The arms that keep Hezbollah
fighting By Jason Motlagh
Nearly a quarter-century after Israeli
forces pummeled Beirut to the hellish crescendo of
an explosion every three seconds, a rebuilt
capital crumbles one artillery strike at a time as
Israel seeks to wipe out the enemy it spawned.
Israeli officials have stated in no
uncertain terms their intent to bomb the radical
Shi'ite movement Hezbollah into submission and
"change the equation" to end further missile
attacks over the border.
today bristles with a weapons inventory far beyond
the suicide tactics used in the 1983 bombing of
the US Embassy
marine barracks a year later that first minted its
name in terror.
officials and experts say the Iran-sponsored
militants have stockpiled enough firepower to
sustain a protracted fight against the Jewish
state that, while asymmetrical, threatens all of
northern Israel and possibly much further.
Katyusha rockets, the longtime staple of
Hezbollah's arsenal, have rained down on Israel at
the consistent rate of about 100 per day since
fighting erupted on July 12 after its kidnapping
of two Israeli soldiers over the border. It is
estimated that militants have between 10,000 and
12,000 Katyushas, of which roughly 3% have been
used to date. If Hezbollah kept up the current
volume of its barrages, fighting could go on until
early October, John Pike, director of military
studies group GlobalSecurity.org, told Asia Times
Unfortunately, this bleak outlook
is shared by both Israel and Hezbollah. Israeli
army chief of staff Dan Halutz projected in an
address to Israel Defense Forces this week that
the military campaign in Lebanon "may continue for
an extended period of time".
chief Hassan Nasrallah, the target of 23 tonnes'
worth of Israeli bombs on Wednesday, told
Al-Jazeera television that Hezbollah would not
surrender the abducted Israeli troops "even if the
whole universe comes [against us]", without a
prisoner exchange. Other reports indicate he soon
intends to order "hundreds" of long-range missiles
to be fired at Tel Aviv - a move Israeli officials
insist would spell doomsday not only for
Hezbollah, but for benefactors Iran and Syria.
Military analysts are uncertain as to the
extent of Hezbollah's mid- and long-range missile
stocks, but most concur with Israeli intelligence
that they include the Iranian-made Fajr-3, with a
45-kilometer range, and maybe the 200km Zelzal,
which in theory could reach as far as Tel Aviv.
New evidence of Hezbollah's upgraded
operational capacity came in the form of a
crippling strike on an Israeli warship on July 14,
attributed to a radar-guided C-802 missile of
Iranian origin. This has prompted some Israeli
officials and military officers to trumpet fresh
justification for a preemptive move against Iran,
whose president has famously called for Israel's
erasure from the map of the Middle East.
However, questions linger over Iran's role
in the latest crisis. "It's hard to tell if the
current festivities are driven by internal, local
considerations peculiar to Hezbollah or are
manifestations of [Iranian President Mahmud]
Ahmadinejad's grand strategy," Pike said,
stressing that whatever the reality was, the
situation was inherently fluid and subject to
Encouraging Hezbollah action as
Iran's frontline arm against Israel could work in
Iran's favor without major backlash, he said,
pending the strategy succeeds in mobilizing the
Arab and Muslim worlds against a common enemy for
a later showdown.
It's no secret that
Tehran's material support for Hezbollah has
continued ever since it founded the movement in
1982 to oust Israel from Lebanon. Iran remains as
keen as ever to export its Shi'ite Islamic
revolution further afield, some would argue, to
lay the groundwork for a fated apocalypse.
But the mullahocracy today provides aid
and arms to the tune of $25 million to $50 million
a year, according to GlobalSecurity.org, much less
than the hundreds of millions prior reports have
Charges that advisers from the
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have
increased their presence in Lebanon are also under
dispute. Significant numbers of IRGC personnel
have traveled to the region in years past, yet the
"days of IRGC-led training camps in Lebanon seem
to be over", Anthony Cordesman, a strategy expert
at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington, DC, said in a report
released on Tuesday. "Until there are hard facts,
Iran's role in all of this is a matter of
speculation," he wrote.
As for assertions
that Hezbollah has received upgraded weapons
technologies and long-range rockets from Iran to
stir trouble in the Mideast at Tehran's behest,
Cordesman contends they are "best guess"
estimates, arguing that Hezbollah uses Iran "as
much as it is used".
Experts do agree that
despite the poor accuracy of Hezbollah's
short-range missiles, which can seldom be relied
on for more than a "lucky strike" on target, they
are still effective.
missiles are almost impossible to overcome by
Israel's advanced missile defenses because of
their minimal trajectory. And recent launches
against the northern port city of Haifa
demonstrate that sporadic, random strikes can
paralyze urban populations. According to Pike,
even if Hezbollah cuts back rocket launches from
100 a day to 10 every other day to preserve
stockpiles as time wears on, they would have in
large part succeeded. "It's not so much the fact
that Israelis are killed," he said, "but that the
fear of being killed is sown."
use of southern Lebanon as a staging ground for
mortar and rocket attacks against Israeli military
outposts and civilian areas has kept Israel off
balance since 1982, a status quo it wants to end
by relentless bombardment.
entailed strikes on Hezbollah's primary
headquarters in southern Beirut to cut off
communications links - with unprecedented civilian
collateral damage. But recent cases in Iraq and
Afghanistan show that air campaigns are doomed to
fail unless they are backed by full-fledged ground
forces, a strategy Israel is loath to employ after
an 18-year Lebanon occupation that bled them out
of the country.
Still, limited numbers of
Israeli special forces have already made
incursions into southern Lebanon to root out
militants and destroy hidden weapons
planners wanted to carve out space to pave the way
for larger ground forces, the New York Times
reported on Thursday. They are also trying to
"create enough pain on the ground so there would
be a local political reaction to Hezbollah's
adventurism", Edward P Djererian, former US
ambassador to both Israel and Syria, told the
Gun battles raged along the border
on Thursday, with Israel warning residents of the
region to flee "immediately" in an apparent signal
a ground offensive to secure a buffer zone draws
But as infrastructure is shattered
and the death toll mounts - 330 Lebanese killed,
mostly civilians, and more than half a million
displaced as of Thursday night - the grassroots
population will be progressively less inclined to
throw their weight behind moves to rein in
Iran, lurking in the shadows,
stands to benefit the longer Hezbollah
intransigence can hold out. Its gift of
short-range weapons has enabled Tehran to wage a
survivable proxy fight, coordinated or not, that
distracts international attention from its
underground nuclear activities.
Hezbollah "shows the Arab and Muslim world that
Iran is a government willing to strike at the
Israeli enemy - even though it is not Arab or
Sunni", Cordesman noted. "Israel's reprisals ...
make it seem in Arab and Muslim eyes as if Iran
supports 'freedom fighters'."
Nasrallah recently declared that Israel had
created "a historic opportunity to score a defeat
against the Zionist enemy". Taken literally, this
is absurd; in a symbolic sense, there lies a heavy
grain of truth.
Jason Motlagh is
deputy foreign editor at United Press
International in Washington, DC. He has reported
freelance from Saharan Africa, Asia and the
Caribbean for various US and European news media.