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Rumors of Russian Arms Transfers to Hizbullah Worrying for Israel

By Robert Swift | The Media Line

January 13, 2016

A Hezbollah militant looks through his binoculars in Umm Khorj in the Lebanese eastern mountain range close to the Syrian border (Photo: Sam Skaine/AFP/Getty Images)

Shi’ite organization weakened by involvement in Syrian quagmire

Lebanon-based Hizbullah is growing stronger as a result of weapons’ shipments from the Russian military, two mid-level commanders in the organization have said. According to the story, first circulated in The Daily Beast, Russia is directly transferring artillery and anti-tank munitions to Hizbullah without any caveat as to what they are used for, despite Russia’s close relationship with Israel.

This begs the question whether the threat to Israel from the Shi’ite organization has intensified since Russian jets started to bomb Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s enemies. However, Hizbullah is still bogged down in the Syrian conflict and is unlikely to be supported in any way by Russia in a future conflict with Israel, analysts say.

Iran’s proxy actor, Hizbullah has enjoyed funding and training that allowed the organization to become a powerful militant force with vast arsenals of artillery rockets and a sophisticated organizational structure. A frosty standoff has endured between Hizbullah and Israel since the two fought a costly war in the summer of 2006. Heavily committed to propping up the ailing Assad regime, Hizbullah has lost strength in recent years, but remains formidable.

“When you count the rockets they have, they are as strong as they were before the eruption of civil war in Syria. (But) when you speak about morale, it’s not very high… they’ve suffered many casualties,” Eyal Zisser, a professor at Tel Aviv University and an expert on Hizbullah told The Media Line. Added to this is the financial burden the organization is shouldering, the professor explained.

Israeli intelligence estimates have suggested that Hizbullah has sustained between 1,300 and 1,500 fatalities in combat in Syria, with a further 5,000 injured, out of a projected 18,000 fighters. For this reason Russia’s sudden and dramatic intervention in the Syrian quagmire in September of last year would have come as a relief to all the factions fighting to maintain Assad’s regime. “It’s helpful to Hizbullah because it’s kind of sharing their load… (by) targeting Hizbullah’s opponents in the Syrian opposition,” Lina Khatib, a senior research associate with the Arab Reform Initiative in Paris, told The Media Line.

But although Russian jets and Hizbullah infantry might be fighting in conjunction, the two are not natural allies and it is unlikely that Russia would supply weapons directly to the Shi’ite organization, Khatib said. It’s more plausible that weapons supplied by the Russians to the Syrian army are filtering down and being handed over to Hizbullah, partly because the regime’s forces are so battered that they have lost their capacity to continue fighting in some areas, the associate said.

Added to this the Kremlin is aware how any transfer of weapons to Iran’s proxy would be viewed elsewhere. “It is possible that Russia is relying more on Hizbullah for ground support than on the crumbling Syrian army. But Russia is careful not to empower Hizbullah to an extent that would allow it to pose a significant threat to Israel,” Khatib said, noting the very good ties between Moscow and Jerusalem.

Zisser went even further, discrediting the notion of a transfer of arms directly from Russia to Hizbullah. “I don’t believe that this is the case. I mean the Russians have no interest in it… they know how sensitive Israel is so what’s the logic in angering Israel,” he concluded. This means that although Hizbullah might have benefited from Russia’s intervention, the group is not necessarily strengthened in relation to Israel. The threat posed to the Jewish state’s northern border from its old enemy remains unchanged. “They are not as ready as they were before… many of their best warriors were killed in Syria but they are still threatening, they still cause problems to Israel,” Zisser stated.

But if the reports of direct arms transfers are true, it is a worrying development for Israel, Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict with the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. “The risk of a transfer of arms by Russia to Syria, Iran and Hizbullah is one of the negative components of the Russian involvement in this area… the risk has always been there because of this kind of cooperation,” he explained.
“The question is: is it true?” Schweitzer concluded.

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