TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Most Powerful Proxy
August 1, 2016

Iran’s Most Powerful Proxy

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Lebanese Hizballah is Iran’s ‘tip of the spear’ for expanding its regional influence.  

• Hizballah’s regional and worldwide operations serve specific Iranian strategic purposes, such as deterring Israel or keeping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power.

• Hizballah has a terrorist wing with global reach, but it is also fighting against Sunni Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

• Iran’s shipments of advanced rockets and missiles to Hizballah make the group as significant a threat to Israel as any of the conventional Arab armies Israel has faced in the past.

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Lebanese Hizballah has become the primary instrument through which Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Qods Force (IRGC-QF) extend influence in the region. The Shi’a Islamist organization’s militia and terrorist wing was created by the IRGC in the early 1980s, and the group has expanded to the point where it is enabling Iran to carry out what it views as an existential struggle against the leading Sunni Arab power, Saudi Arabia. Most of that struggle plays out in the Arab world, particularly in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and Lebanon itself, in which Hizballah has become the predominant political and military player. Strategically, through its deployments, advisory and training missions, and covert operations, Hizballah has helped Iran put Saudi Arabia and its allies on the defensive in all of these theaters. Hizballah’s deployment of about 7,000 militiamen to Syria helped stabilize the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which was close to collapse in 2012. Hizballah has helped train Shi’a militias in Iraq and funnel Iran-made weapons to the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as radical underground Shi’a factions battling the Al Khalifa regime in Bahrain, a very close ally of Saudi Arabia.

The latest State Department report on international terrorism characterizes Hizballah as ‘capable of operating around the globe.’ In 2012, Hizballah terrorists killed five Israeli tourists (and one Bulgarian) at the Sarafovo Airport in Bulgaria. Hizballah operatives operate in parts of Africa and South America where large Lebanese communities reside, and two of Hizballah’s most significant terror attacks occurred in Buenos Aires in the 1990s—very far afield from Lebanon and the Middle East. Yet, Hizballah’s terror operations are focused on specific strategic objectives—deterring Israel and convincing Israel that Hizballah is a potent force. Unlike the so-called Islamic State, whose attacks tend to be indiscriminate, Hizballah’s terror wing has generally only targeted citizens of countries that are in conflict with Iran, Lebanon, or Hizballah itself.

Many—though not all—of Hizballah’s activities on behalf of Iran conflict with Western interests. In Syria, Hizballah is fighting against Sunni rebel groups, some of which are broadly identified as terror organizations. The most prominent example is Jabhat al-Nusra, which was al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria until it severed links with al-Qaeda on July 28, rebranding itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Earlier in July, the U.S. and Russia agreed to share information on al-Nusra and to possibly combat it jointly. In Lebanon, where the State Department report assesses Hizballah to be ‘the most capable terrorist group,’ Hizballah is combatting al-Qaeda affiliates such as al-Nusra, Asbat al-Ansar, and Fatah al-Islam, as well as elements of the Islamic State. In Iraq, Iran has used Hizballah commanders to train members of Iraqi Shi’a militias that are attempting to push back Islamic State forces throughout the country. To some extent, Iraqi Shi’a trust the Arabic-speaking Hizballah forces more than they trust Iran, with which Iraq fought the long Iran-Iraq War (1980-88).

Hizballah’s role as Iran’s primary regional surrogate reflects the enmity expressed by Iran and Hizballah toward the State of Israel. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continues to refer to Israel as a ‘cancerous tumor,’ and Hizballah identifies Israel as its main adversary. However, Iran’s heavy reliance on Hizballah to assist the Assad regime in Syria has, to some extent, compromised Hizballah’s efforts against Israel. Hizballah’s intervention in Syria has undercut its political popularity in Lebanon and tarnished its image in the Arab world as a steadfast ‘resistance movement’ to Israel. In Syria, Hizballah has lost 1,000 of its fighters, by all accounts—nearly 5% of its total force. The iconic Hizballah militia commander, Mustafa Badreddin, was killed in battle in Syria in May 2016, and Israel has continued to conduct strikes in Syria against Iranian weapons shipments bound for Hizballah. In January 2015, an Israeli strike in Syria killed Jihad Mughniyah—son of Imad Mughniyah, the legendary leader of Hizballah’s terrorist wing, who Israeli operatives killed in Syria in 2008. Hizballah’s close association with Iran caused the Persian Gulf states to declare Hizballah a terrorist organization in March—a designation that slowed Persian Gulf investment in and travel to Lebanon.

Yet, Hizballah’s resilience has surprised analysts. Although it has taken heavy losses, its involvement in Syria also has sharpened its battle skills. That experience, coupled with the 100,000 advanced rockets Iran has supplied the group since the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war, makes Hizballah a serious military threat to Israel. In contrast to 2006, Hizballah’s rockets are capable of striking anywhere in Israel, including the far south, and their large numbers could overwhelm the greatly-enhanced Israeli rocket defense network centered on the Iron Dome. Iran has also supplied Hizballah with additional guided anti-tank weaponry such as the Kornet, which—combined with Hizballah’s honing of its conventional military tactics on the Syrian battlefield—would significantly increase Hizballah’s ability to inflict large losses on Israel’s armored formations. The growth of Hizballah’s capabilities has caused Israeli commanders to warn of significant Israeli casualties and destruction, both military and civilian, should there be another Israel-Hizballah war.

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