Yaakov Lappin, Tel Aviv – IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly
Russia’s growing influence over the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah alliance may help prevent any sudden escalations with Israel, according to recent Israel Defense Forces (IDF) assessments.
The IDF views the Russian and US military presence in the region as stabilising influences that can counter the instability caused by the proliferation of heavily armed sub-state actors in Syria.
According to this view, Russia’s ongoing dialogue with Hizbullah could restrain the Lebanese Shia group from responding to perceived Israeli airstrikes with attacks that could escalate into a conflict.
In December 2015, Israel reportedly launched an airstrike that killed the notorious Hizbullah operative Samir Kuntar in a Damascus suburb. Hizbullah responded with a relatively limited bomb attack on heavily armoured IDF vehicles in the disputed Mount Dov (Shebaa Farms) border area on the Israeli-Lebanese border.
The IDF assesses that, behind closed doors, Hizbullah’s leadership is torn by dilemmas when it comes to formulating responses to such developments.
The IDF also believes that reports of Russia arming Hizbullah to make it a more effective ally in Syria are baseless.
Russia’s influence is not the only moderating factor; Hizbullah is also growing more affiliated to the Lebanese state, making it more accountable, although its influence on domestic politics is also growing as a result.
It is also suffering some budgetary problems, such paying salaries on time, due to Iran’s failure to transfer around 10% of the group’s USD1 billion annual budget.
Meanwhile, it currently maintains 6,000-7,000 fighters in Syria, according to IDF estimates, and 1,300 have been killed there, twice the figure it suffered during the 2006 war with Israel. Some 10,000 Hizbullah fighters have been injured in Syria.
In light of the fact that Hizbullah has an estimated total conscripted fighting force of 20,000, and roughly the same number of reserve fighters, those figures are highly significant to Hizbullah’s order of battle.