A Strategic Assessment of the Hizballah War: Defeating the Iranian-Syrian Axis in Lebanon


Vol. 6, No. 2    July 19, 2006

  •  Israel’s current military operations to uproot Hizballah and to destroy it as a formidable military and terror organization is not merely an operation against another determined terror group like Hamas in Gaza. Hizballah has a disciplined, well-trained army with sophisticated weaponry, backed directly by Syria and Iran.
  • A high-level Iranian official recently emphasized to Western diplomats in London Hizballah’s importance to Iran: “Hizballah is one of the pillars of our security strategy, and forms Iran’s first line of defense against Israel.” Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader, shares this perspective: “The war is no longer Lebanon’s…it is an Iranian war. Iran is telling the United States: You want to fight me in the Gulf and destroy my nuclear program? I will hit you at home, in Israel.”

  • Iran’s Revolutionary Guards provide the majority of Hizballah’s weaponry, financing, instruction, and strategic command and control. Hizballah’s short- and medium-range missiles are manufactured in Iran and exported to Lebanon via the Damascus International Airport. Iranian officers from the Revolutionary Guards are on the ground in Lebanon, playing active roles in supervising terror actions and training Hizballah operatives to launch rockets against Israel.

  • Hizballah is nothing less than an extension of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Iran has taken a strategic decision to activate Hizballah terror against Israel in order to preclude the United States and its Western allies from stopping Iran’s nuclear development program.

  • The only way to defeat an insurgency is to first isolate it from external reinforcement. Israel is seeking to cut off Hizballah from Syria and Iran and isolate it from the rest of Lebanon. Israel must carry out its current military operation against Hizballah until it is fully neutralized and disarmed. It would be nothing short of catastrophic for both Israel and the international community if diplomatic efforts result in Israel being forced to end its military operation prematurely.

 


Hizballah Has No Red Lines

The current war being waged against Israel by Hizballah and its Syrian and Iranian patrons is in large part the result of Israel’s long-time, hands-off policy with regard to the Lebanon-based fundamentalist terror group. Since Israel’s overnight unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, Hizballah built itself into a deterrent military force possessing 13,000 to 15,000 short- and medium-range missiles. The terror organization exploited Israel’s political preference to maintain the relative quiet for the residents of its northern border communities instead of uprooting the Hizballah terror infrastructure and risking war. As a result of Israel’s skittishness to confront it, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah assessed that he could determine when to launch hostilities against Israel completely on Hizballah’s terms.

Hizballah – the “Party of God” – has no red lines. Any strategic strike that it can execute, it will execute, limited only by its ability and the conditions permitting it to carry out an attack at any particular moment. In that regard, Hassan Nasrallah lives in his own bubble in which he judges democratic Israel the same way he judges the Lebanese or those in Hizballah. Nasrallah recently called Israeli resolve “weaker than a spider’s web.”

Nasrallah’s decision to kidnap two Israeli soldiers on July 12 was made partly in reaction to Hamas’ kidnapping at the Israel-Gaza border of Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Nasrallah said in a speech shortly after the terror attack and kidnapping of the two Israeli army reservists that he wished to negotiate an exchange for Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese terrorist, and other “prisoners and detainees held by Israel.”1 Israeli intelligence assessed that Nasrallah meant he would also negotiate for Palestinians as well, and thereby assume a leading role on the Palestinian issue as well, even ahead of Hamas.

Israel’s Response

According to Israeli intelligence assessments, Hizballah, Syria, and Iran were taken by surprise by the sheer magnitude and intensity of Israel’s response to the missile attacks and kidnapping. Nasrallah did not understand what causes a democratic country to act harshly when its red lines are crossed and its citizens are threatened, as Israelis are today. Nasrallah never thought that as a result of kidnapping two soldiers, Israel would launch such a far-reaching counter-offensive. He failed to understand that Israel has gone to war because Hizballah has launched a strategic attack against it, and that Israel views the kidnappings as part of a much greater threat.

Israel’s current military operations to uproot Hizballah and to destroy it as a formidable military and terror organization is not merely an operation against another determined terror group like Hamas in Gaza. Hizballah has a disciplined, well-trained army with sophisticated weaponry, backed directly by Syria and Iran.

