A senior Israel Defense Forces officer believes Hezbollah will improve its military capabilities, particularly its offensive ones, thanks to increasing Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war.
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This is the first such opinion by a senior defense official regarding Russia’s presence in Syria, a topic Israel avoids addressing in public in order to avoid tensions with Moscow.
The assessment was made in an article published last month on the website of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, written by two Israeli researchers – Nadav Pollak and Brig. Gen. Muni Katz.
Katz, who has filled many senior positions in the IDF, was until last summer the commander of the 91st (or Northern Galilee) Division. This division is responsible for the Lebanon border and would be on the front lines against Hezbollah in the event of another conflict. Katz is now at the Washington Institute as a visiting military fellow. Pollak is a former military intelligence officer.
Katz and Pollak write that, for the first time in its history, Hezbollah is conducting offensive warfare as part of its operations in Syria. According to the two, Russia’s increased military presence – which began with the deployment of fighter jets in northern Syria at the end of August and subsequently broadened to include the assignment of large numbers of advisers to the Assad regime’s ground forces – will enhance this effort and provide the Shi’ite terror group with valuable insights for future conflicts.
Until now, they write, Hezbollah’s military strategy as implemented in its conflicts with Israel was based on defense and attrition, which many high-ranking IDF officers would refer to as “not losing.”
Taking into account Israel’s technological and manpower advantages, this approach focused on prolonging the conflict as much as possible; wearing down the Israeli home front with massive and continuous missile fire; and bolstering its own defense systems to increase the costs of Israeli ground maneuvers in southern Lebanon.
According to Katz and Pollak, Hezbollah believed that as long as it didn’t collapse under Israeli pressure, it could claim its survival as a victory of sorts.
The Syrian civil war has changed this paradigm, however. In Syria, Hezbollah had to seize territory and hold it for long periods of time by fending off attacks by rival terror and guerilla groups. Now it is deploying units featuring hundreds of fighters in complex offensive operations in foreign and unfamiliar territory, using a wide variety of weapons.
“For Hezbollah’s commanders and fighters, such experience can change their views on the most effective way to win a battle, and Russia’s involvement means that they are learning such lessons from one of the best militaries in the world,” Katz and Pollak write. They quote reports indicating that Russia and Hezbollah have set up join operation rooms in both Damascus and Latakia, and that Hezbollah helped rescue a Russian pilot whose plane was downed last November.
Hezbollah, they note, is being exposed to the Russian military thinking and experience developed, among other places, in the war in Chechnya, and is learning how to effectively deploy fighting forces in dense urban areas. The organization is also probably learning how to operate weapons they had never seen before.
“For Hezbollah, this will be the first time it will be able to watch how a first-tier military plans a fighting campaign,” they write.
Similarly, Syria’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 caused a transformation in Damascus’ war strategy against Israel, they say. Hezbollah will probably also obtain intelligence information from Russia and learn how the Russians acquire and analyze the intelligence they get from varying sources.
Katz and Pollak note that Hezbollah may no longer be committed to the “not losing” approach against Israel, either.
They mention the threat by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah a few years ago to infiltrate the northern border and seize Galilee communities if another war with Israel should break out.
The two believe that the new capabilities Hezbollah is acquiring in Syria will also serve to realign the balance of power within Lebanon. Its combat skills will overtake those of the Lebanese Army, which is not accumulating similar experience and insights.
Katz and Pollak note, however, that the rivals Hezbollah is battling in Syria – like the Islamic State and Nusra Front – are nowhere near the IDF’s level militarily.
Over the past two years, Israeli spokesmen, particularly senior IDF officers, have tended to stress the heavy human price Hezbollah has been paying in Syria. The group is estimated to have lost between 1,200 and 1,500 men, and suffered more than 5,000 wounded – a huge ratio for an organization whose regular forces number no more than 20,000.
The article by Katz and Pollak sheds a different light on Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, one that is more negative from Israel’s perspective.