For the first time in its history, Shiite terror group Hezbollah carried out a successful unmanned aircraft strike, targeting al-Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel bases near the northeastern Lebanese town of Arsal early Sunday, according to the Iranian Fars News Agency.
Until Sunday’s battle with the Syrian rebels, Hezbollah had used unmanned aircraft primarily for reconnaissance missions, including an alleged operation across the Israeli border in April 2013, during which the Israel Defense Forces managed to down a suspected Hezbollah drone only 10 kilometers west of Haifa. At the time, the Shiite group’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, denied that the drone belonged to the organization.
The group’s unprecedented drone attack was reported to have killed at least 23 fighters from the extremist al-Nusra Front.
Hezbollah ground troops continued the offensive on the rebel bases, and several al-Nusra operatives were held captive by the Lebanese militia, the semi-official Iranian news agency reported. Abu Leith al-Shami, a Lebanese national, and a high ranking al-Nusra official, was also said to have been killed in battle with Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s push-back against the al-Nusra Front comes a day after a suicide bomber killed a number of people at a checkpoint near Lebanon’s border with Syria, only hours after the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda had reportedly executed a Lebanese soldier.
Lebanon has long been on edge over the three-and-a-half-year civil war in Syria. Violence frequently spills over into the country and troops have been battling jihadists in eastern Lebanon sporadically since August.
Hezbollah’s fighters have been supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in a war against a multitude of mostly Sunni Muslim rebel groups.
The drone strikes by Hezbollah highlight the group’s advanced military capabilities and signify a worrying development for Israel, which has been closely monitoring hostilities across the border.
Earlier Sunday, a Hezbollah official asserted that it could capture a chunk of the Galilee, including some border communities, in a future conflict with Israel, the Walla news site reported. A senior Israeli army official made a similar assessment last week.
The senior IDF official warned that while Hezbollah has no immediate plan to attack Israel, a minor security incident could erupt into a full-fledged war on Israel’s northern front.
In the event of a confrontation with Hezbollah, the fighting would likely last some four months, would have the IDF face some 30,000 troops, would incur extensive civilian casualties on the Lebanese side, and may see infiltration into northern Israeli towns to carry out attacks, the official predicted.
On Friday, the Lebanese National News Agency reported that the IDF had begun fortifying positions along the border with Lebanon, apparently in an attempt to conceal troop movement. The report also stated that Israel had stationed tanks and armored personnel carriers along Shebaa Farms and the Golan Heights overlooking the road leading from Syria and Lebanon.
In July and August, a dozen rockets were fired from southern Lebanon into Israel in what Lebanese officials said was an act of solidarity with the Gaza-based extremist group Hamas. In a coordinated effort to stop the sporadic rocket attacks, the Lebanese army, together with UNIFIL peacekeepers, increased border patrols and arrested several terrorists in connection with the attacks.
Israel regularly monitors movements between Syria and Lebanon and in February reportedly carried out a strike on a weapons shipment from Syria said to be headed to Hezbollah’s arsenals in southern Lebanon.
AP, Marissa Newman and Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.