Hezbollah’s ties with Russia in Syria alarm Israelis

Lebanese group’s own de­velopment in Syrian war is expected to expand further through growing tactical ties to Russian forces in Syria.

Hezbollah fighter looking towards Syria while standing in fields of border village of Brital

2016/12/25 Issue: 87 Page: 10

The Arab Weekly
Nicholas Blanford

Beirut - Hezbollah’s importance in Syria has been en­hanced by the role its battle-hardened forces and its patron, Iran, are playing in reshaping the badly bat­tered Syrian Army from a conven­tional force structured to fight Isra­el to one more suited to the largely asymmetric Syrian conflict.

The Lebanese group’s own de­velopment in the Syrian war from a guerrilla organisation to a force more akin to a conventional army with tanks, artillery and drones is expected to expand further through growing tactical ties to Russian forces in Syria.

This has not gone unnoticed by Israel, which is concerned that Rus­sian influence on improving Hez­bollah’s combat capabilities could have ramifications for the Lebanese group’s enduring confrontation with the Jewish state.

While Hezbollah is passing on its own skill set to Syrian military for­mations, it is also looking to aug­ment its martial prowess by asso­ciation with Russian special forces units such as the elite Spetsnaz.

Lebanon’s Al Akhbar newspaper reported on November 24th that Russian officers and Hezbollah field commanders had met for the first time a week earlier at the Russians’ initiative. Previously, interaction between Russia’s military and Hez­bollah was limited to the operations rooms in Damascus and Baghdad, Al Akhbar said.

The Russians have been im­pressed with Hezbollah’s perfor­mance in Aleppo and now want to coordinate on a tactical level.

Abu Khalil, a veteran Hezbol­lah fighter, said it and “the cream of the Russian army”, specifically special forces and anti-tank missile teams, have been fighting together in Aleppo.

“If you play with a good football team, you’ll learn something from them. We’re learning from them and they’re learning from us,” he observed.

Israeli military officials are con­cerned that the battlefield experi­ences a new generation of Hez­bollah fighters are accruing in the Syrian cauldron and the operational lessons they learn from Russian forces could be used against the country.

A report by Israel’s National Secu­rity Council warned that Hezbollah could develop skills from the Rus­sians in electronic warfare, training and commando operations.

“Massive training in the tech­niques of Spetsnaz could consider­ably improve the general readiness of Hezbollah and its ability to deal with Israeli special units that pen­etrate into different theatres,” the report said.

It is not clear how Iran, Hezbol­lah’s patron and paymaster, views the tactical cooperation between Russia and the Lebanese group, a move that supposedly would ex­pand Moscow’s control of the Syr­ian battlefield. But it must be as­sumed that Tehran has approved the development even though Rus­sia and Iran have divergent strategic objectives in Syria. So the emerging Russia-Hezbollah partnership may be limited.

Nonetheless, if Hezbollah learns new war-fighting techniques that one day might be used against Is­rael, Tehran should have no reason to object to the new arrangement even if it adds another layer of com­plexity to an already bewildering conflict.

Hezbollah is helping Syria rebuild its battered army, whose armoured and mechanised divisions have largely disintegrated after nearly six years of casualties, desertions and exhaustion.

What has emerged is a leaner amalgam of military units fighting alongside foreign paramilitary forc­es, such as Hezbollah and Iraqi, Af­ghan and Pakistani Shia militias and some Russian infantry and special forces units.

Hezbollah’s well-trained fighters have spearheaded many successful offensives but relations between Syrian troops and Hezbollah fight­ers have never been strong and appear to be deteriorating further even as the regime is making major battlefield gains.

Hezbollah men have long grum­bled about ill-disciplined and un­trustworthy Syrian troops.

“A Syr­ian soldier will happily take $10 and shoot us in the back,” Abu Khalil said.

Today, Syrian units often take orders from Hezbollah command­ers and this is breeding resentment among Syrian officers. Sources close to Hezbollah said that in late November, Hezbollah fighters and Syrian soldiers fought each other in Aleppo using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

The dispute was triggered by a Syrian officer embarrassed at being given orders in front of his men by a young Hezbollah fighter.

These intra-loyalist tensions probably do not pose a long-term risk to the durability of the pro- Assad military alliance but they do illustrate Hezbollah’s growing bat­tlefield influence.

To ameliorate the perceived unre­liability of the Syrian Army and its chronic manpower shortage, Irani­an forces and Hezbollah have built a parallel military structure that falls largely under their command.

Iran helped establish, train and fund the National Defence Force militia, thought to number 80,000 volunteers and used mainly to gar­rison areas conquered by the re­gime.

In November, the Syrian Army announced plans to form a new commando force, the Fifth Attack Troops Corps of Volunteers. Leba­non’s As Safir newspaper reported that Hezbollah field commanders would play a major role in leading this unit.

Over the past year, Hezbollah has trained a new 50,000-strong unit of Syrian volunteers in Qusayr in Homs province, which has become a major military base for the move­ment since it defeated rebels there in June 2013.

Nicholas Blanford is the author of Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah’s Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel (Random House 2011). He lives in Beirut.

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