By Yaakov Lappin
If accurate, a recent report stating that Iran had constructed underground missile factories for Hezbollah in Lebanon would indicate a disturbing boost in the Shiite terror organization’s ability to self-produce weapons.
The Israeli defense establishment already sees Hezbollah as a powerful and radical army, rather than a ‘mere’ terror organization due to its deep and sophisticated weaponry, and its hierarchical command structure.
The ability to manufacture destructive rockets and missiles would now mean that Hezbollah is no longer entirely reliant on arms trafficking from Iran and Syria in order to wage war against Israel.
The recent report, made available by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), was published in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida. It cites an aide to the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as its source. The IRGC’s Quds Force is an elite unit that runs Iran’s extensive overseas operations to arm, finance, and strengthen Iran’s regional proxies.
According to the Kuwaiti report, the IRGC built the missile-making facilities more than 50 meters underground, and fortified them against air strikes before handing control over to Hezbollah three months ago.
According to Ely Karmon, a Hezbollah expert and a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, the report is well within the realm of possibility. He pointed to a 2015 statement made by the IRGC’s Aerospace Force commander, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, boasting that Tehran has provided “Syria, Iraq, Palestine and the Lebanese Hezbollah resistance group with the needed know-how to produce missiles.”
Assessing the latest Kuwaiti report, Karmon said that it is “possible that these Hezbollah military factories are in the Quseyr area in Syria, and not in Lebanon.” Quseyr is an area of western Syria that has come under Hezbollah control in recent years, after being seized from Sunni rebel organizations.
Israel has bombed targets in the area in the past, Karmon noted, likely as part of Israel’s covert program to selectively disrupt Hezbollah’s force build-up.
In November, Hezbollah paraded its heavy weaponry in Quseyr — including tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery guns and missile launchers.
The Kuwaiti report also claimed that “a special department has been established at the IRGC’s Imam Hossein University [in Tehran] to train Lebanese and other experts, and hundreds of experts have already been trained.”
The missile factories reportedly can produce surface-to-surface missiles with a range of more than 500 kilometers – in other words, missiles capable of hitting anywhere in Israel, as well as Israeli ships and Israel’s offshore gas rigs in the Mediterranean Sea. The Hezbollah production sites can also be used to make machine guns, mortars and anti-aircraft guns.
Since the end of its 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah has stockpiled an arsenal totaling 120,000 missiles — one of the largest in the world. The vast majority of these arms were manufactured in Iran and Syria, and smuggled into Lebanon. A growing number of these weapons are guided rockets and missiles.
And Iranian weapons transfers to Hezbollah are continuing regardless of whether Hezbollah has access to its own missile factories. Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provided details about “the ongoing Iranian attempt to transfer weapons, advanced weapons, to Hezbollah, via Syria,” when he visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
According to reports, Hezbollah is also training elite terror cells to infiltrate Israel during the next war, and to temporarily ‘conquer’ northern Israeli communities in a bid to demoralize the Jewish state.
These preparations, it is safe to assume, are being closely monitored by Israel.
Hezbollah’s wartime experience fighting for the Assad regime in Syria has also boosted its power. The best form of training for combat is combat itself, and for the past four years, Hezbollah and its operatives have been fighting with Iranian commanders and technology on the battlefields of Syria.
Meanwhile, back in Lebanon, Hezbollah has embedded the vast majority of its bases, rocket launchers and command posts into civilian areas, including a massive maze of underground tunnels and subterranean compounds.
But all is not well for Hezbollah.
The terror group is facing a dramatic economic crisis, due to a shortage of cash flow from Iran, which is still awaiting funds from its nuclear deal with the West. Additionally, the fact that Hezbollah has sustained more than 1,500 casualties in Syria has demoralized sections of its traditional Lebanese Shiite support base.
Nevertheless, Hezbollah is pushing to build up its massive offensive capabilities against Israel.
In addition to its efforts to obtain more rockets and missiles, Hezbollah’s leader — Hassan Nasrallah — has repeatedly threatened to strike Israeli strategic targets, such as ships carrying industrial ammonia to the Israeli city of Haifa, and Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona.
This does not mean that Hezbollah is seeking a conflict with Israel right now. But it does mean that should a new war erupt in the future, Israel’s civilian population will face unprecedented threats.
Israel’s defense establishment is making its own preparations to meet these threats, and to counter Hezbollah — which is turning into a dangerous, and even more deadly, adversary.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
(c) 2017 The Algemeiner Journal