The threat of precision-guided missiles is raising the specter of yet another Lebanese-Israeli conflict. Hezbollah has had rockets and missiles for several years, but it now appears that Iran may be directly supplying the militia with precision-guided missiles or helping to manufacture them in Lebanon. Fars Air Qeshm, an Iranian civil aviation company with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has flown at least four unusual flights from Tehran to Beirut since July. Some have passed through Damascus, but all took circuitous routes, drawing the attention of Israeli and Western intelligence agencies. Israel believes these trips, disguised as civilian airline flights, are in fact shipments of Iranian arms and equipment to Hezbollah, including GPS systems that could help convert the group’s stockpile of rockets and missiles into guided munitions. That’s a line that Israel cannot allow the group to cross.
Iran and Hezbollah Refocus
Since the 1980s, Hezbollah has been based exclusively in Lebanon and concerned solely with its offensives against Israel. Iran has always backed the group in this endeavor, but for the last few years, Tehran has focused its various offensive forces – including Hezbollah – on supporting President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war. Throughout the fight, Israel has looked on, anxious that an Assad victory would give Iran a coveted overland supply route to Lebanon that would facilitate the transfer of advanced weapons systems to Hezbollah.
While Israel has not been shy about conducting airstrikes against arms shipments from Iran to Hezbollah through southern Syria, it picked up the cadence of its strikes earlier this year and took the unusual step of striking Iranian forces directly. (Israel often opts against direct strikes on Iranian forces, preferring instead to hit proxies to minimize the risk of retaliation and escalation.) Those airstrikes created a conundrum for Iran. On the one hand, Tehran has no desire to engage in a direct conflict with Israel, and the distance between them would make waging and supplying such a war extremely difficult. On the other, an attack on its own soldiers required some sort of response. That left Iran with a set of poor options: do nothing and appear unwilling to retaliate against Israel, or attack Israel and risk escalating the conflict – and committing more military and financial resources to it.
Iran, perhaps unsurprisingly, chose a middle ground. It launched an anemic retaliation against Israel, firing somewhere between 20 and 50 rockets at the Golan Heights. The move was more a response by obligation – a need to do at least something – than it was an escalation of the conflict with Israel. A response from Iran meant to truly damage Israeli military facilities would have involved hundreds or thousands of rockets – not dozens – and possibly the use of Hezbollah ground forces.
Still, Iran needed a longer-term response to Israel. It seems to have chosen to refocus on building up Hezbollah’s arsenal in Lebanon, on helping to build facilities to manufacture precision-guided missiles near Beirut, and on providing guidance systems to upgrade Hezbollah’s supply of unguided projectiles.
Iran’s gamble is that Israel won’t be willing to start another ground war in Lebanon, which may be necessary if it is to fully eliminate the threat of Hezbollah’s precision-guided missiles. Here is where the Qeshm flights come into play. Israel can’t tolerate Hezbollah acquiring a potent, precision-guided missile force – such an arsenal would pose too great a threat to its critical infrastructure in the event of a war, causing far more casualties than the 34-day war did in 2006. Yet Hezbollah feels it needs those munitions as a deterrent to large-scale Israeli aggression. It’s a classic security spiral: The security Hezbollah seeks presents enough of a threat to Israel that Israel must act to limit the newfound or nearly acquired military capability, raising the risk of a conflict.
Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah has accumulated a much larger stockpile of rockets; current estimates range between 130,000 and 150,000 rockets, compared with the roughly 15,000 it had before the conflict. Even without precision-guided systems, Hezbollah’s retaliation against an Israeli first strike could be far more damaging this time around.
But it’s believed that Hezbollah is already either producing new precision-guided missiles in Lebanon or converting existing rockets and missiles into guided ones. In September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Iran had set up three covert factories near the Beirut airport where Hezbollah, with Iran’s assistance, is producing these missiles. Precision-guided munitions would enable Hezbollah to progress from firing indiscriminately into densely populated parts of Israeli territory to targeting critical infrastructure – increasing the damage to Israel and its population. Hezbollah made this point when it published a video Nov. 30 showing satellite images and coordinates of several Israeli military bases.
Of course, the efficacy of Hezbollah’s missile arsenal is only as strong as Israel’s missile defense systems are weak. Systems like Iron Dome would provide some defense against missile attacks. As we’ve written before, though, missile defense systems are not advanced enough to underpin a state’s strategy. They are better used to mitigate damage. Hezbollah now has a large enough arsenal to make Israel question its ability to defend against a coordinated barrage.
How Syria Changed Hezbollah
The growing threat Hezbollah poses is not only in its missile stocks. The Syrian civil war changed the group. Originally designed to fight a single enemy, Israel, on a single front, Hezbollah has now learned to fight in multiple theaters at once. The militia’s strategy once depended on urban warfare tactics, but it has now learned – alongside the Syrian army and possibly Russian special forces – to maneuver in larger units like a conventional military force. And along with missiles, Hezbollah has acquired more tanks, armored personnel carriers and unmanned aerial vehicles – as well as the experience of using them in battle.
Fighting rebels in Syria, however, is by no means the same as fighting the Israeli military in southern Lebanon. Israeli forces could easily destroy Hezbollah’s antiquated tanks and artillery. In the event of an Israeli-Lebanese conflict, therefore, it’s likely that Hezbollah would revert to guerrilla warfare, dispersing weapons across a large urban area and firing them from dense civilian populations centers. (If Israel responded, Hezbollah would benefit from the media coverage of civilian collateral damage.) Israel’s ability to eliminate Hezbollah’s precision stockpile without a ground force, a costly choice it would prefer to avoid, would be uncertain in that scenario.
This isn’t a new problem for Israel. Its overdependence on air power in 2006 led to an outcome in which not only was Hezbollah not destroyed, but it also managed to rebuild quickly and retain popular support. And though Israel’s military is technologically superior to Hezbollah, urban warfare could blunt that advantage. Israel will likely try to focus on destroying the precision-guided missile stockpiles and factories, relying on air power to do so.
At the same time, Hezbollah has combat fatigue from its years in Syria. The war has taken a toll on its fighters and has forced the group to take on undertrained and ideologically lukewarm recruits to maintain its ranks. This makes missiles even more valuable to Hezbollah; it can inflict more damage on Israel without relying on extensive manpower, a point of potential weakness – especially relative to the Israel Defense Forces. But Hezbollah’s efforts to deter Israel may in fact invite a pre-emptive strike against its weapons.
The end of the Syrian civil war, then, by no means implies newfound stability in the Middle East. As Assad has consolidated his grip on power in Syria, Israel has watched Iran creep ever closer to its borders and arm the proxy that represents its most serious threat. That Hezbollah feels it needs weapons that Israel considers to be beyond a red line makes conflict between the two more likely.