JERUSALEM—The Russian military presence in Syria is significantly upgrading the military skills of Hezbollah, according to an Israeli general.
In a report for a Washington think tank, Gen.Muni Katz, a former commander of the Israeli division posted on the Lebanese border, said that the Lebanese militia, whose strategy against Israel had previously been defense oriented, is indirectly picking up lessons in sophisticated offensive warfare from their new Russian comrades-in-arms who have joined them in fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The report was written by Katz and American scholar Nadav Pollak for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The authors do not suggest that the Russians are deliberately grooming Hezbollah for confrontation with Israel but note that the lessons available to Hezbollah are an inevitable result of close working relationship with the Russians and their common goal in Syria.
"Hezbollah will be exposed to Russian military thought, which entails sophisticated operational concepts and advanced military planning skills," they write.
In its past clashes with the Israel Defense Forces, Hezbollah focused on firing rockets into Israel and inflicting casualties on Israeli units that enter Lebanon. Israeli generals have termed this a strategy of "not losing." However since Hezbollah has become involved on Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war which broke out five years ago it has increasingly taken part in offensive actions. From small units fighting on home territory, the militia shifted to complex operations involving hundreds of fighters on unfamiliar territory.
"Hezbollah now has a front-row seat to watch he variety of weapon systems and equipment the Russians are bringing to bear in Syria," the authors write. "The group can learn how to use its existing weapons more effectively and examine systems it might want to procure in the future." Such systems could include anti-aircraft missiles and advanced rocket systems as well as weaponry hitherto unfamiliar to Hezbollah.
Additionally, Hezbollah commanders may be profiting, the authors say, from conversations with Russian ground commanders in Syria who are experienced in ground combat in Chechnya and elsewhere. "Discussing tactics with experienced Russian commanders could give Hezbollah deep insight into organizing its forces, coordinating disparate elements on the battlefield, and other matters—an invaluable benefit despite the group’s lesser training compared to Russian troops. They are learning such lessons from one of the best militaries in the world. Such experience might change their views on the most effective way to win a battle."
In the past, Hezbollah tactics focused on guerilla warfare based on small units defending their home villages. The broader experience it has gained in Syria has cost it between 1,200-1,500 fatalities, according to Israeli sources, and more than 5,000 wounded—a huge cost for an organization numbering no more than 20,000. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hinted at the militia’s increased capability a few years ago when he said that in the next war with Israel it would capture territory inside Israel’s northern Galilee.
The authors of the report point out that the quality of the enemies Hezbollah has been facing in Syria, including ISIS and various rebel factions, are not comparable to those of a well-trained and equipped army like Israel’s. Hezbollah is learning important lessons, they write, but implementing them is another matter, "especially when the rival is the IDF."