A column of Hezbollah's armored vehicles, including APCs, tanks, and self-propelled guns, which appeared in the military show of strength held in the Syrian city of Al-Qusayr (Araby 21, November 14, 2016). Right: The second and third APCs were identified as BMP of Soviet origin. Left: APC identified as BMP-1, with a Sagger anti-tank missile on it.
100 mm self-propelled anti-aircraft gun mounted on a hull for an SA-6 anti-aircraft missile system (As-Safir, November 16, 2016)
122 mm rockets mounted on a truck. The distant smaller truck carries 50 rocket barrels (Al-Hadath News, November 22, 2016)
ATVs with Kornet anti-tank missiles mounted on them. A pair of Kornet missiles mounted on a single launcher can be seen on the first ATV from the left (Al-Diyar, November 15, 2016). This unique combination of ATVs and anti-tank missiles allows better mobility on the ground and increases the chances of survival of the crew.
Cartoon presenting Hezbollah's military show of strength in Al-Qusayr as yet another step toward floundering in the bloodshed of fighting in Syria. The Arabic title reads, “A Hezbollah military show [of strength] in Al-Qusayr, Syria” (Lebanon 360, November 16, 2016)
US-made M-113 APCs in Hezbollah’s military show of strength (treckat.com, November 14, 2016)
A Lebanese Army announcement, on its official Facebook page, that the military vehicles (i.e., the M-113 APCs) were not taken from the Lebanese Army depots and do not belong to it (official Facebook page of the Lebanese Army, November 15, 2016)
Units and weapons shown at the show of strength
1. On November 13, 2016, Hezbollah held a first-of-its-kind military show of strength, exceptional in scope. The show of strength took place near the Syrian city of Al-Qusayr, in the northern Bekaa Valley (about 15 km from the border with Lebanon). It was part of a series of events held to commemorate Hezbollah's Martyr’s Day annually held by the organization on November 11 (close to Lebanon's Independence Day held on November 22, 2016). Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah did not attend the event, but a representative on his behalf, Hashem Safi al-Din, participated and held a speech whose contents was not disclosed in public.
2. In its military show of strength, Hezbollah exposed some of its military power. Hezbollah's elite units, some of them taking part in the fighting in Syria, were displayed. Among the units displayed were the Armor Regiment, the Artillery Regiment, the Radwan elite force (which takes part in the campaign to take over Aleppo), and the off-road motorcycle unit. According to reports on the Lebanese media, these units represent the spearhead of Hezbollah's military power.
3. The military show of strength demonstrated Hezbollah weaponry (some of it for the first time). It can be divided into three categories (based on the identification of photos from the event which appear in Appendix A):
a. Tanks of Soviet origin and US-made APCs, including T-72 tanks with reactive armor protection (against anti-tank missiles); T-54/T-55 and T-62 tanks; BMP APCs (one of them was identified as a BMP-1 APC with a Sagger missile mounted on it); US-made M-113 APCs with 14.5 mm guns of Soviet origin mounted on them.
b. Self-propelled artillery, including anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, 100 mm anti-tank guns and other self-propelled guns on hulls for SA-6 anti-aircraft missile systems; 122 mm rockets mounted on trucks (a truck with 50 barrels was identified); 302 mm rocket launchers mounted on trucks (with an estimated range of 90-180 km); self-propelled 122 mm guns; 130 mm (?) guns mounted on trucks; 23 mm twin anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks.
c. ATVs and off-road motorcycles, used by Hezbollah for rapid movement and for improving its guerrilla warfare capabilities. The weaponry identified in the photos includes ATVs with Kornet anti-tank missiles mounted on them (at least on one of them were installed two Kornet missiles on a single launcher).
Assessment of the significance of the military show of strength
4. The ITIC does not know how the weapons displayed in the show of strength ended up in Hezbollah's hands. However, it is clear that state-owned capabilities, some of them advanced, were delivered to Hezbollah, which is a terrorist organization. The ITIC believes that the tanks, APCs, artillery and rockets (originally of Soviet origin) originated from Syria and Iran, where most of Hezbollah's weaponry comes from. On the other hand, the M-113 APCs, in the ITIC’s assessment, are from the Lebanese Armed Forces (even though such APCs are also used by other armies in the region).
5. Although the weapons that appeared in the military show of strength were displayed in the context of Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria, in the future they may be directed against Israel, taking advantage of the combat experience acquired in Syria. Special attention should be paid to the self-propelled rockets (including 302 mm rockets with a range of 90-180 km) and the ATVs with the Kornet anti-tank missiles mounted on them (which allow better mobility on the ground and improve the chances of survival of the crew).
|6. In the ITIC's assessment, the military show of strength in Al-Qusayr should be considered in the context of Hezbollah's deep involvement in Syria under Iran’s directions. Given the major offensive in Aleppo by the Syrian forces and their allies (including Hezbollah), Hezbollah sought to convey to the Syrians and to the internal Lebanese scene an image of power and demonstrate that its military capabilities were not eroded due to its heavy losses in Syria (as claimed by Hezbollah's critics). The military show of strength was also intended to demonstrate that Hezbollah had turned from a guerrilla organization into a semi-military, well-trained organization that had acquired rich combat experience in Syria and formed new units equipped with heavy weapons (tanks and APCs) which usually characterize regular armies of states rather than a guerrilla organization.
7. This message is based, in the ITIC's assessment, on a process that Hezbollah has been undergoing during the recent years, in which it changes its character and turns from a terrorist and guerrilla organization into an organization with clear military characteristics. This framework is put into action to promote the Iranian interests not only in Lebanon or against Israel, but also in regional confrontation zones between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, and Yemen).
8. Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hassan Nasrallah's deputy, held a speech in Beirut where he referred to the military show of strength in Al-Qusayr. Sheikh Naim Qassem, who was quoted in the Lebanese daily newspaper As-Safir, noted that Hezbollah had turned from a guerrilla organization into a “trained army” with advanced capabilities, and the military show of strength made it clear to everyone. According to Sheikh Qassem, Hezbollah acts to protect Lebanon and its interests and maintains a high level of coordination with the Syrian regime. Apparently, internal Lebanese criticism which arose following the military show of strength caused Hezbollah to come out with a quick denial and release “clarifications” for Sheikh Naim Qassem’s statement. Moreover, the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir (which was the one that reported on Sheikh Naim Qassem’s speech) joined these “clarifications.” However, the ITIC believes that the first wording as published in As-Safir properly reflected the message which Hezbollah intended to convey (see Appendix B).
9. The military show of strength in Al-Qusayr was an exceptional event not only due to the weaponry it presented but also because it was the first time such an event took place in a Syrian city, outside Lebanon’s territory (in previous years, Hezbollah marked its Martyr’s Day by events that were held in Lebanon, especially in the Beirut Shiite southern suburb).The ITIC believes that the decision to hold the military show of strength in the Syrian city of Al-Qusayr of all other sites was not incidental but was intended to strengthen the image of power in the Syrian context. This is because, from Hezbollah’s perspective, Al-Qusayr has a majorsecurity importance, and in spite of the fact that it is situated in Syrian territory, it is actually under Hezbollah’s control. Al-Qusayr has been taken over by Hezbollah on June 5, 2013, and has become a symbol of a remarkable military victory. In retrospect, the takeover of the Syrian city symbolized the beginning of a process in which Hezbollah’s military involvement in the Syrian civil war increased. This involvement currently comes into expression by thousands of Hezbollah operatives fighting in various battle zones in Syria, including the campaign to take over Aleppo (for details, see Appendix D).
Reactions to the military show of strength
10. Hezbollah's military show of strength sparked immediate reactions in Lebanon and abroad:
a. In the internal Lebanese scene, the military show of strength demonstrated the fundamental contradiction between the Lebanese identity of Hezbollah, which presents itself as “Lebanon’s defender” and as working to uphold Lebanon’s interests; and Hezbollah being an organization handled by Iran to promote the latter’s regional interests, representing part of the so-called “axis of resistance.”Hezbollah’s quick denial of the use made by Sheikh Naim Qassem of the term “army” indicates that the organization is aware of the problematic nature of using the term and tries not to go too far. However, Lebanese senior figures and commentators were quite critical in reference to the military show of strength. Thus, for instance, Fouad Siniora, the head of Al-Mustaqbal faction opposing Hezbollah, noted that “The rifle which has been pointed at Israel is now pointed into Lebanon,” as Hezbollah has turned into a pawn in the hands of Iran, which employs it to intervene in the internal affairs of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon (Al-Arabiya, November 13, 2016) (for reactions in Lebanon, see Appendix C).
b. In the international and the internal Lebanese scenes, the fact that M-113 APCs took part in the show of strength raised questions as to the way Hezbollah acquired them. The Lebanese Army spokesman was quick to deny any connection to the APCs which are in Hezbollah's possession. However, Lebanese senior figures and commentators estimated that these were APCs previously provided by the United States to the Lebanese Army as part of the American military support, and then they were transferred from the Lebanese Army to Hezbollah. The US State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau noted that the American embassy was working with the Lebanese armed forces to investigate the issue of Western weapons in the hands of Hezbollah. She noted that the photos show M-113 APCs, which are common in the region.
11. Following are four appendices:
a. Appendix A: Hezbollah's military show of strength in Al-Qusayr and the identification of units and weapons shown there
b. Appendix B: Presenting Hezbollah's military power as an “army” by Hassan Nasrallah’s deputy, and Hezbollah’s quick denial
c. Appendix C: Internal Lebanese reactions to Hezbollah's military show of strength
d. Appendix D: The Syrian city of Al-Qusayr and its importance for Hezbollah
The Arabic term “foj” will herein be referred to as “regiment.”
According to a Lebanese news website, Hezbollah has recently been engaged in a reorganization process of its forces in Syria by setting up “military brigades” that will substitute the classical structure of the organization, which is based on companies and units (lebanondebate, November 13, 2016). The message of Hezbollah's turning from a guerrilla organization into an army was also conveyed in the speech of Sheikh Naim Qassem, Nasrallah’s deputy, who pointed out that Hezbollah had turned from a guerrilla organization into a “well-trained army” (see below).
What did Qassem mean by saying that the coordination between Syria and Hezbollah reached a high level?The ITIC believes that he did not only refer to Hezbollah holding the military show of strength on Syrian soil, but beyond that. A demonstration of the character of coordination was published in an article by Abdallah Suleiman Ali in the Lebanese daily As-Safir (which is used by Hezbollah for leaking news items). The article stated that several combat commanders of Hezbollah and groups of operatives are expected to join the Syrian Fifth Corps currently being formed. According to the article, this is Hezbollah’s “dream team” which has a great deal of military know-how and quality commanding skills. The reporter referred to it as a “step forward” by Hezbollah in deepening its participation in the fighting in Syria. He added that there is a new elite force of Hezbollah which had recently joined one of the fighting fronts in Syria and would operate under the command of the Fifth Corps or in direct operational coordination with it (As-Safir, November 28, 201).
Around the time of the military show of strength in Al-Qusayr, a meeting was held in Aleppo between Hezbollah’s field officers and Russian Army officers. The meeting was convened on the Russians’ request due to Hezbollah’s major involvement in the campaign for Aleppo. The Russians congratulated Hezbollah's commanders for the high military capabilities they have shown during the battles (Al-Akhbar, November 24, 2016).