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Mideast braces for war: Israel vs. Iran-backed Hezbollah

Israel is threatening a new war against Hezbollah and its weapons plants in Lebanon and Syria.

US Sen. Lindsey Graham warned Feb. 27 after a trip to the Middle East that Israel was preparing for war. Hezbollah appears to be ready for the possibility. It is honing its skills and playing a multifaceted role in Syria, where it has also realized several important goals, according to one of its militants and sources close to the Lebanese group.

Syria is facing a new turn in its civil war, and Hezbollah militants haven't shown this much anticipation at the possibility of a conflict with Israel since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011.

“We are very ready for the possibility of a war breaking out, and it will be unlike any other,” said Ahmad, a Hezbollah sniper who spoke with Al-Monitor in Lebanon on condition of anonymity.

A source close to Hezbollah fighters, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor that the recent February faceoff between Israel on one side and Iran, Hezbollah and Syria on the other was an ambush staged by Tehran.

On Feb. 10, Syria shot down an Israeli F-16 fighter jet, after an Iranian drone was launched into Israel, followed by an Israeli attack on Syria and Iranian interests in Syria. “The Iranians are fed up with Israel’s systematic targeting of weapon plants and the destruction of weapon transfers to Hezbollah. The targeting of Israeli planes is primarily an Iranian message to the Israelis that the rules of engagement have changed in Syria,” the source said. Israel has bombed Syrian and Iranian interests — including Hezbollah’s — more than 100 times in Syria.

Since 2011, Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria has been creeping into the war, which initially pitted the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against a mostly Sunni-led rebellion. Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite militant group, intervened against what it saw as a direct threat to its Syrian ally, which is considered an essential element in Iran’s "resistance axis" formed by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah at the time.

Hezbollah has intermittently deployed 2,000-8,000 fighters, Syria expert Samir Hassan told Al-Monitor. These forces have led coordinated offensive military operations with other armies and planned battles in a joint operation with Iran and Russia. They have also played a prominent role in training pro-regime militias, according to previous Al-Monitor interviews of Hezbollah militants.

Middle East Forum researcher Aymen Jawad Tamimi told Al-Monitor the leading role played by Hezbollah’s backer, Iran, in training and organizing the Syrian National Defense Forces and the Local Defense Forces.

Ahmad, the sniper, said, “Hezbollah has commanders and advisers posted within these forces,” adding that the Lebanese organization’s training role is now limited, as most forces have achieved a high-performance capability. Previous interviews with Hezbollah fighters showed that training encompassed ideological to physical courses as well as reconnaissance missions and the use of various weaponry.

Ahmad's testimonial concurs with a report by Ruslan Mamedov titled “The Fifth Assault Corps. Back to Order in Syria?” for the Russian International Affairs Council. Mamedov observed that Hezbollah instructors' experience “has no [equal].” The report also noted that there were plans in Syria to recruit commanders “from among retired but authoritative Hezbollah officers.”

Nevertheless, Hezbollah’s role at the behest of Iran isn't circumscribed to fighting the Syrian opposition, although Ahmad believes the conflict is not yet finished. “Despite the common rhetoric circulating that the war is in its last stages, it seems to me we still have a long way to go,” he said. “The conflict in northern Syria is far from finalized.”

Hezbollah’s Syrian endeavor and its successes there provide its backer Iran with significant power of deterrence in the regional game. After all, with the backing of Iran, Hezbollah in Syria has been able to form rapid-deployment units, beef up its military assets and help create a security arc, including other pro-Iranian militant groups from Iraq and Syria.

“I think our first great success has been our capacity to form and deploy units rapidly anywhere in Syria. It will be a major advantage in the next war [with Israel] and gives us flexibility,” Ahmad added.

Hezbollah expert and journalist Nicholas Blanford concurred, telling Al-Monitor the Lebanese organization has achieved a high degree of mobility in Syria, where it can deploy quickly with very little weaponry, like firefighters who put out fires when and where needed across a country.

It seems Hezbollah and Iran's second achievement has been increasing the group's arsenal of precision-guided, surface-to-surface missiles from Syria and Iran. Sources close to Hezbollah have reported that the organization operates weapons production facilities in Lebanon, manufacturing guided missiles and drones that can carry explosive charges. Israeli officials reported such production facilities in August. This was also reported by the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida, which quoted a member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Yet Israel has warned it will not allow pro-Iranian weapons factories in Syria and Lebanon. In September, The Guardian reported Israeli jets had bombed a Syrian government facility in the northwest of the country. The strike targeted the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which Western intelligence reports have linked to chemical weapons.

“Hezbollah, Iran and the Syrians have been tinkering with variants of the Iranian Fateh-110 family of missiles, such as reducing the size of warheads for increased range or slapping guidance systems on rockets," Blanford said. "The ability to accurately strike targets in Israel in the event of a war is of critical importance to Hezbollah and of equally critical concern to Israel.”

Hezbollah and Iran’s third achievement has been creating an international paramilitary arc stretching from Iraq, through Syria, to Lebanon. Ahmad said, “Lebanese Hezbollah is no longer alone — there is Hezbollah-Syria and Hezbollah-Iraq. I don’t mean this literally, but as an organized entity sharing the same ideology and purpose in the region."

The fighter’s testimonial echoes a statement made by Akram Kaabi, the head of the powerful Iraqi militia Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, who pledged Feb. 14 to stand alongside Hezbollah if a new war breaks out with Israel. In turn, his statement was similar in many ways to one made by Kais Khazaali, the head of Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group Asaib Ahl al-Haq on Dec. 8 in a video circulated on the internet.

Ahmad said, “All of the factions in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will fight together in the next war." If that is true, the region might be witnessing the emergence of a new regional federative militia, one in which Hezbollah, with its 40 years of expertise and its regional outlook to war theaters, will play an instrumental role.

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