Few serious analysts doubt that Hizbullah defeated Israel in 2006. Even the New York Times was forced to admit this in its analysis of the Israeli-imposed war. The defeat at the hands of Hizbullah was so crushing that Tel Aviv has avoided confrontation with it in the 11 years since. Hizbullah had a deterrence capability before the Zionist attack of 2006. When Major General Gadi Eizenkot, head of the Israeli armed forces’ operations branch, heard that strikes were ordered against Hizbullah Fajr rocket sites, he said, “We have to stop everything, they don’t realise what this means.” The fear was that Hizbullah’s retaliation would endanger the northern front with a hail of rockets and other weapons. In the period between 2006 and 2015, surface to surface missiles (SSM) and rockets in Hizbullah’s possession are said to be in the range of 150,000.
The Washington Institute in early 2015 exposed the vulnerability of Israel in relation to the surface-to-surface attacks when it said,
According to Israeli intelligence estimates, Hizbullah would likely attempt to sustain fire of around a thousand rockets and missiles per day, dwarfing the approximate daily rate of 118 achieved in 2006. Perhaps more important, Hizbullah now has missiles with the range and accuracy to strike large strategic targets such as airfields, headquarters, and economically important sites. An operation of this nature could overwhelm Israel’s anti-rocket systems. The weight of the attack would fall on northern and to a lesser extent central Israel, but Hizbullah can now reach targets in the south as well.
This does not only change the balance of the war but shifts it dramatically in Hizbullah’s favour. Of greatest concern to Israel is the alleged possession of SA-17 and SA-22 ground-to-air missiles as well as P-800 Oniks air-to-sea missiles. The SA-17 and SA-22 now pose the greatest threat to the Israeli air superiority, which provided an edge over Hamas and Hizbullah non-state actors during Israeli military operations.
Hizbullah’s public pronouncements have also changed from talking about defensive to offensive operations against Zionist Israel. Nadav Pollak, a former analyst for the Zionist regime, who also served as an NCO in Israeli army Intelligence Corps, gave a lecture in August 2016 entitled, “The Transformation of Hizbullah by Its Involvement in Syria.” He detailed how offensive capabilities have now become part of the range of operations that may be conducted against Israel. He said,
This type of offensive experience could change the basic paradigms of many Hizbullah fighters. Naturally, some Hizbullah commanders who achieved important objectives using offensive operations in Syria might ponder that the same approach could work against Israel.
This opens a new range of options against Israel. Unlike 2006 in which Israel crossed the border into Lebanon to conduct operations, now Hezbollah will be able to carry out operations inside Israel. This is the edge of the psychological warfare that has been deployed by Hizbullah. An example of this is a trailer published on YouTube purportedly by al-Mayadin in which the “decisive battle” (that is, “The Day”) would take place in 2019.
The most recent development is the unexpected presence of Hizbullah and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) along the Golan border. Even Moshe Yaalon, the former Israeli Chief of Staff and Defence Minister, in his lecture at the Washington Institute referred to this. He said “We haven’t absorbed a single Sunni Jihadist attack from the Syrian side. We did absorb about a dozen IRGC proxies.” Throughout the war on Syria, Israel was providing medical and material aid to rebels and al-Qaeda affiliates on the Golan border with Israel. This picture changed in the latter part of 2016 and 2017. An announcement was made by the IRGC of the creation of a new division of force known as the Golan Liberation Brigade which is alleged to have ten thousand or more soldiers. The development of a new front against Israel spurred Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to frantically lobby the US and partner Jordan to demand a buffer zone. This underscores how scared Israel is of the IRGC and Hizbullah presence.
It, therefore, stands to reason that the threat on the northern front has been the most pressing for Israel with the developing easternfront effectively enclosing Israel. To the Israeli military establishment, one would be looking at the first tangible existential threat to Israel since the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
Combining the pictures of then and now, we can effectively question the Syrian theatre of operations and acknowledge that hegemony was indeed being threatened and drastic action was required. This point will be developed further in the latter portion of this analysis.
How to weaken Hizbullah and check its ability to enhance its capabilities was the question that was mulling around in the minds of Israel as well as their GCC dependents. The natural answer was to attack the transit point of training and weapons: Syria. This knowledge was present in 2006 when Israeli officials stated that they were seeking to stop weapons from being supplied to Hizbullah via Syria from Iran. In Pollak’s lecture at the Washington Institute, he made specific reference to the strategic importance of Syria for al-Muqawamah (The Resistance against Israel). He said in his written report,
To understand the depth of Hezbollah’s commitment to the Syrian regime, one must understand the extent to which Syria is Hizbullah’s logistical lifeline. For years weapons have been delivered through Syria to the group by air and land. Using Syria as its main transit hub, the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), headed by Qasem Soleimani, has made sure Hezbollah’s arsenal has grown over the years in quantity and quality. The Syrian regime itself has contributed to Hezbollah’s military supply, mainly in the form of advanced anti-tank missiles received from Russia, along with rockets and other missiles. Reports also indicate that Hezbollah has maintained training camps in Syria and logistical bases for weapons storage. Beyond serving as a transit hub for weapons, Syria has done the same for Hezbollah fighters. Indeed, a key part of Hezbollah’s training routine over the years involved travelling to Iran through Damascus airport.
It is common cause that Syria was also at the heart of arming and training the Palestinian resistance movements as stated in the congressional report, “If sanctions weaken Iran and Syria in general terms, one could argue, resources and efforts allocated to helping Hamas and other potential proxies could be redirected to core internal matters related to regime survival.” Damascus was also home to Hamas and served as a local tower that allowed free movement and interaction while being close enough to Palestine.
Zaakir Ahmed Mayet is Chairman of the Media Review Network of Pretoria, South Africa.