Iran’s Role

According to a May 11, 2006, Asharq Al-Awsat report, a high-level Iranian official who held a closed meeting with a small group of Western diplomats in London emphasized Hizballah’s importance to Iran: “Hizballah is one of the pillars of our security strategy, and forms Iran’s first line of defense against Israel. We reject [the claim] that it must be disarmed.”2 Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader, shares this perspective: “The war is no longer Lebanon’s…it is an Iranian war. Iran is telling the United States: You want to fight me in the Gulf and destroy my nuclear program? I will hit you at home, in Israel.”3

Hizballah is not an independent actor. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards provide the majority of Hizballah’s weaponry, financing, instruction, and strategic command and control. Most of Hizballah’s terrorist weaponry, particularly short- and medium-range missiles – including the Zalzal missile that can reach as far as Tel Aviv, 150 kilometers from Israel’s northern border – are manufactured in Iran and exported to Lebanon via the Damascus International Airport.4 Weaponry and materiel are then openly transported by truck convoys to Hizbullah in Lebanon.

According Israeli intelligence, Iranian officers from the Revolutionary Guards are on the ground in Lebanon, playing active roles in supervising terror actions and training Hizballah operatives to launch rockets against Israel.5 On July 14, Hizbullah fired an Iranian copy of a Chinese C-802 Kowthar missile at an Israeli warship, killing four crew members. These rockets have been in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ arsenal for four or five years.

Some of Hizballah’s weaponry is manufactured by Syria and is provided to the terror organization at the direct order of President Bashar Assad. The rockets in the first barrage that struck the northern city of Haifa on July 16, killing eight Israelis, were manufactured and supplied by Syria. Other medium-range Syrian and Iranian missiles are also in Hizballah’s stockpile but have yet to be used against Israel.

Dimensions of the Conflict

On a macro level, there are three dimensions to the current war against Hizballah:

The first dimension is Hizballah’s ability as a highly-disciplined terror force with approximately 13,000 rockets that have wreaked havoc on hundreds of thousands of Israelis in northern Israel. Additionally, its ground forces were previously deployed right up to the Israeli-Lebanese border, oftentimes within rifle range of public buildings in Israeli towns and villages. In this regard, it is abundantly clear that Israel cannot allow Hizballah to return to its former positions in southern Lebanon. The Lebanese army must be deployed to ensure that southern Lebanon remains free of Hizballah control.

Second, Hizballah cannot be allowed to be the driving force that decides, whenever it so chooses, together with its Syrian and Iranian patrons, to inflame the Middle East. In this sense, Israel’s current war in Lebanon is not punitive; it is strategic. The Israeli air force has struck the main arteries for the transfer of weapons to Hizballah from Syria and Iran through Beirut International Airport, all Lebanese seaports, and across the Beirut-Damascus highway from the east, which has served as one of Hizballah’s main lines of weapons transport. During the present hostilities, Syria has continued to attempt to resupply Hizballah in the Bekaa Valley, as well.

In bombing Hizballah’s Daheyh stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut, Israel is seeking to separate it from Hizballah forces further south. Thus, Hizballah is being cut off from Syria and Iran and isolated from the rest of Lebanon. Hizballah has waged an insurgency against Israel from the mini-state it has created inside of Lebanon. The only way to defeat an insurgency is to first isolate it from external reinforcement. That is what Israel is seeking to do. In a second phase, the insurgency must be disarmed. In this regard, the international community must enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1559 that imposes the obligations of state sovereignty and responsibility on Lebanon to force the Hizballah to disarm, as even French President Jacques Chirac has demanded.

The third and broader dimension of the escalating conflict is that Hizballah is nothing less than an extension of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Iran has taken a strategic decision to activate Hizballah terror against Israel in order to preclude the United States and its Western allies from stopping Iran’s nuclear development program. The uprooting of Hizballah’s military capacity will neutralize one of Iran’s most dangerous and valuable deterrent threats against any country that attempts to act against Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.

The Stakes for Israel and the West

Israel must carry out its current military operation against Hizballah until it is fully neutralized, disarmed, and unable to serve as Iran’s long “arm” that can bring terror upon Israel and destabilize the Middle East region at will. The current Israeli victims of Hizballah terror will not have sacrificed their lives in vain if Israel conducts its war to an uncompromising victory. However, if Hizballah is allowed to remain a military force in Lebanon or even an armed presence in southern Lebanon, Israel will have indeed sacrificed its soldiers and citizens in vain, and will also suffer similar attacks in the future.

Furthermore, it is a primary interest of the international community that Hizballah be fully neutralized as a military extension of Iran. Only a full victory against Hizballah will allow the possibility for Lebanon to emerge as a free and democratic country. This is also in line with the Bush Administration’s vision of helping the peoples of the Middle East to free themselves of tyrannical and fundamentalist elements and prevent the threat to the region of a nuclear Iran. This underscores the regional and international importance of Israel’s current mission.

