Thursday, December 1, 2011

Lebanon: Hezbollah Digs In

by Shoshana Bryen

Hezbollah is the Shiite outpost of Iran on the Mediterranean, largely supplied through Syria, Iran's ally, while training and on-the-ground-assistance is supplied by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC]. While parts of Lebanon –- a "semi-sovereign" country -- are occupied by Palestinian refugee camps that are "no go zones" for the government, the south is occupied by Hezbollah, as is the Lebanese government since Hezbollah shot its way into the Cabinet after the last election.

Even as the Obama administration has been acknowledging the steady growth of Hezbollah's arsenal in both size and sophistication, it has been aiding in the growth and sophistication of the Lebanese Armed Forces [LAF], the Army of the (now Hezbollah-dominated) Beirut government, which is supplied in no small measure by the United States and France. The administration has provided the LAF equipment – including night vision equipment and mini-UAVs – previously reserved for NATO countries and close allies. This gives Hezbollah at least partial control of two armies – one above ground, one largely under.

In May 2010, The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) announced the delivery of an arms shipment to the LAF that included, "1,000 M16A4 rifles, 10 missile launchers, 1,583 grenade launchers, and 538 sets of day/night binoculars and night-vision devices. This equipment will be supported with training provided by the United States government. The United States is committed to providing assistance to the LAF to help them increase their capacity." Defense Industry Daily reported shortly thereafter that the US had supplied mini-Unmanned Arial Vehicles, helicopters and surplus M-60A3 main battle tanks.[1]

Three months later, LAF soldiers fired across the border into Israel, killing one IDF officer and wounding another. Congress temporarily withheld support from the LAF.

With insurrection in Syria potentially severing the supply line from Iran, it is worth considering how Hezbollah may use assets from each military service to survive. And, given Iran's enormous investment in Hezbollah, it is more worth considering whether Hezbollah would try to raise its profile in Lebanon – or complete its takeover – to ensure that Iran's investment is not wasted. The next Hezbollah war may not be against Israel.

Hezbollah's specialty is "digging in." In late June 2006, a group of American military professionals stood on the Israel/Lebanon border looking north. Their IDF escort – and owner of a B&B in the Upper Galilee – said things had not been so peaceful in the North since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Tourism was up, he said, Hezbollah was quiet and life was good. A retired US Special Forces general was skeptical. "Too quiet," he said. "That is when you worry." [2]

Two weeks later, Hezbollah launched a 34-day war that rained missiles on Israel from beginning to end. Rockets filled with ball bearings to increase their lethality landed on Haifa neighborhoods. The Israeli Foreign Ministry reported 44 Israeli civilians and 119 IDF soldiers killed in the war.[3] Although Israel inflicted devastating losses on Hezbollah's fighters[4] the result was understood as a loss for Israel and IDF prestige.[5]

Hezbollah has been largely quiet since then, but quiet is no longer mistaken for peaceful.

The IDF revamped its doctrine and engaged in new training designed to deal with the small rocket problem.[6] Israel has been using drones to monitor the situation as Hezbollah built arms depots within southern Lebanese villages in violation of UN Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 war. The multinational UNIFIL force is charged with ensuring that no arms other than those of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are maintained south of the Litani River. However, as UNIFIL representatives watched the Israeli drone footage during meetings with American security groups in 2010 and 2011, they took the position a) that it was not happening and b) if it was, Hezbollah was planning for the defense of the villages against Israeli incursion.[7]

Periodic explosions in southern Lebanon are attributed by Israel to "work accidents" in the depots; attributed by the Lebanese government to Israel; and by UNIFIL and Hezbollah to, well, to nothing actually. Following three such explosions in 2010,[8] UNIFIL and the LAF were denied entrance to the affected villages by Hezbollah and, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, neither UNIFIL nor the LAF inspected Hezbollah trucks leaving the area after the explosion.[9]

In March 2011, with Hezbollah still firmly in the government drivers' seat in Beirut, Secretary of State Clinton told Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the US should continue to fund the LAF because the army, "cooperates with the United Nations mission in the south, to try to keep the peace there… We worry that if the United States does not continue supporting the Lebanese armed forces, its capabilities will rapidly deteriorate, security in the south and along the border with Israel will be at risk."[10]

Three weeks later, the IDF took the unusual step of releasing a map showing what it said were nearly 1,000 arms and ammunition caches south of the Litani, many inside the Lebanese villages loyal to Hezbollah.[11] Israel warned the Lebanese – and the United States – that it would consider Beirut complicit in any new attacks by Hezbollah on Israel.

