Hezbollah – an Iran-backed militia that controls southern Lebanon – boasts a medium-sized army and a whopping arsenal of up to 150,000 rockets and missiles. Since 2011, much of that army has been engaged in Syria supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. While this has thinned Hezbollah’s ranks, it has also given the group valuable field experience and is opening up new routes of military supply to Iran. The Cipher Brief’s Fritz Lodge spoke with Tony Badran, Research Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, about what this means for Israel and whether a new war with Hezbollah is imminent.
TCB: What is the current balance of forces between Israel and Hezbollah and how does it compare to the balance of forces during the last major conflict in 2006?
Tony Badran: Hezbollah has vastly upgraded its capabilities. It has tripled the size of its rocket arsenal and increased the accuracy of its missiles (i.e.: the Fateh-110), and will inflict significant damage on Israeli cities and civilian infrastructure in any future war. The group has possibly acquired components, if not the entire system, of the advanced Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missile system, which would pose a serious threat to Israeli military and civilian vessels and offshore installations. The consensus view in Israel is that, as a result of these upgrades, the next war will be a significantly bloodier affair on both sides.
That said, it will be bloodier on the Lebanese side. Hezbollah’s ability to inflict massive damage on Israel will force the Israelis to deploy their full arsenal, and they’ve also been making upgrades. They remain superior to Hezbollah in all military respects. They have remarkable intelligence on Hezbollah, as shown by their ability to target strategic weapons shipments and the most senior cadres of the group. Israel’s air force chief recently said the upgrades will enable Israel to do in 48-60 hours what took 34 days in 2006. We wrote last year in our FDD report that during the next conflict, “Israel will immediately deploy this overwhelming power in a combined arms operation. Ground, air, and naval capabilities will be integrated and will operate simultaneously.”
TCB: How have Hezbollah’s successes in Syria changed their calculus vis-à-vis Israel?
Badran: Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria was initially viewed as a major constraint to its ability and desire to initiate a conflict with Israel in the short and perhaps medium term, and that view remains somewhat true. However, it’s always been known that in exchange for that tradeoff, Hezbollah was gaining valuable military experience, both on the battlefield and via cooperation with Russia.
More significantly, but less noticed, the war has significantly boosted Hezbollah’s strategic position, because it has boosted Iran’s, and Hezbollah is simply an extension of Iran. So despite its serious losses, Hezbollah has managed to secure key strategic objectives on behalf of Iran and to establish territorial contiguity and strategic depth through western Syria. Hezbollah and Iran have expanded their direct control over Syrian areas adjacent to the Lebanese border and the Damascus area with its airport. They expanded their presence in southern Syria and are trying to move on eastern Syria to connect with Iran’s assets in Iraq, putting the crescent under Iran’s control.
TCB: Is Hezbollah prepared to initiate a major conflict? How well prepared are they to fight a war with Israel? What could they hope to gain from that conflict, and how could it fit in with Iranian interests?
Badran: Hezbollah is probably not in a position where they’d want to initiate a conflict. The Iranian camp has made significant gains in Syria but the war there is not over, and a war against Israel would be devastating and rebound back into Syria. Israel would destroy the infrastructure Hezbollah uses in Lebanon, both its own and that ostensibly under the Lebanese government’s control. It would create a refugee crisis among Hezbollah’s base. It would likely make hundreds of thousands of Shiites homeless, with nowhere to go.
Iran’s interest, which Hezbollah is tasked with promoting, is to secure its strategic imperatives, consolidate the gains it made under the Obama administration, and further improve its strategic position. Iran and its proxies especially need time to connect their Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebanese assets. Hezbollah will then use that territory for, among other things, striking Israel, transforming its presence in Syria from a constraint to an enormous advantage. The clock is ticking for Israel.
TCB: What are major flashpoints to look out for, and how should the U.S. prepare and/or react?
Badran: The primary concern for Israel is Iran establishing bases on its immediate borders from which it can target Israeli cities and infrastructure with precision-guided missiles — which IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot has dubbed Iran’s “precision project.” This explains the statements of Israeli officials that they regard the emergence of this Iranian threat in Syria as unacceptable, and as something which they would take action to prevent.
Similarly, the Israelis recently confirmed reports that Iran was building underground missile factories inside Lebanon, which gives Hezbollah a domestic capability of producing precise munitions. The Israelis consider this an intolerable development and are looking at ways to neutralize it.
Finally, Israel’s already declared red lines, pertaining to the smuggling into Lebanon of strategic weapons systems, or a renewed attempt by Iran and Hezbollah to establish a presence in the Golan region, will trigger Israeli military action.
U.S. policy in the region needs an urgent adjustment to tackle the strategic mess of President Barack Obama’s policy of realignment with Iran. This means that priority should be given to undoing Iran’s position in Syria, and to preventing its deployment of strategic weapons and establishment of military infrastructure there.
Our current failed Lebanon policy should also be radically revised, as it has resulted in the consolidation of Hezbollah’s control and in the growth of its military capability. The notion that we can coddle the Lebanese “state,” which Hezbollah controls, and support the Lebanese military, which works directly with Hezbollah, and then say we’re weakening Hezbollah and rolling back Iranian influence simply doesn’t add up. Hezbollah is using our investment in Lebanon and the Lebanese Armed Forces to its advantage. That should end.