The fate the next Lebanon war spells for Iran’s troublesome regional proxy
On January 4, Iran’s Shiite Lebanese mercenary force, Hezbollah, detonated a large explosive device on the Lebanon-Israel border in the Mount Dov region. Their target was a pair of Israeli D-9 armored bulldozers clearing the area of brush and other obstructions. There were no Israeli casualties.
Israel had anticipated an attack from Hezbollah following its liquidation of Samir Kuntar – the notorious child-killer turned Hezbollah commander – and other senior pro-Assad mercenaries in a Damascus suburb on December 19, 2015. Israel’s Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot warned Hezbollah of “harsh” consequences if the group decided to initiate a terror attack to avenge Kuntar.
The attack itself accomplished nothing. The heavily armored D-9 bulldozers were able to withstand the blast. In an effort to bolster its image and play to a demoralized constituency, Hezbollah claimed that the attack targeted a senior Mossad official and wounded some Israelis. The claim of course was false but demonstrates Hezbollah’s desperation.
In July and August of 2006, Israel and Hezbollah fought a 33-day war. Hezbollah propagandists tried to spin the war as a Hezbollah victory but the reality on the ground was quite different and the war in fact, represented a major strategic victory for Israel. Hezbollah lost between 600 to 1,000 fighters and much of its infrastructure, painstakingly constructed with Iranian and North Korean assistance, was destroyed. Most importantly, the war established Israeli deterrence and imposed new rules on Hezbollah. The group could no longer rely on a predictable, measured Israeli response to border provocations. Instead, the new rules meant that Israel could and would respond with overwhelming force to any provocation.
The most telling account of the conflict came from none other than Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, who noted that he would have never initiated the terror attack that preceded the conflict had he known of the Israeli response beforehand. Indeed, since 2006 Israel’s Lebanon border experienced a quiet not witnessed since the early 1960s.
Following the conflict, Hezbollah, in anticipation of the next round, began a period of reconstruction and rearmament. Financed by Iranian petro dollars, it acquired sophisticated anti-tank missiles and cruise missiles and increased its rocket arsenal from 12,000 to over 100,000. Some of these rockets are said to be capable of hitting targets south of Tel-Aviv.
Most of the weapons were either transported overland through Syria or sent directly to Beirut International Airport, where Hezbollah operatives maintain complete control. These weapons transfers represented a clear violation of UN Resolution 1701 but the Western component of the UN had no stomach to challenge the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah Axis of Evil and the Muslim component either didn’t care or actually supported it.
The Syrian civil war which broke out in 2011 jeopardized Hezbollah and Iranian strategic interests. Syria was essential for Hezbollah’s resupply efforts and represented a critical link for Iran’s outlet to the eastern Mediterranean. Both Hezbollah and Iran could not afford to lose Syria and both invested heavily in propping up the Assad regime. It is a virtual certainty that but for their support, Assad would have been overthrown long ago.
As Assad’s army shrunk due to defections, desertions, attrition and draft evasion, Hezbollah’s involvement grew steadily, and with its increased involvement came increased casualties. It is estimated that as many as one-third of Hezbollah’s frontline fighters have been killed or injured and many more are simply refusing to fight. Iran is experiencing similar problems losing several senior commanders, including generals, and facing mutinous soldiers refusing to fight in a war far from home.
Meanwhile, while Hezbollah is stuck in Syria’s quagmire, the Israel Defense Forces continues to prepare for the next round that is sure to come. The IDF has been intensifying military exercises simulating battlefield conditions that soldiers would most certainly face in Lebanon and continues to gather intelligence on Hezbollah utilizing both electronic surveillance and human intelligence (HUMINT). Israel’s intelligence forces have been successful in penetrating the highest echelons of Hezbollah’s command structure.
A special commando unit, composed of hand-picked soldiers from other elite units, has been formed specifically to deal with the Hezbollah menace. The armored forces have been upgraded as well. Merkava tanks and Namer armored personnel carriers are now fitted with special anti-rocket defense shields like the Trophy and Iron Fist systems. These are active defense systems capable of destroying any missile in midair before the projectile reaches the vehicle’s armor. Both platforms are battle-proven and are effective against both Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM).
Israel’s 2014 Gaza campaign in which Israeli forces destroyed some three-dozen Hamas tunnels has prompted Israeli military planners to invest in anti-tunneling technologies and methods. Combat engineers are training for contingencies involving networks of tunnels crisscrossing South Lebanon.
To deal with Hezbollah’s rocket and missile menace, Israel has developed the Arrow, David’s Sling and Iron Dome missile defense systems with the latter proving itself in battle, having over a 90% successful rate of interception. Another system designed to shoot down mortar rounds is currently in development.
But the Israelis are not merely relying on defensive measures. Military intelligence has already mapped out thousands of targets which will be struck in the first days of the war. During the Second Lebanon War, the Israeli Air Force succeeded in destroying Hezbollah’s entire long-range missile capabilities in just 34 minutes.
Israel will not rely solely on its vaunted air force to destroy the missiles. The Second Lebanon War proved that the enemy must be denied territory from where it could launch its rockets. Therefore, an offensive strategy has been devised aimed specifically at acquiring territory so as to deny the enemy a platform from which it could launch its weapons.
Israel has also been carefully monitoring Hezbollah’s activities in Syria. The terror group has been keen on taking advantage of the lawlessness in Syria to transport sophisticated weaponry into Lebanon and set up bases of operations near Israel’s Golan Heights but Israel has conveyed to both Iran and Hezbollah by word and deed that it will not tolerate such nefarious activities.
The attack that killed Kuntar underscores this point. Kuntar was active on the Golan front attempting to foment anti-Israel attacks. He paid for his maleficence with his life. A more dramatic attack last year by Israel killed 12 Iranian and Hezbollah operatives near the Golan Heights including Jihad Mugniyeh son of the infamous Imad Mugniyeh as well as Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, a ranking Iranian officer and ballistic missile expert who was said to be indispensable to Iranian operations in Syria and Lebanon. The group was planning to open up a new front against Israel before Israel pre-empted them.
Israel has also on multiple occasions intercepted and destroyed shipments of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah including SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles, Scud D ballistic missiles and Yakhont cruise missiles. Israel rarely acknowledges attacks in Syria but this taboo was broken when Israel’s foreign ministry director Dore Gold informed a Saudi publication that Israel had foiled numerous arms transfers to Hezbollah.
The revelation was notable not only because it exposed hitherto unacknowledged Israeli military activity in Syria, but also because it revealed a warming of ties between Israel and moderate Sunni states who regard Iran and Hezbollah as malign regional forces that need to be checked.
The Saudis have watched the Obama administration vacillate and capitulate to Iranian dictates and are seeking reliable partners to thwart the Shiite menace. They have completely transformed their regional outlook from viewing Israel as a hated enemy to that of a formidable and reliable partner. When the next round comes –and it will come – expect the Saudis, Egyptians and other moderate Arab states to cheer on the sidelines as Israel blasts Hezbollah into oblivion, checks Iran’s hegemony and restores Lebanon’s sovereignty.
Ari Lieberman is an attorney and former prosecutor who has authored numerous articles and publications on matters concerning the Middle East and is considered an authority on geo-political and military developments affecting the region.