollah, bolstering the terror group’s already formidable stockpiles. The revelation of Iranian military production facilities in a foreign country was the first such acknowledgement by a senior Iranian official.
Chief of Staff of the Iranian Army, Major General Mohammad Bagheri noted that Iran’s production of missiles in Syria began in 2002 and that rockets manufactured at the Aleppo facility were transferred to Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon War also known as the Second Lebanon War. During that 33-day conflict, Hezbollah fired in excess of 4,000 rockets at Israel. Since the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah, primarily with Iranian assistance, has increased its rocket and missile arsenal tenfold, from 12,000 to an estimated 120,000.
The general’s acknowledgement provides us with some sense of how entrenched the Iranians are in Syria and how they’re utilizing Syrian resources to supply their proxies. It is believed that the Iranians are employing between 7,000 to 10,000 Hezbollah operatives in Syria. Hezbollah represents one of four foreign pillars propping up the Assad regime and his flagging army. Iran maintains a military force of between 13,000 to 16,000 soldiers and, aside from Hezbollah, is believed to have recruited some 40,000 foreign fighters from Middle Eastern and Central Asian states. Russia maintains a sizable air and naval presence in Syria, supplemented by Special Forces and electronic warfare specialists.
Israel is watching these developments with keen interest. The Israelis are cooperating closely with the Russians to ensure that that their respective military forces, particularly their air forces don’t mistakenly tangle over the skies of Syria. The last time Israel dueled with the Russians was in July 1970 over the skies of the Suez Canal, during the height of the Cold War. Five Soviet MiG-21 fighters were shot down by Israeli F-4 Phantoms and Mirage jets. But so far, the Israelis and the Russians have managed to avoid hostile encounters with each other due to unprecedented cooperation between their respective military and political leaders.
Israel is more concerned with Iranian and Hezbollah involvement. Israel has made clear to both of these terror entities that it will not tolerate the formation of terror bases opposite the Israeli-held Golan Heights. In January 2015, the Israelis demonstrated their resolve when they liquidated 12 senior Iranian and Hezbollah operatives reconnoitering on the border. Among those killed in the strike was Jihad Mughniyeh, son of the infamous Imad Mughniyeh (killed in a joint U.S. - Israeli cloak and dagger operation in Damascus in 2008) and Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, a ranking IRGC officer believed to be a ballistic missile expert and indispensable to Iranian operations in Syria and Lebanon.
For now at least, it appears that the Iranians and their Hezbollah proxies have gotten the memo but that could be temporary and attributed to their heavy involvement against Syrian rebels in and around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, far removed from the Golan heights. The Israelis are also concerned with Hezbollah’s increasingly sophisticated operational capabilities and acquisition of more advanced weaponry.
Iran has used Syria as a conduit to supply Hezbollah with long-range surface-to-surface missiles and Russian surface-to-ship Yakhont cruise missiles. The Israeli Air Force, acting on precise intelligence, has launched numerous airstrikes with good effect aimed at interdicting the flow of these weapons. Despite some success, it is believed that some missiles managed to get through to the Shia terror group.
Of equal concern to Israel is Hezbollah’s exposure to Russian tactical capabilities, including its cyber and electronic warfare capabilities as well as its Special Forces operations. When Hezbollah entered the Syrian civil war, Israel did not shed any tears when Hezbollah operatives were returned to Lebanon in body bags. Indeed, Hezbollah is believed to have lost 10 percent of its total fighting force while mired in its Syrian quagmire. But while Hezbollah is bleeding, it is gaining combat experience that might, at some point in the future, be used against Israel.
Russia, in concert with Iran and Hezbollah, is coordinating and planning large scale operations in Syria and there is no doubt that Hezbollah has become the beneficiary of such exposure by gaining invaluable military experience in a vast array of military disciplines. As noted in Defense News, a report compiled by Dima Adamsky, an associate professor at Israel’s Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and a research fellow at the Israel Defense Force’s National Security College, concludes that technical lessons learned by Hezbollah in its Syrian campaign might be employed in future confrontations with Israel.
Israel for its part is not resting on its laurels. The IDF has formed special commando and counter insurgency units specifically to deal with Hezbollah and has invested heavily in anti-tunneling technologies and methods. The armored corps has equipped its vehicles with the Trophy and Windbreaker active defense systems adding a further measure of protection against anti-tank rockets and missiles. Israel’s vaunted signal intelligence and cyber warfare Unit 8200 is constantly upgrading is capabilities while Israel’s military intelligence has been busy mapping out every inch of Lebanon and Syria for targeting.
For now, it appears that Hezbollah is stuck in Syria’s quicksand with no quick and easy victories in sight but should it ever extricate itself from its Syrian quagmire and turn its attention to Israel, Israel will be ready, willing and able to oblige the terror group.
Ari Lieberman is an attorney and former prosecutor who has authored numerous articles and publications on matters concerning the Middle East and is considered an authority on geo-political and military developments affecting the region.
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