Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters during a rare public appearance in Beirut, November 3.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Every once in a while, the covert war against the Hezbollah- Syrian-Iranian arms smuggling network seems to break out into the public sphere.
It is safe to assume this can occur when Israel’s defense establishment detects an imminent attempt by that network to transfer advanced weapons to the terrorist organization in Lebanon, thereby violating Israel’s red line against such smuggling.
Hardly a week passes without Israel blocking – in one way or another – an Iranian arms smuggling attempt, though most such actions remain covert, far from the public eye. These efforts possibly involve close cooperation between Military Intelligence, the Mossad and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
The Assad regime, despite its dwindling control of Syria, remains Hezbollah’s main weapons depot, from where both Syrian-made and Iranian-produced arms often pass through en route to Hezbollah storage facilities in Lebanon. When this happens, Israel’s choice is to either intervene, or watch closely and map out the location of the arms once they are stored in Lebanese apartment buildings and bunkers.
Despite its heavy and ongoing involvement in the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah has never ceased its massive build-up of projectiles, which is estimated to number more than 100,000.
Nearly all are earmarked for future use against Israel.
The fact that Israel may be forced to choose to act this year against Iran’s nuclear program, which would lead Iran to activate its proxy, Hezbollah, for retaliation, raises the stakes in this covert struggle.
According to IDF assessments, Hezbollah ranks fifth in the world in terms of the of firepower it can deploy.
While most of this arsenal is made up of unguided short-range rockets, Hezbollah has been placing an increased emphasis on acquiring guided longrange rockets and missiles, which pose a greater threat to strategic sites within the Israeli home front and assets like offshore natural gas rigs.
According to foreign media reports, past unconfirmed Israeli air strikes in Syria, targeted guided Iranian Fateh- 110 missiles, Yakhont surface-to-sea missiles and advanced air defense systems, on their way to Hezbollah.
There have been at least five such reported strikes in 2013, and an additional alleged strike on a Hezbollah base in eastern Lebanon this year.
The latter strike prompted Hezbollah to plant two bombs in the Har Dov region on the Israeli-Lebanese border, wounding two IDF paratroopers in October, and signaling a new readiness by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to respond openly to supposed Israeli strikes.
At the heart of the arms network is Iran’s Quds Force and its commander, often described as a skilled mastermind, Kassem Soleimani.
The Quds Force, a part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, was the unit behind an attempt to ship Syrian-made M-302 heavy rockets to Gaza – a smuggling run that Israel uncovered and intercepted this year, to Iran’s disappointment.
If Sunday’s reports of fresh Israeli air strikes on targets near Damascus are true, Iran, Hezbollah and Syria will likely be trying to figure out whether – and how – to respond. Their decision will be heavily influenced by their perception of Israel’s deterrence, and their ongoing war against a myriad of Sunni rebels in Syria.
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