BEIRUT: The rocket attack last Thursday against northern Israel and the retaliatory Israeli airstrike near Naameh briefly turned attention away from Lebanon’s northern and eastern border with Syria and back to the southern frontier.
Since the end of the 2006 war, this once volatile border has enjoyed the longest period of relative calm in four decades. Instead, attention on Hezbollah’s military activities today tends to focus on the party’s armed intervention in Syria.
Hezbollah has deployed thousands of its battle-hardened fighters as well as new recruits to serve in some of the most bitterly contested fronts in the Syrian war, including Damascus, the Deraa province in the south, Homs in the center and the Aleppo province in the north.
Hezbollah’s commitment in Syria is illustrated by the growing duration of each fighter’s tour. Initially, fighters served seven days at a time, later extended to 20 days during the battle for Qusair in May.
Today, each fighter is required to spend 30 days on the Syrian front lines, according to sources close to the party. There probably is not one Shiite-populated village or town stretching from Aita Shaab on the southern border with Israel to Al-Qasr on the northern border that has not seen Hezbollah cadres rotating in and out of Syria.
The Syria conflict is also preoccupying Hezbollah domestically. The car bomb attacks in Bir al-Abed and Ruwaiss as well as roadside bombings of suspected Hezbollah vehicles in the Bekaa Valley and continuing cross-border rocket fire into the northern Bekaa has compelled the party to adopt unprecedented security measures, especially in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
This preoccupation with the Syrian conflict and the blowback in Lebanon creates an impression that Hezbollah has suspended its usual focus on Israel and its preparations for a future conflict with the Jewish state. That impression is further hardened by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s recent pledge to double the number of his fighters in Syria if need be, underscoring the party’s determination to help overcome the anti-President Bashar Assad struggle in Syria.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that Hezbollah’s commitment to the Assad regime has led to a weakened stance on its front against Israel.
The decision to deploy Hezbollah cadres into Syria was not taken unilaterally by the party’s leadership but was a strategic choice arising from cold rational logic made in consultation with its partners in Tehran and Damascus.
Iran and Hezbollah clearly believe Assad’s regime must survive as its downfall would represent a strategic blow to the “axis of resistance,” weakening Tehran’s reach into the Arab world and potentially isolating Hezbollah, especially if a Saudi-backed Sunni-dominated regime emerges in Damascus.
It is evident that for now neither Hezbollah and its partners nor Israel are in a hurry to rush into a war that would prove devastating for both Lebanon and Israel.
Even Israel’s retaliatory airstrike for the rocket firing Thursday was little more than a routine signal of displeasure. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command base at Naameh traditionally has served as a retaliatory target for the Israeli air force when Israel either cannot find more appropriate targets or does not want an escalation along the border.
Nevertheless, Hezbollah understands that the volatility in the region ensures that there are no guarantees that another conflict with Israel is not imminent. For example, Israel’s airstrikes against arms depots in Syria – four have been reported since January – have raised the risk of escalation that could inadvertently trigger a war.
Israel has calculated that Assad will not retaliate to the airstrikes for fear of provoking further Israeli attacks against his military assets which could weaken his ability to fight the rebels. That assessment appears to have paid off for now, but it is a high risk gambit.
Because of these regional uncertainties, Hezbollah cannot afford to disregard its southern front with Israel for the sake of helping the Syrian army crush the rebel forces. After all, wars with Israel tend to occur with little prior warning. If Hezbollah over-extended itself in Syria and a conflict suddenly erupted with Israel, it would risk disaster not only for the party but for its allies in Iran and Syria.
It is impossible to measure the extent of Hezbollah’s commitment in terms of manpower to the Syria war because the figures simply are not known.
Reliable sources estimate that between 1,200 and 1,700 Hezbollah men fought in the battle for Qusair in May and June. Extrapolating from that estimate and anecdotal evidence, it is probably safe to assume that there are some 8,000-10,000 Hezbollah fighters serving in Syria at any one time.
That admittedly vague estimate then has to be read against Hezbollah’s total force strength.
Before the 2006 war, Hezbollah’s fighting strength was generally estimated at a few hundred full-time fighters and a few thousand part-timers. Those figures are wholly redundant today given the massive recruitment and training program Hezbollah oversaw following the 2006 war.
Indeed, there are no reliable statistics for Hezbollah’s total man power today. One well-placed source in south Lebanon who is close to Hezbollah estimated Hezbollah’s strength at “more than 10,000 but less than 50,000” which is probably a safe, but imprecise, assumption.
With the caveat that the figures above are at the best guestimates, if one takes their averages, it would suggest that Hezbollah perhaps has deployed one third of its manpower in Syria. That might sound like a substantial number if correct, but it should be borne in mind that Hezbollah would not employ its full fighting force at the same time in a war with Israel.
In 2006, the number of Hezbollah fighters confronting Israeli troops in south Lebanon was a relatively small percentage of the party’s then strength. It was limited essentially to whomever was deployed in Hezbollah positions in the south when the war broke out and the part-time fighters who lived in the front-line villages. Relatively few fighters were dispatched from areas further north because they were not needed.
Furthermore, Hezbollah’s commitment to the Syria war is restricted mainly to man power. Other than personal arms, Hezbollah fighters in Syria have access to the Syrian army’s weapons and ammunition.
That ensures that the flood of advanced weapons that arrived in Lebanon post the 2006 war remains in Hezbollah’s secret arsenals in readiness for the next confrontation with Israel.