Hardened in Syrian War, Hezbollah Presents New Set of Threats

The Israeli military must adapt to fighting a Hezbollah with urban warfare experience and the ability to launching offensives of its own.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

After years in which the possibility of a sudden outbreak of war with Hezbollah loomed high on Israel’s threat list, that prospect seems to have receded. Mutual deterrence is restraining both sides, Hezbollah is up to its neck in the Syrian civil war, and its involvement there has also weakened its grip on Lebanon.

Paradoxically, however, these developments have some disturbing long-term implications. For years, one question that preoccupied Israel was how Hezbollah’s partners in the radical Shi’ite axis, Iran and Syria, would respond if war did break out. And currently, the answer isn’t encouraging: The help Iran and Hezbollah have given Syrian President Bashar Assad’s embattled regime has put the Syrian dictator under much greater obligation to his partners than he was before.

This has been reflected in his repeated attempts to transfer advanced weaponry to Hezbollah despite Israel’s warnings (which, according to officials in Washington, Israel has enforced with at least six air strikes on Syria this year). And in the future, it will likely be reflected in Syria’s response to either an Israel-Hezbollah war or an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such a response could range from low-level border incidents that would pin down Israeli forces in the Golan Heights, thereby keeping them out of Lebanon, to launching precision missiles at air force bases.

Moreover, thanks to its involvement in Syria’s war, Hezbollah has upgraded its capabilities. But those gains haven’t come without costs. Hezbollah is thought to have suffered more than 250 fatalities and about 1,000 wounded – fewer than initially estimated, but not insubstantial for an organization with no fewer than 20,000 active fighters.

Yet on the other hand, it used to focus mainly on launching rockets at Israel’s home front and employing defensive measures (like roadside bombs or ambushes with antitank missiles) aimed at halting an Israeli offensive. Now, it has gained experience in urban warfare and in launching offensives of its own.

No more wars 
of attrition

In the battle of Qusayr in June, for instance, Hezbollah’s intervention was crucial to the Assad regime’s victory. While the organization suffered heavy losses in the first two days of fighting, by the end of the week-long battle it was operating Syrian tanks, using drones, making sophisticated use of intelligence, and conducting coordinated maneuvers at the company level (roughly 100-200 soldiers) and even higher.

Israeli defense sources say that over the last few years, there has also been a gradual change in how Iran and its allies view the nature of a future war. In the past, they favored a war of attrition that would wear down the Israeli home front and exact a constantly growing price. The new thinking, which has been shaped mainly by a better understanding of the Israel Air Force’s destructive capabilities, is that it’s better to land a harsh blow in the first few days, then hope that the international community reins in Israel quickly before the IAF has time to do too much damage.

This means thousands of rockets and missiles – Hezbollah alone is thought to have more than 70,000 – would likely be launched at Israel’s home front in the first two or three days.

This in turn would force Israel to make a quick decision – either a ground operation or a cease-fire. The government won’t have the luxury of wasting two weeks in empty discussions, as it did during the Second Lebanon War of 2006.

Neither side wants war

For now, neither Israel nor Hezbollah wants a war. Yet the situation remains explosive, and any minor incident could set off a major confrontation. In October, for instance, a group of Lebanese farmers who were picking olives in an area north of the security fence, but on Israel’s side of the border, resulted in Israeli and Lebanese troops facing each other across the border with rifles pointed. The situation was eventually defused, but as a senior Israel Defense Forces officer told Haaretz, “It would have been enough for one idiot to fire the first bullet, and for two hours it would have been impossible to stop the shooting, even though nobody wanted a confrontation.”

The current quiet stems mainly from mutual deterrence: Hezbollah is deterred by the IDF’s power, and Israel is deterred by Hezbollah’s tens of thousands of rockets. That gives the army time to continue preparing. Israelis can only hope it uses this time wisely, and that if war does break out, the IDF won’t be caught untrained and unprepared as it was in 2006.

Hezbollah members holding Hezbollah and Lebanese flags during a rally in Dahiyeh, south of Beirut. Credit: Haaretz Archive