By Tony Badran
September 12, 2017
Hezbollah – an Iran-backed militia that
controls southern Lebanon – boasts a medium-sized army and a whopping arsenal
of up to 150,000 rockets and missiles. Since 2011, much of that army has been
engaged in Syria supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
While this has thinned Hezbollah’s ranks, it has also given the group valuable
field experience and is opening up new routes of military supply to Iran. The
Cipher Brief’s Fritz Lodge spoke with Tony Badran, Research Fellow at the
Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, about what this means for Israel
and whether a new war with Hezbollah is imminent.
TCB: What is
the current balance of forces between Israel and Hezbollah and how does it
compare to the balance of forces during the last major conflict in 2006?
Hezbollah has vastly upgraded its capabilities. It has tripled the size of its
rocket arsenal and increased the accuracy of its missiles (i.e.: the
Fateh-110), and will inflict significant damage on Israeli cities and civilian
infrastructure in any future war. The group has possibly acquired components,
if not the entire system, of the advanced Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship
missile system, which would pose a serious threat to Israeli military and
civilian vessels and offshore installations. The consensus view in Israel is
that, as a result of these upgrades, the next war will be a significantly
bloodier affair on both sides.
That said, it will be bloodier on the
Lebanese side. Hezbollah’s ability to inflict massive damage on Israel will
force the Israelis to deploy their full arsenal, and they’ve also been making
upgrades. They remain superior to Hezbollah in all military respects. They have
remarkable intelligence on Hezbollah, as shown by their ability to target
strategic weapons shipments and the most senior cadres of the group. Israel’s
air force chief recently said the upgrades will enable Israel to do in 48-60
hours what took 34 days in 2006. We wrote last year in our FDD report that
during the next conflict, “Israel will immediately deploy this overwhelming
power in a combined arms operation. Ground, air, and naval capabilities will be
integrated and will operate simultaneously.”
have Hezbollah’s successes in Syria changed their calculus vis-à-vis Israel?
Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria was initially viewed as a major constraint to
its ability and desire to initiate a conflict with Israel in the short and
perhaps medium term, and that view remains somewhat true. However, it’s always
been known that in exchange for that trade-off, Hezbollah was gaining valuable
military experience, both on the battlefield and via cooperation with Russia.
More significantly, but less noticed, the
war has significantly boosted Hezbollah’s strategic position, because it has
boosted Iran’s, and Hezbollah is simply an extension of Iran. So despite its
serious losses, Hezbollah has managed to secure key strategic objectives on behalf
of Iran and to establish territorial contiguity and strategic depth through
western Syria. Hezbollah and Iran have expanded their direct control over
Syrian areas adjacent to the Lebanese border and the Damascus area with its
airport. They expanded their presence in southern Syria and are trying to move
on eastern Syria to connect with Iran’s assets in Iraq, putting the crescent
under Iran’s control.
Hezbollah prepared to initiate a major conflict? How well prepared are they to
fight a war with Israel? What could they hope to gain from that conflict, and
how could it fit in with Iranian interests?
Hezbollah is probably not in a position where they’d want to initiate a
conflict. The Iranian camp has made significant gains in Syria but the war
there is not over, and a war against Israel would be devastating and rebound
back into Syria. Israel would destroy the infrastructure Hezbollah uses in
Lebanon, both its own and that ostensibly under the Lebanese government’s
control. It would create a refugee crisis among Hezbollah’s base. It would
likely make hundreds of thousands of Shiites homeless, with nowhere to go.
Iran’s interest, which Hezbollah is tasked
with promoting, is to secure its strategic imperatives, consolidate the gains
it made under the Obama administration, and further improve its strategic
position. Iran and its proxies especially need time to connect their Iraqi,
Syrian, and Lebanese assets. Hezbollah will then use that territory for, among
other things, striking Israel, transforming its presence in Syria from a
constraint to an enormous advantage. The clock is ticking for Israel.
are major flashpoints to look out for, and how should the U.S. prepare and/or
primary concern for Israel is Iran establishing bases on its immediate borders
from which it can target Israeli cities and infrastructure with
precision-guided missiles — which IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot has dubbed
Iran’s “precision project.” This explains the statements of Israeli officials
that they regard the emergence of this Iranian threat in Syria as unacceptable,
and as something which they would take action to prevent.
Similarly, the Israelis recently confirmed
reports that Iran was building underground missile factories inside Lebanon,
which gives Hezbollah a domestic capability of producing precise munitions. The
Israelis consider this an intolerable development and are looking at ways to
Finally, Israel’s already declared red
lines, pertaining to the smuggling into Lebanon of strategic weapons systems,
or a renewed attempt by Iran and Hezbollah to establish a presence in the Golan
region, will trigger Israeli military action.
U.S. policy in the region needs an urgent
adjustment to tackle the strategic mess of President Barack Obama’s policy of
realignment with Iran. This means that priority should be given to undoing
Iran’s position in Syria, and to preventing its deployment of strategic weapons
and establishment of military infrastructure there.
Our current failed Lebanon policy should
also be radically revised, as it has resulted in the consolidation of
Hezbollah’s control and in the growth of its military capability. The notion
that we can coddle the Lebanese “state,” which Hezbollah controls, and support
the Lebanese military, which works directly with Hezbollah, and then say we’re
weakening Hezbollah and rolling back Iranian influence simply doesn’t add up.
Hezbollah is using our investment in Lebanon and the Lebanese Armed Forces to
its advantage. That should end.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defence of
Democracies, where he focuses on Lebanon, Hezbollah, Syria, and the geopolitics
of the Levant. Born and raised in Lebanon, Tony has testified to the House of
Representatives on several occasions regarding U.S. policy toward Iran and
Syria. His writings have appeared in publications including The Los Angeles
Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and The Weekly
Standard, and he is a regular..