Supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah display Hezbollah flags during a rally marking the 11th anniversary of the end of Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel, in the southern village of Khiam, Lebanon August 13, 2017..
(photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)
As the IDF begins its largest drill in 20 years simulating a war with Hezbollah, it is unlikely that Israeli soldiers will see a real conflict with the terrorist group in the near future.
According to IDF assessments, while Hezbollah has increased its military capabilities through its fighting in Syria, the group has spread its troops across the entire Middle East and is not only hurting financially but is in turmoil internally.
“It is an internal crisis over what they are fighting for, an economic crisis and a leadership crisis,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot stated at an academic conference in Netanya in March.
Those statements have been echoed by other senior IDF officers, who have confirmed that Hezbollah is “in a bad place,” especially since the 2016 assassination
of one of its top commanders in Syria.
Moustafa Badreddine, 55, was responsible for the group’s military operations in Syria since 2011 and had a reputation of being a ruthless killer and tactician. He was killed in Damascus in March of last year in an explosion initially believed to have been a covert Israeli operation.
Hezbollah later officially blamed Syrian opposition groups for his death, saying he was killed in a big explosion targeting one of its bases near the city’s airport, caused by “artillery bombardment carried out by takfiri [Sunni extremist] groups present in that region.”
Israeli intelligence later concluded that Nasrallah gave the order himself for Badreddine’s assassination, after being pressured by Maj.- Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ extraterritorial operations branch, the Quds Force, because the top Hezbollah commander was in conflict with Iranian military commanders in Syria.
It is believed that since his assassination both Iran and Nasrallah are viewed suspiciously within the group.
Yet despite the internal suspicions against Nasrallah and the group’s patron Iran, the group’s military prowess continues to increase, and it has spread its reach far from the borders of Lebanon.
Formed in the 1980s with the help of Iran as a resistance group against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah has since morphed into a group with thousands of battle-hardened fighters and advanced weaponry spread across the Middle East.
Hezbollah sends thousands of fighters to Syria, sent others to train Shi’ite fighters in Iraq to battle Islamic State and is also backing Houthi rebels in Yemen against the Saudi-led coalition.
The Israel Air Force has in the past five years carried out 100 airstrikes against convoys believed to be transferring advanced weaponry from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah.
On Saturday Iran’s newly appointed Defense Minister Brig.-Gen. Amir Hatami stated that Tehran wishes “to cut reliance on the outside and achieve self-sufficiency in defense industry.”
In early July the head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi confirmed reports that Hezbollah operates and manages two underground weapons factories set up by the IRGC in response to alleged Israeli strikes against weapons convoys in Syria.
Israel also believes that Iran has begun to build similar factories in Yemen.
With the help of Iran, Hezbollah has rebuilt its arsenal since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, with at least 100,000 short-range rockets and several thousand more missiles that can reach central Israel.
In addition to resupplying their rocket arsenal since the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah has changed from a terrorist group engaging in guerrilla-style warfare to an army with battalions, brigades and over 40,000 fighters who have gained immeasurable battlefield experience from fighting in Syria on the side of President Bashar Assad.
But fighting in Syria has cost the group, already hurting due to years of sanctions by the United States; it is suffering from declines in manpower and finances.
A recent report in The New York Times
quoted analysts as saying that the group has lost 2,000 fighters in Syria and double that amount are believed to have been wounded.
The group has for years supported the families of fallen and wounded fighters, and while only 50 Hezbollah fighters were killed in 2017, the group’s purse strings are strained.
The terrorist group is deeply embedded in Lebanese society, with thousands of Lebanese Shi’ites relying on them for social, medical and financial support. Iran, which continues to provide financial and military support – according to some estimates to the tune of at least $200 million a year – is also hurting financially which has a domino effect on Hezbollah.
So while the war of words between Israel and Hezbollah continues, it is unlikely that Hezbollah would want to start a new round of fighting with its southern neighbor. Instead it will likely continue its focus on sending troops to back and train fighters in Iraq and Yemen, and to fight and die for Assad.
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