Ariel Schalit / AP

Israeli strikes in Syria highlight fears over Hezbollah’s growing arsenal

Analysis: Israel’s continued targeting of the Lebanese armed group’s weapons illustrates its military capabilities

BEIRUT — Israeli jets have conducted another series of airstrikes in Syria, targeting advanced weapons systems at military bases north of Damascus and close to the border with Lebanon, according to regional media reports.

The airstrikes launched late Friday reportedly hit long-range guided missiles stored in several Syrian army bases in the mountainous Qalamoun region along the Lebanon-Syria border.

Israel has struck weapons consignments in Syria on eight occasions since January 2013, hitting an array of sophisticated weaponry, including Iranian Fateh-110 guided missiles, SA-8 and SA-17 anti-aircraft systems and Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles. In each case, the weapons were allegedly earmarked for transfer to the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, a Shia group backed by Iran.

The latest airstrikes follow the discovery of an airstrip in Lebanon’s northern Bekaa Valley that is likely used for Hezbollah’s fleet of drones, underlining the technical advances of the organization, with its growing arsenal of guided missiles and the challenges it poses to Israel in a future war.

Israel has maintained a customary silence on Friday night’s airstrikes. Syria and Hezbollah also have said nothing for now.

Hezbollah, which has deployed thousands of fighters to Syria to defend the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, did not respond to past Israeli attacks against arms depots on Syrian soil. However, when Israeli jets bombed a Hezbollah building in eastern Lebanon in February last year, Hezbollah hit back with a roadside bomb detonated against Israeli soldiers on Lebanon’s southeastern border.

After the assassination in January of an Iranian general and six Hezbollah fighters by Israeli drones in Syria’s Golan Heights, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah warned that the old tit-for-tat rules of the game that define the conflict between the two enemies were over.

“We in the Islamic Resistance [Hezbollah] in Lebanon are no longer concerned with any such thing as the rules of engagement … The story that you hit me here and you retaliate here is finished. We have the right to respond in any place and at any time and in the way we deem appropriate,” he said.

Whether Hezbollah will retaliate for the latest Israeli airstrike in Syria remains to be seen. But the stakes are high for both sides. The fact that Israel has repeatedly sought to destroy such sophisticated weapons systems illustrates just how much Hezbollah has grown in military capability over the past two decades and how much it worries Israeli leaders.

In the mid-1990s, when Hezbollah was waging a daily war of resistance against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, its armaments were relatively crude and lightweight. Its longest-range rocket was unguided and had a range of only 12 miles. Hezbollah’s top anti-tank missile was wire-guided and dated to the 1960s.

Today Hezbollah possesses GPS-guided short-range ballistic missiles that can deliver 1,100 pounds of high explosive to specific buildings in Tel Aviv. The laser-beam-riding Russian Kornet anti-tank missiles now in its possession can punch through the armor of Israel’s top line Merkava tanks. Hezbollah fields an array of anti-ship missiles, and if it has acquired the Russian 186-mile-range Yakhont cruise missile, which the Israeli military assumes it has, then it could threaten shipping along Israel’s entire coastline.

Any future war would be devastating for Lebanon, but the Israeli home front would likely face its greatest level of destruction since 1948. An assessment by the Israeli army released in March estimated that in the next war with Hezbollah, Israel would be struck by as many as 1,500 rockets a day, leaving hundreds dead and requiring mass evacuations. In the monthlong war of summer 2006, Israel was hit by an average of 134 rockets a day.

Israel fields the Iron Dome anti-missile system designed to shoot down short-range rockets and next year could have the David’s Sling system in operation, which is intended to deal with the larger rockets in Hezbollah’s arsenal. But both systems will be unable to cope with the rate of Hezbollah’s fire and will be used to defend strategic sites, such as air bases, seaports and airports, military command centers, industrial areas, government offices and infrastructure facilities. Residential areas are a lesser priority in a time of war, which means Israelis will either have to spend the conflict in bomb shelters or evacuate to the few places beyond the reach of Hezbollah’s guided missiles.

In the next war, Israel will essentially shut down. Shops, businesses and schools will close, and the country will find itself cut off from the rest of the world because of a freeze of civilian air and maritime traffic.

Writing in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily on Sunday, columnist Yossi Yehoshua said that Hezbollah’s “monstrous arsenal” represents “a ticking bomb waiting for us on the northern border.”

“If the defense establishment fails to defuse it, quickly, we are in for a battle which we have never experienced before,” Yehoshua wrote.

Hezbollah’s latest military development is the construction of a runway, 2,200 feet long and 65 feet wide, large enough to accommodate several Iranian drones, in a remote sparsely populated area of the Bekaa Valley. Newly updated satellite imagery on Google Earth suggests that the strip was built sometime from February 2013 to June 2014. The runway is constructed on a gently sloping hill, with the lower end raised with soil and rock taken from a nearby quarry to keep the strip level.

No attempt has been made to disguise the airstrip, and its existence is known to Israel, which routinely flies reconnaissance missions in Lebanese airspace. Since 2006, Hezbollah has built dozens of training camps and military facilities across the Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon that are visible from the air to accommodate its enormous expansion in manpower.

Hezbollah apparently calculates that Israel will not unilaterally attack the facilities, which are militarily insignificant, relatively low cost and replaceable, to avoid retaliation that could escalate into war.

It is no secret that Hezbollah operates drones and no surprise that it has built a strip for their use. It flew a drone into Israel for the first time in November 2004. Hezbollah dubbed the drone the Mirsad-1, although it was thought to have been the Iranian Ababil-2, a short-range reconnaissance drone that is launched from a rail mounted on a truck.

In October 2012, Hezbollah announced that it flew a drone, dubbed Ayyoub, from Lebanon south over the Mediterranean to penetrate southern Israel, where it was detected and shot down by the Israeli air force. It is unclear what type of drone was employed, but a Hezbollah propaganda video released at the time showing the Ayyoub’s flight path used an image of an Iranian Shahed 129, a long-range system capable of carrying missiles and remaining in the air for 24 hours. Another possibility is that the Ayyoub was the Ababil-3, a larger version of Hezbollah’s original drone. Both the Ababil-3 and Shahed 129 have been spotted over Syria, and both require runways to take off and land. A Hezbollah facility in a shallow valley 1.5 miles to the west of the Bekaa airstrip, guarded by a swing gate and checkpoint, contains two buildings large enough to accommodate the Ababil-3’s 22-foot wingspan.

Hezbollah sources have confirmed that the organization uses drones to support its operations against rebel groups in Syria, particularly the Qalamoun mountains. It may be no coincidence, therefore, that the airstrip lies only 11 miles from the border with Syria.

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