BEIRUT: The 17-day assault on Qusair marked the first time that Hezbollah has launched a major offensive operation in an urban environment, putting into practice new training techniques taught to the group’s fighters since 2006. The fighting in Qusair provides potential insights into how Hezbollah could plan to exploit its relatively new urban warfare skills in a future confrontation with Israel.
Full details of the battle have yet to emerge, but Hezbollah apparently spearheaded the assault on the ground, using some 1,200 elite special forces fighters, backed by Syrian army artillery and air power, according to Hajj Abbas, a Hezbollah combatant who spent a week fighting in the town.
Hezbollah commanders were given tactical control over the attack on Qusair. The town was split into operational sectors and code numbers were assigned to locations and objectives, in keeping with customary Hezbollah practice. The technique allowed Hezbollah to use open radio communications – some of which was intercepted, recorded and uploaded to the Internet by rebel forces – without the opposition necessarily understanding what was being communicated.
Prior to the assault, the rebels constructed extensive defenses, including digging tunnels, erecting barricades, booby-trapping buildings and lacing the terrain with roadside bombs.
Hezbollah engineers were employed to help clear some of the booby traps to allow the fighters to advance.
“The engineers saved us a lot of headaches and time. They could clear a building then tell us that building No. 3 or building No. 4 was cleared and we could move in,” said Hajj Abbas, using his nom de guerre as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The Hezbollah units were no more than five or three men each and progress was slow. They knocked holes in the walls of buildings for access to avoid potentially booby-trapped doors and windows.
Hajj Abbas likened the terrain to a Palestinian camp due to the density of the houses and narrow streets, a marked contrast to the rural hills and valleys of south Lebanon where he gained his first combat experience more than a decade ago.
“It was a difficult environment for us at first because we don’t know the area. The buildings are different, the terrain is different. But we are well-trained soldiers and we are trained to adapt, so we just got on with it,” Hajj Abbas said.
He admitted that the rebel mortar fire was a “big problem.” The Hezbollah units attempted to draw as close as possible to their enemy so that the rebels would halt the mortar fire out of fear of hitting their own side.
In the 1990s, when Hezbollah was daily battling Israeli troops occupying south Lebanon, fighting was restricted to rural areas. Hezbollah fighters had to learn the art of stealth, camouflage and reconnaissance in a difficult environment of dense woodland, steep rocky hills and valleys, as well as cope with hazards such as snakes and wild boar.
In 2006, Hezbollah fought much of the war inside villages and towns, but in a defensive capacity to thwart Israeli attempts to capture ground.
However, since 2006, learning urban warfare skills – both defensive and offensive – has become an important part of Hezbollah’s overall training, augmenting the traditional hit-and-run guerrilla tactics.
The fighters receive training in mock urban sites in Iran and smaller facilities in Lebanon. In early March, Al-Manar television broadcast an audio recording of the voice of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s military commander who was assassinated in February 2008.
Accompanying his comments on jihad was footage of Hezbollah fighters training at camps in the Bekaa Valley. One brief segment showed Hezbollah men storming an “Israeli home” – a small roofless cinder block building decorated in the colors of the Israeli flag.
The building was one of several that comprised a simple urban warfare training site. The segment only lasted a few seconds but it was significant because it strengthened a veiled reference by Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, that in the next war Hezbollah units could be dispatched into northern Israel.
Hezbollah fighters have privately hinted at that possibility since the end of the 2006 war. In February 2011, Nasrallah said that in the event that war was imposed on Lebanon, “the resistance leadership might ask you to lead the resistance to liberate Galilee.”
Hezbollah describes its strategy as one of “defensive resistance,” in other words defending Lebanon by using resistance, or guerrilla, techniques, rather than relying on the capabilities of the Lebanese Army.
But in the next war, it is possible that there will be a further iteration in Hezbollah’s military evolution where the group employs offensive resistance techniques to seize and hold ground inside Israel, very different from the traditional hit-and-run practices of the 1990s.
Fresh from victory in Qusair, Hezbollah is expected to press on in Syria to new objectives. Aleppo has been cited as a major target for Hezbollah and the Syrian army.
The rebel-held areas around the towns of Yabrud and Nabk lying on the highway midway between Damascus and Homs also are speculated as likely candidates for Hezbollah’s attention. Returning that area to regime control would help seal Lebanon’s eastern border and neutralize Arsal as a logistical support hub for the Syrian rebels.
Regardless, Hezbollah appears prepared for a long commitment in Syria. That will ensure that the post-2006 generation of Hezbollah recruits, who have had no experience fighting Israeli troops unlike their older comrades, will emerge from the Syria war combat-hardened in urban and rural environments.