Thanks in no small part to Russia, Hezbollah is now a full-fledged army

For now its focus is on the Syrian civil war, where it is sustaining heavy losses, but the Lebanese Shiite terror group has become a far more formidable player in the 10 years since the Second Lebanon War

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.

A Russian tank operating in Aleppo, Syria in 2016 (YouTube screenshot)
A Russian tank operating in Aleppo, Syria in 2016 (YouTube screenshot)

Pictures being published from time to time by Hezbollah tell a great deal about its role in the fighting in Syria. In some of the pictures Hezbollah fighters can be seen leaning against Russian tanks, and the truth is that since Russia began its open military activities in Syria, Hezbollah fighters are also learning Russian methods of war, becoming familiar with advanced Russian weaponry, coming to understand the latest Russian technologies, and in some cases, actually fighting alongside Russian special forces.

Hezbollah is not alone. Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and some members of Shiite militias who have come from overseas have also been fighting alongside Russian soldiers on occasion. But when it comes to Hezbollah, such developments should be raising concerns on the Israeli side. The Shiite terror group is sustaining new losses every day in the fighting in Syria, but at the same time it is gaining expertise from one of the most advanced military forces in our region.

In the 10 years since the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has been transformed from a terror group deployed against Israel to a full-scale army in almost every respect. It knows how to operate logistically over vast areas. This includes tending to the needs of its troops all over Syria, in much the same way the IDF’s network of welfare officers and staffers does. It is also capable of tending to the welfare needs of Shiite civilians in the Syrian villages under its control. It operates artillery and rockets, it has entire networks of unmanned drones, it is skilled in the use of anti-tank weaponry, and of course it carries out ground operations to conquer and hold territory.

Its focus has emphatically shifted in the last few years and now overwhelmingly revolves around the civil war in Syria. Its emphasis is on building up power, military capability and military planning, with Syria at the top of its agenda and the conflict with Israel relegated to lesser importance. For now.

A Hezbollah supporter waves his group's flag, as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, center, speaks via a video link, in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, June 24, 2016. Nasrallah said the Lebanese Shiite militant group will send more fighters to Syria's Aleppo province, where pro-government forces are battling Syrian rebels on several fronts. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A Hezbollah supporter waves his group’s flag, as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks via a video link in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, June 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

As with all the players in Syria, including Iran, the conflict is proving very bloody for Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged in a speech on Friday that Hezbollah had lost 26 of its men in the last three weeks alone in the Aleppo District; another was captured by rebels and yet another disappeared. Nasrallah said the Aleppo fighting was a critical stage in the war against the rebels, and promised to send more and more forces to the area. The scale of the losses is not surprising, although the fact that Nasrallah would acknowledge them is. Hezbollah is suffering losses week in and week out in Syria, and its death toll from the fighting to date is between 1,500 and 1,600, with another 5,000 to 6,000 injured. That means a third of Hezbollah’s fighting force has been harmed. To some extent that leaves Nasrallah looking rather like a gambler in Vegas who keeps losing but refuses to quit. He doubles down and keeps losing.

Hezbollah has had some successes. In the Qalamoun Ridge on the Syria-Lebanon border, Hezbollah has taken control of the problematic area where Islamic State had been smuggling suicide bombers and explosives into Lebanon. After Hezbollah gained control of that area, there was a decrease in suicide attacks on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.

For the most part, though, Hezbollah has suffered military losses and an incapacity to decisively prevail. In the Damascus area, in Homs, in Aleppo, and even in the Syrian Golan Heights, Hezbollah has not managed decisive victories that have prevented Islamic State, Al-Nusra Front and others from regrouping and hitting back. To take the case of Aleppo, the Fatah Army organization (which consists of several opposition groups) has in the last few days managed a series of military achievements in the fighting against Hezbollah.

Nasrallah’s problem isn’t limited to fatalities and casualties. The economic costs are high too — and not just the costs of running an army in Syria, with all the logistics that entails. Every family that has suffered a fatality or an injury gets financial aid from Hezbollah, and the expense is rising. And this is at a time when some of the banks in Lebanon are refusing to have any dealings with Hezbollah because of US sanctions legislation.

In his last speech, Nasrallah attempted to claim that the sanctions were having no impact on his organization. But the Hezbollah chief was being economical with the truth. Some Hezbollah activities are overseen directly by Iran, but others are financed by the banks in Lebanon, and they are most certainly being affected.

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