Hezbollah's Shot at Permanency in Syria
Like other foreign and domestic actors, Hezbollah has seized on the Syrian civil war to improve its position in the country and the surrounding region. Stratfor has collected information from diplomatic sources and from sources close to Hezbollah to monitor and track the establishment of Hezbollah bases in Syria. According to those reports, Hezbollah's attempts to expand and solidify its control in Syria will only increase in the future. Now, satellite imagery adds to these predictions by enabling us to take a closer look at a Hezbollah base near the Syrian town of Qusair, where Hezbollah has built up significant defensive positions since conquering the area in June 2013.
The base near Qusair, like other anticipated defensive positions in Syria, is part of Hezbollah's future strategy in the country. The base will play a significant role in protecting the militant group, and Lebanon as a whole, from the threats it may face if Syrian President Bashar al Assad is deposed. Alongside the base, Hezbollah has focused on securing the Lebanese border, building up a large earthen berm on the stretch of the border near Qusair. The group has also cleared the area around the base to enable it to better observe and defend the area along the Syrian side of the border. Moreover, sources report that Hezbollah has dug tunnels from the base back to Lebanon.
Along with its patron Iran, Hezbollah recognizes that Syria's war is an opportunity to establish a strong position near the country's border with Lebanon. According to one source close to Hezbollah, the group intends to stockpile artillery weapons, such as Katyusha rockets, mortars and howitzers, at the base near Qusair. It also plans to move some of its approximately 60 T-72 main battle tanks there. Additionally, sources said there are as many as four separate munitions factories at the base.
Sources also connect the base and other future installations to Hezbollah's plan to maintain a permanent presence of 3,000 fighters in Syria, even after it withdraws from the fighting there. The bases could end up hosting a significant portion of the fighters. At the same time, the bases will provide a location for Iranian involvement and military presence in Syria. According to an Iranian diplomatic source, ranking officers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) frequently inspect the positions near Qusair, treating the base as an Iranian asset. The position could also serve as a location for interaction and training between IRGC and Hezbollah operatives.
The presence of Iranian officers suggests another reason for Hezbollah to build bases in Syria. Sources close to the group have said there are long-range missiles at Qusair. Although satellite imagery does not confirm this, the sources have referred specifically to the presence of different types of Iranian ballistic missiles, including the Shabab-1, Shahab-2 and Fateh-110. Any of these missiles could be used to strike Israel, and Hezbollah has previously been suspected of having them in its arsenal. While these missiles could prove crucial in the event of a large-scale Israeli ground offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon, they are not beyond the reach of the Israeli air force. Israel has already struck Hezbollah arms stockpiles in Syria on several occasions, and imagery does not show underground facilities at the base capable of protecting this weaponry.