After losing 1,000 men in Syria, Hezbollah builds ‘security zone’

As its death toll mounts, the Shi’ite group deploys along the Lebanon-Syrian border to prevent entry of Sunni fighters; has little time to focus on Israel

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Iraqi Hezbollah fighters carry the coffin of a comrade killed in Mosul fighting Islamic militants, July 14, 2014 (Photo credit: Jaber al-Helo/AP)
Iraqi Hezbollah fighters carry the coffin of a comrade killed in Mosul fighting Islamic militants, July 14, 2014 (Photo credit: Jaber al-Helo/AP)

Almost six months have passed since the last suicide bombing on the streets of Dahiya, the Shi’ite quarter of Beirut and a Hezbollah stronghold. After a number of lethal attacks from radical Sunni groups, including the Abdullah Azzam Brigade, on Iranian and Hezbollah targets, it appears that the Shi’ite organization has managed, with considerable effort, to stop the attacks, if only temporarily.

There are several reasons for this success, including Hezbollah activities on the Syrian side of the border, and Lebanese Army raids on terrorist strongholds.

But a major cause for the stabilized security situation in Shi’ite areas is the “security zone” Hezbollah has created on the Syria/Lebanon border. It features a series of permanent bases built by the organization in recent months in order to prevent the flow of Sunni terrorists into Lebanon. These outposts are situated primarily in the central sector of the border. In part, this is because the movement of vehicles to the north and to the south is difficult, and can be monitored and controlled by Hezbollah without a round-the-clock presence.

The center of the border was seen as especially problematic by Hezbollah, and the organization recognized that this was the area that had to be closed off and secured, and that random patrols or observation from afar would not suffice. Hezbollah understood it needed to focus on this sector 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This led to the decision to build permanent bases overlooking the entire sector, similar to Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon until 2000.

According to various estimates, 1,000 Hezbollah fighters are stationed within the outposts alone. Add to that figure another 4,500-5,000 operating in Syria and battling the opposition forces there. Patrols around the central sector head out from these outposts, and there is also an effort to enlist local collaborators who can provide real-time intelligence.

The fighters are protected by fortifications and earthworks, and they are supported by a complex logistical effort, which includes food, clothing, and arms which arrive in an orderly fashion.

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah addressing supporters via satellite link during a rally in the southern Lebanese border village of Aita in August 2013. (photo credit: AP/Mohammed Zaatari)
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah addressing supporters via satellite link during a rally in the southern Lebanese border village of Aita in August 2013. (photo credit: AP/Mohammed Zaatari)

In other words, this is not the 1990s Hezbollah, and not even Hezbollah from the last decade. The Shi’ite organization no longer operates solely as a terrorist or guerrilla group. It does that as well, but Hezbollah has adopted the modus operandi of nothing less than a conventional army in its efforts to keep Sunni fighters out of Lebanon.

This initiative has been taking place alongside and in coordination with the Lebanese Army, which this week completed its takeover of Islamist strongholds in the northern city of Tripoli. After heavy fighting in the city’s neighborhoods, the Lebanese Army announced on Monday afternoon that it had finished cleaning out the city.

Despite these achievements, the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Lebanon is far from over. And Hezbollah has also suffered a number of defeats to the east, on Syrian soil.

According to a senior Israeli official, the organization has lost more than 1,000 fighters in the fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces to date. This is a huge figure, far higher than previous estimates of Hezbollah casualties in Syria.

Hezbollah’s campaigns alongside the Syrian Army to take back the Daraa and Nawa regions in southwest Syria, not far from the Israeli border, have ended in defeat. On the Kalmon Ridge, which Hezbollah took over a few months ago, bloody battles are being fought between its fighters and those of the al-Nusra Front.

This adds up to a complex situation for Hezbollah. Its members are spread across three countries: in Iraq, from where some of its senior advisers returned in coffins; in Syria, including the neighborhoods of Damascus (primarily around the famous Shi’ite Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque); and, of course, in Lebanon.

Hezbollah still faces plenty of surprises from groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, who are aiming to weaken Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon. Just this week there was an escalation near the Sunni village Aarsal, which sits on the Syrian border and controls the Shi’ite portion of the Bekaa Valley. The village is populated by a large number of Sunni refugees from Syria as well as by militants, who this week fired rockets from the village toward the neighboring town of Labweh.

Hezbollah operatives near the northern border with Israel, September 2014 (photo credit: Courtesy/IDF)
Hezbollah operatives near the northern border with Israel, September 2014 (photo credit: Courtesy/IDF)

How does any of this relate to Israel?

It seems that with Hezbollah busy fighting in Lebanon and Syria, there isn’t much motivation to go to war against Israel.

True, there was a dangerous escalation recently on the border between Israel and Lebanon, and the discovery of minefields there led to the injury of four Israeli soldiers. This illustrates the potential for escalation.

And the Hezbollah commander responsible for planning attacks against Israel from the Golan area is Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah terror chief and military commander who was assassinated in 2008. This despite the fact that only a small piece of the Golan Heights remains under the control of Hezbollah’s ally, the Syrian army (mainly in the Druze al-Khader area).

Still, with a third of the group’s manpower fighting in a different country, and after more than 1,000 dead, it would be especially adventurous for the group’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah to lead Hezbollah into another confrontation with Israel at such a time.

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