Hezbollah has proved itself a crucial ally to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. With the group's support, loyalist troops were able to quickly turn the tide of battle against the country's rebel groups in mid-2013 in a series of victories around Qusair. The sweeping operation allowed government troops to secure the key corridor linking the Syrian capital to the coast. Since then, Hezbollah has affirmed its value on the battlefield time and again. Now, the group's elite Radwan regiment is immersed in the crucial fight for Aleppo alongside government troops, while many other Hezbollah units are deployed across the country. Meanwhile, Hezbollah maintains several large bases and outposts near Qusair, where it made its first major entrance into the civil war.
Bruised but Battle-Hardened
Of course, years of brutal combat have taken a heavy toll on Hezbollah. A number of the group's top commanders have been killed in action, as has a sizable share of elite veterans who fought in the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon. To meet its extensive commitments amid such high casualty rates, Hezbollah has had to broaden its recruiting criteria. Not only has the group greatly expanded its Lebanese membership, but it has also founded its own Syrian affiliate groups, including the National Ideological Resistance and Al-Ridha Forces. Nevertheless, Hezbollah has taken care to continue cultivating elite units, leading to wide disparities in skill among the group's array of forces.
Recruits are not Hezbollah's only new additions. Grateful for the group's backing, the Syrian government has ratcheted up its weapons donations to the Lebanese militants. Damascus, along with Tehran, has long provided ample support to Hezbollah, turning it into the best-equipped non-state fighting force in the world. A decade ago, the militants possessed thousands of rockets, hundreds of anti-tank guided missiles and a handful of anti-ship missiles. Since then, the group has expanded its inventory, increasing its rocket stores to between 70,000 and 90,000, including thousands of long-range models. It has also acquired more anti-tank guided missiles, advanced Yakhont anti-ship missiles and surface-to-air missile systems such as the SA-8 and perhaps the SA-17 and SA-22. Hezbollah has even formed an armored unit equipped with dozens of tanks and armored vehicles. Though the showy armored unit would be of little practical use against a technologically advanced foe such as Israel, it marks significant progress from the group's beginnings as a guerrilla force.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah has been hardened and honed by years of conflict over difficult terrain. On the Syrian battlefield, the militants have confronted varied environments and threats. From high-intensity urban combat to mountain warfare and rapid maneuvers over open plains, its fighters have gained a great deal of experience in waging war. Some of its expertise, such as operating tanks and coordinating airstrikes, would not be of much value in a clash with Israel. But close-proximity skirmishes, sniper tactics and anti-tank guided missile deployment certainly would.
Preparing for the Next War
Israel has watched the evolution of its northern enemy closely for the past few years, and it is unsettled by what it has seen. Despite the blows Hezbollah has been dealt during the Syrian civil war, it has grown into a force to be reckoned with. The threat looming on Israel's northern border is now more sophisticated and more lethal. To many Israeli military planners, another war with Hezbollah is no longer a matter of if, but when.
At the moment, Hezbollah is stretched too thin in Syria to pick a fight with Israel. But this may not be the case for long: The group could begin scaling back its Syrian commitments as its missions in vital areas such as Aleppo wind down. In the meantime, though, the prospect of coming under attack from Israel while the group is distracted in Syria is a constant concern for Hezbollah leaders. Consequently, the group has tried to deter Israeli aggression through limited operations in response to Israeli strikes on its positions over the past few years.
Israel, meanwhile, has kept close ties to Russia in an effort to constrain Moscow's support for Hezbollah. It also hopes to deconflict the Syrian battlespace so as to avoid any run-ins with Russian forces as it works to cut off Hezbollah's supplies. Having learned from its experience in the 2006 Lebanon war, when airpower alone was not enough to severely curtail Hezbollah's missile and rocket arsenal, Israel has modified its strategy against the militant group. Rather than relying so heavily on airpower, Israel has shifted its focus to a large ground offensive against Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. But years of ferocious fighting in Syria's cities and villages have left the group's members with formidable skills in close combat, and defeating them in a ground war will not be easy. Hezbollah's newfound strength, coupled with Israel's determination to act decisively in any future conflict with it, suggest that the next war between the two promises to be even more destructive than the last.