Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Aug. 15, 2016, 10:19am

Born out of resistance to Israel, much has changed for Hezbollah and its fighters over the past decade. While the terrorist group has grown in military strength and political knowhow, Hezbollah finds itself increasingly entrenched in a costly civil war in its neighboring country of Syria. While Hezbollah’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) once flew primarily into Israeli airspace stirring tensions with the Israeli government, Hezbollah’s military drones have recently carried out attacks on rebels far from Israeli territory in northern Syria. The aerial attacks, which occurred in a southern Aleppo countryside town, make Hezbollah the first non-state actor to use drones for attacks in Syria. Undoubtedly a troubling sign for Syrian rebels, an increasingly sophisticated Hezbollah military operating in Syria, with resemblance to a conventional army in its role and arsenal, also poses a threat to the U.S. and Israel.

While attacks carried out by Hezbollah drones in Syria symbolize the group’s increased involvement in the conflict and growing capabilities, the terrorist group, with Iranian support and training, has been operating UAVs for over decade. As early as November 2004, Hezbollah led a Mirsad-1 drone into Israeli airspace hovering over the Galilea before returning to Lebanon without being intercepted. Additional Hezbollah-operated drones appeared in Israeli airspace in 2005 and during the 2006 Lebanon War in which Persian-model drones, the Ababil, were shot down by Israeli F-16s outside of Haifa. In 2012, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah boastfully claimed the group had operated Iranian-made drones that flew over “sensitive sites” in Israel before being intercepted and shot down. Following the venture into Israeli airspace, Nasrallah appealed for Lebanese pride in the Hezbollah mission in the territory of its historical and popular enemy, Israel.

While Hezbollah has previously demonstrated its capability and interest in operating reconnaissance drones in Israeli airspace, albeit with limited significance, recent reports of attacks executed by armed Hezbollah drones in Syria and along the Lebanese-Syrian border symbolize the group’s shifting priorities and increasing resemblance to a conventional military. In late 2014, it was reported that Hezbollah drones were used to bomb a building used by the Nusra Front on the outskirts of the northeastern border town of Arsal, Lebanon. The attack, which resulted in the deaths of 23 Nusra Front militants, according to an Iranian news agency, was the militant Shiite group’s first air attack and the first time a non-state actor successfully used an armed drone. In August 2016, Hezbollah became the first non-state actor to use armed drones in Syria through an attack on Jaysh al-Fateh in the southern countryside of Aleppo. Video recording of the drone attacks appears to show the UAV dropping cluster bombs on three Syrian rebel positions and represents the first piece of video evidence of the group’s military drone capabilities.

Yet, Hezbollah’s incursion in Syria has come at a heavy cost for the militant group. Sustained warfare in support of the Assad regime has led to the loss of senior-level leaders, including top military commander Mustafa Badreddine, a string of deadly suicide bombs in Lebanon, and a growing belief that the group is splitting from its original military purpose of combating the Jewish state in favor of becoming a sectarian Shiite militia. While Nasrallah has repeatedly asserted the group’s role in preventing radical Islamist factions from growing in power in Syria, the fact that estimates of Hezbollah soldiers killed in Syria has surpassed deaths in all battles against Israel has contributed to growing unpopularity of the Shiite group. Today Hezbollah is in a transitional phase. Unlike the group’s singular mission in 2006, modern day Hezbollah has decided to adopt diverse military interests and challenges at the risk of a deteriorating public image in the region and the sacrifice of its fighters.

However, Hezbollah’s role in Syria is not limited to sacrifices. Apart from ensuring that a key supporter of the organization remains in power in Syria, and thus protecting an important route for weapons, and that Iran continues its assistance, Hezbollah is gaining invaluable experience on the battleground in Syria. Although a significant Hezbollah attack on Israel seems unlikely in the near future, a more experienced and battle-hardened group carries an eminent threat to the Jewish state. In Syria, Hezbollah fighters are operating airplanes, helicopters, drones and tanks while maintaining a high level of command-and-control amid hostile populations in previously unexplored areas. Hezbollah’s convergence on a conventional military with sophisticated weaponry, experience in conducting offensive attacks and an advanced command-and-control is a troubling sign for Israel even if the group’s leadership is focused on Syria.

Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian war presents the United States with a dilemma. The group’s fighters serve as one of the most efficient rivals of the Islamic State (ISIS) and jihadist groups in Syria. While this role generally benefits Washington’s interests in the Middle East, based on a more recent offensive against radical Islamist rebels, growing national and/or regional influence undoubtedly raises serious concerns for the U.S. In addition, reports that recent military aid intended for the Lebanese Armed Forces has ended up in the hands of Hezbollah, a major cause of the Saudi decision to cut its $4 billion in support to Beirut, adds suspicion to a potential plan of relying on the Lebanese government to serve Washington’s interests in the place of Hezbollah. In dealing with Hezbollah, the U.S. must ensure that, regardless of the group’s role in combating ISIS, its growing experience, arsenal, and capabilities are never used against Israel.

While suspected Hezbollah reconnaissance drones continue to fly into Israeli airspace, armed Hezbollah drones carry out deadly attacks in Syria, symbolizing the militant group’s new priorities and diverse challenges. While Hezbollah has lost countless fighters and abandoned its image as a champion of fighting Israel for a largely sectarian group in the minds of many Arabs, the Shiite group may be strengthened by its battleground experiences in Syria. As the first non-state actor to use armed drones successfully in Syria, the U.S. and Israel have reason to be concerned about a militant group that increasingly represents a conventional military.

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