Hezbollah has suffered several setbacks since it began its involvement in the Syrian war—over 1,300 of its fighters have been killed and thousands injured, it has had to cut back on social services it provides to its constituency and had to resort to recruiting teenagers for the fight in Syria. However, the Syrian civil war, especially the recent Russian involvement is also helping enhance the group’s fighting capabilities which is likely to have significant political and security implications in Lebanon and beyond.
Hezbollah has proven to be a forward-thinking and malleable fighting force. In 2012, when the group began to engage more robustly in Syria, it quickly learned that its defensive tactics were not applicable to the fight. Instead of a modern Israeli army, Hezbollah faced an insurgency. These rebel groups applied similar tactics to Hezbollah’s against regime soldiers and further benefited from local knowledge of the terrain in areas crucial to Bashar al-Assad’s survival. For instance, during the capture of Qusayr in 2013 Hezbollah reportedly lost around one-tenth of its fighters, with estimates ranging from 70 to 120 dead and 200 wounded, up to two dozen of whom were killed in a rebel ambush on the first day of that offensive; what Hezbollah leaders thought would be a quick victory instead turned into a drawn-out fight. Fast-forwarding to 2016, Hezbollah has refined its offensive capabilities and—under the cover of a new powerful ally, Russia—continued to help the Syrian regime take back crucial territory with lower casualty rates.
In September 2015, the Russian military entered the conflict in support of Assad, reversing the course of the war. Having suffered heavy losses, including in the city of Idlib, it seemed it was but a matter of time before the regime collapsed. But beginning in January 2016, the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, other Iranian proxy groups, and the Russian military have dealt a series of crushing blows to the country’s myriad of rebel groups. On January 12, Hezbollah and regime forces, backed by the Russian air force and artillery, captured the town of Salma, the last rebel bastion in Latakia governorate and which had threatened the regime’s coastal enclave. This was followed by the capture of the town of Sheikh Miskeen in Daraa on January 26, reportedly by regime fighters, Hezbollah, and Russian special forces. This split rebel holdings in Daraa into eastern and western pockets and cut them off from rebel-held areas in Damascus. The biggest coup by this combined force came on February 4, when Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias under the cover of Russian airstrikes broke the siege of Nubl and Zahraa. The predominantly Shia towns had been surrounded by rebel forces for three years, and in the process pro-regime forces cut their primary supply route linking Aleppo and the Turkish border. It is now likely that these forces will surround and attempt to starve out rebels in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
These victories make it apparent that the combination of regime irregulars, foreign militias, Hezbollah fighters, and crushing Russian bombardment has been a winning one in Syria. They have also had significant impact on Hezbollah’s fighting capabilities. While Hezbollah commanders have claimed to have received advanced weaponry from Russia, such assertions are hard to verify and have been disputed by Western officials and analysts, who believe that Moscow would not want to threaten its relationship with Hezbollah’s main enemy, Israel. It is more likely that the group is learning how a world-class army gathers intelligence, makes plans, and executes operations. Working side-by-side with Russian officers is sure to refine Hezbollah’s modern military strategy, and reports indicate that there are at least two joint Russia–Hezbollah operation rooms in Latakia and Damascus. With an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria and Iraq, the exposure and experience is likely to trickle down to individual fighters.
Other experts have pointed out that Hezbollah will likely learn better surveillance and reconnaissance skills, employ special operations tactics, and learn more about upgraded equipment they will want to use in the future. This would better enable them to detect enemy forces, execute misinformation campaigns, analyze imagery intelligence, and make appropriate use of drones in the lead up to and execution of military operations.
The latter is quite important, as Hezbollah has built a drone airstrip in the Bekaa Valley and has employed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) over Syria to provide aerial reconnaissance and targeting information for its forces on the ground. These eyes in the sky have proven useful in the battle for the Qalamoun Mountains that straddle the Lebanese–Syrian border, where the group has helped the Syrian army surround Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, and could be employed in future conflict with Israel.
The Israel Defense Forces estimate that Russia’s interaction with Hezbollah decreases the latter’s likelihood of war with Israel in the near future, figuring that Russia’s dialogue with the group is likely to restrain its response to perceived Israeli airstrikes at a time that Hezbollah is playing a crucial role in the Syrian regime’s advance. Furthermore, the Israeli army also views claims that the Russians are arming Hezbollah as baseless. Yet the longer-term impact of Hezbollah’s interaction with the Russian military is more worrying. A newly offense-minded Hezbollah, capable of more complex operations, could deal heavier blows to the Israeli army in a confrontation along the southern Lebanese border. It may even attempt to enter Israeli territory, as Hamas did in the 2014 conflict, albeit in a more capable manner.
Inside Lebanon, Hezbollah’s enhanced capabilities will ensure that the group continues to have a comparative military advantage vis-à-vis the Lebanese army, which has just had a $3 billion aid package suspended by Saudi Arabia. Improved tactics and diminished support to the national army will likely support Hezbollah’s argument that it is the only force capable of defending Lebanon from Israeli aggression and the radical Sunni threat. Already bolstered politically by the survival of the Syrian regime and the success of its own efforts in Syria—the continuation of which is thanks to Russian military support—the group will further push its agenda on crucial decisions regarding the Lebanese presidency, changes to parliamentary election practices, and security appointments. Hezbollah’s Russia education may stop with the end of the conflict in Syria, but its impact will continue to reverberate in Lebanon and the region.
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