That brings the story almost up to date as conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate and Hezbollah compensates.

In June of this year, Haaretz reported that, according to Le Figaro, Hezbollah was transporting missiles, including "Iranian-produced Zilzal, Fajr-3 and Fajr-4 missiles," from Syria into Lebanon for fear that the Assad regime would fall.[12]

Even as Assad remains in power, Syrian army units loyal to the government have been laying mines along the Lebanon-Syria border to keep deserting Syrian soldiers from taking refuge in Lebanon and possibly launching attacks from there.[13] If they finish the job, Hezbollah will be cut off from its Iranian-filled depots. Hezbollah is in a race to collect what it can and move it across the border before the Syrians seal the whole length – whether Assad survives or not.[14]

Haste, of course, makes accidents.

Last week the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star reported a "huge blast" in the south. Lebanese military sources said it was probably a leftover land mine or cluster bomb from the 2006 war but acknowledged that the LAF – touted by Mrs. Clinton as an asset for the UN and protection for Israel – was again kept from the site by Hezbollah security. UNIFIL representatives said they only heard about it on the news.[15]

Almost simultaneously, Hezbollah reported decimating a CIA spy ring in Lebanon and capturing assets.[16] The coup was apparently the result of slow and steady counterintelligence work – following suspects, tracking cell phone usage and drop sites – much the same way Hezbollah claimed to have broken up an Israeli spy ring in 2009. Hezbollah then said the spies for Israel worked largely in Lebanon's telecommunications industry, raising the question, "Who supplied the tracking system to Hezbollah?" Siemens, the German telecommunications giant, had supplied cell phone tracking capabilities to the Iranian government that enabled it to monitor the Iranian opposition.[17] Is Iran helping Hezbollah by supporting Lebanon's telecommunications capabilities in an effort to spy on the people?

Associated Press likened the Hezbollah raids to Iranian behavior after the disappearance of an IRGC general in 2007. "The Iranian government began a painstaking review of foreign travel by its citizens, particularly to places like Turkey where Iranians don't need a visa and could meet with foreign intelligence services. It didn't take long, a Western intelligence official told the AP, before the U.S., Britain and Israel began losing contact with some of their Iranian spies."[18] Or perhaps is it like the patient "unshredding" of American documents by Iranian carpet weavers after the Iranian takeover of the US Embassy in 1979.

While the demise of the Assad regime in Syria would be a setback for the Islamic Republic – and is therefore much to be desired – nothing in Tehran's history indicates that it will allow its enormous investment in Hezbollah to dissipate at the same time. Underground, under cover, quiet and lethal, Hezbollah and its patron Iran are preparing for the next round – whether against Israel or against Lebanon.

Or both.

[1] UAVs would enable the LAF to see inside Israel. Helicopters on the Israel/Lebanon border would require Israel to scramble to ensure that a flight was not part of a terrorist attack.
[2] JINSA Flag & General Officers Trip Report 2006, Shoshana Bryen.
[4] Prompting Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah to say that had he known the destruction Israel would cause, he wouldn't have started the war.
[5] It was understood that the IDF has to "win" wars; Hezbollah needed only "not to lose" to the vaunted IDF. The same was true in Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza.
[6] JINSA Flag & General Officers Trip Report 2010 and 2011, Shoshana Bryen.
[7] Ibid 2011
[8] In the villages of Khirbit Salim, Tayr Falsay and Shehadiye
[12] Report: Hezbollah moving arms from Syria to Lebanon, fearing Assad's fall," Haaretz News Service, June 26, 2011.
[14] The irony is that in all the years Syria occupied large swaths of Lebanon, it denied that there should even be a border – as Lebanon was actually only the western province of Greater Syria. For decades there was no Syrian Embassy in Beirut and no Lebanese Embassy in Damascus – because Syria did not recognize Lebanese sovereignty.

Shoshana Bryen has more than 30 years' experience as a defense policy analyst and has been taking American military officers and defense professionals to Israel since 1982. She was previously senior director for security policy at JINSA


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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