Any Syrian or Iranian forces or advisors in Lebanon are legitimate targets for Israel. Israel must send a clear message to Bashar Assad that it will not accept any Syrian interference in Lebanon. However, while Israel should not open up a front against Syria at this juncture, if Syrian forces show any type of movement, Israel must be ready to engage them.

The duration of the current war depends on Israel, Lebanon, and the international community. If the Lebanese realize that with every passing day the accumulating losses are taking too great a toll, if the international community continues to allow Israel to uproot Hizballah without pressuring Israel for a cease-fire, and if the UN stays out of the fray, the war does not have to last very long. But if Israel is pressured to stop its operations, this acute conflict will indeed last a long time.

This is a war in which Israel is acting primarily through its air force, which is a new approach. However, if Israel’s air force fails to stop Hizballah rocket assaults, Israel may be forced to send in substantial ground forces to control the areas from which rockets are being launched. This real possibility would have far-reaching implications in terms of potential losses for the IDF and for the citizens of Lebanon.

No less significant is Israel’s readiness to absorb damage to its home front. This requires a much higher degree of national resilience than that of the first Iraq war when Saddam Hussein fired 39 Scud missiles at Israeli cities. This time there is much more damage and loss of life on the home front, but Israel is showing great fortitude and national will.

Iran’s Ongoing War Against the West

Even if Israel is successful in destroying the Hizballah infrastructure, Iran will not be deterred in its ongoing war against the West, for Hizballah’s attacks on Israel represent Iran’s strategic decision to launch what it sees as a counter-offensive against the West following America’s post 9/11 attacks on the regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Echoing Iran’s perspective, the conservative daily Jomhour-e Eslami, affiliated with the Islamic seminaries of Qom, reiterated in a July 17 editorial the charge that “the conspiracy of bringing down the Twin Towers in New York with one plane, which was totally dubious, was a pretext for occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, and for [providing] unqualified support to the Zionist regime in its crimes against Palestine.”6

The Iranian editorial noted that “America’s collaboration with the Zionists in murdering the Palestinian people, destroying Lebanon, and [hurling] baseless accusations against Iran [regarding] nuclear activity – which is now coming to a head – is a new phase in America’s crusade against the Muslims. This is exactly the point at which the leadership of the Islamic nation must play a role.”7 This underscores the assessment that if Hizballah is neutralized in the current conflict, Iran will have lost a major asset in its ongoing struggle against the West.

The Diplomatic Front

In order to achieve its war objectives, Israel must succeed on the diplomatic front in addition to the battlefield. It would be nothing short of catastrophic for both Israel and the international community if diplomatic efforts result in Israel being forced to end its military operation prematurely. Furthermore, it is incumbent on the international community, which last year demanded that the Syrian army withdraw from Lebanon, to provide the necessary assistance to Lebanon that will ensure that Hizballah is disbanded as a military force, and this must be the highest international priority.

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Notes

1. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3274616,00.html
2. Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), http://memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=SD120406
3. Anton La Guardia, “Israel Fights West’s Cause Against Radical Islam,” Telegraph (UK), July 17, 2006.
4. See Uzi Rubin, “The Global Range of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program,” Jerusalem Issue Brief 5-26, http://jcpa.org/brief/brief005-26.htm
5. An Iranian military source close to the Revolutionary Guards leadership revealed to the London Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat details concerning Iran’s role in training and arming Hizbullah. The source said that “in Lebanon, there are 70 trainers, experts, and technicians, as well as 60 Faylaq Quds intelligence agents, who assist the Hizballah missile unit and its local leadership. In addition, there is a secret Revolutionary Guards unit, consisting of 20 officers, who use advanced means to track the movement of Israeli forces in the field, and select targets in Israel for the operation commanders. http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP120706
6. MEMRI, July 17, 2006, http://memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=SD120806
7. MEMRI, http://memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=SD120806

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Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, Program Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs, is former commander of the IDF’s National Defense College and the IDF Staff and Command College. He is also the former head of the IDF’s research and assessment division, with special responsibility for preparing the National Intelligence Assessment. In addition, he served as the military secretary of the Minister of Defense.

Dan Diker is a senior policy analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and heads its Defensible Borders Initiative. He also serves as Knesset correspondent and analyst for the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s English News.

About Dan Diker

Dan Diker is a foreign policy fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya.

He can be reached at diker@jcpa.org

About Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror is a former Israeli national security advisor. He formerly served as director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is former commander of the IDF's National Defense College and the IDF Staff and Command College and former head of the IDF's Research and Assessment Division, with special responsibility for preparing the National Intelligence Assessment. In addition, he served as the military secretary of the defense minister.