Full battalion in Syria now mechanized
by Marko Marjanović (deputy editor and writer for Russia Insider. He has contributed to The Voluntaryist Reader, The Libertarian Liquidationist and published the Crappy Town blog. Check out his new project, Checkpoint Asia.)
World’s most powerful non-state military is no longer an infantry force only
On November 11th Hezbollah held a military parade in al-Qusayr — a Syrian town that is just across the border from the largely Shia northern Bekaa Valley and that was the scene of Hezbollah’s first major battle in the Syria, and its first major success.
Hezbollah holding a parade as part of its annual Marty’s Day celebrations, just outside its primary military base in Syria isn’t terribly shocking.
And yet plenty were shocked when days later photos from the parade showing dozens of armored vehicles started hitting Twitter.
The images are quite stunning indeed showing that Hezbollah now operates enough tanks, APCs and self-propelled guns to equip a credible mechanized battalion.
This is far more than anybody who isn’t on the ground would have estimated. For example four months ago the Israeli daily Haaretz ran a piece on how much better armed Hezbollah is in 2016 than it was in 2006. The piece even repeats the highly dubious claim the Shia militia now has Pantsir-1S air defense system but was nonetheless confident that “the terror organization doesn’t own planes and tanks”.
The tanks in the pictures are mainly T-54s and T-62s, but also a few T-72s with reactive armor.
The APCs are almost exclusively the BMP-1 model, along a few US-made M113s armed with a Soviet-made double 14.5mm machinegun.
It was the M113s that got the parade into The Washington Post. The paper asked if these machines might not be from Lebanese army stocks. In fact they are almost certainly vehicles Hezbollah gained in the collapse of the Israeli-aligned South Lebanon Army in 2000.
Pictures also show at least three 2S1 Gvozdika 122mm self-propelled howitzers and two ZSU-57mm self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. There are is also a smattering of Soviet anti-aircraft guns, mainly mounted on flatbed trucks but also two or three installed on a GM-578 tracked vehicle chassis which originally carried the 2K12 Kub anti-air missiles.
In sum this is a makeshift, improvised battalion. All of the equipment is venerable, some of it positively ancient. That said old doesn’t necessarily equal ineffective.
ZSU-57 with its 57mm autocannons for example is a hugely popular and sought-after fire support platform in Syria. This despite the fact it dates back to 1950 and had already been retired from service with the Syrian army. (The idea of using the anti-aircraft platform for direct fire support hadn’t been conceived of.)
Fact is going into battle supported by old armor and old large-caliber weapons is immeasurably better than going into battle by foot alone. Besides these weapons aren’t really outdated in the sense that the enemy doesn’t have better equipment either — if anything the rebels are faced with an acute shortage of armor and artillery. The vehicles may be knocked out by guided anti-tank missiles which the rebels have an ample supply of easily enough — but this is true even of the heaviest and most modern tanks, there is enough footage of Saudi M1 Abrams tanks lighting up like a candle after a hit from a Kornet in Yemen to attest to that.
As said a few of the vehicles Hezbollah brought with it from Lebanon, a few more are likely trophies. Their sheer number however means that majority must have been handed over to it by the Syrian army. This is certainly going to benefit the overall war effort of the pro-government side as only the best Syrian units can match the professionalism and skill of Hezbollah. It certainly makes sense to distribute the best of your military capital among the most elite formations on your side — particularly if they’re not tied down to a specific locality but willing to participate in decisive battles across the theater.
What may have prevented the Syrians transferring these machines earlier was Hezbollah’s lack of experience with them. As someone who did a two year stint in heavy industry and went from a hopeless rookie to a half-useable machinist I can attest to the fact that when it comes to operating and maintaining giant machinery enthusiasm and even courage are extremely poor substitutes for knowledge and experience.
The most significant consequence of Hezbollah’s new mechanized battalion may very well be the experience the group gains. 50-year old tanks are nothing you would want to match against Israeli armor and jets but they can be enormously significant for the group in a different way.
Once the war is over and the armor is no longer needed at the front a dozen tanks is enough to train up hundreds of crews. What is now Hezbollah’s mechanized battalion in Syria may very well go on to become its tank training school in Qusayr. Should the Shia militia then ever go on to acquire more modern armor it will already have people three-quarters ready to jump into them.
The fact the militia held onto a few relatively puny M113s for fifteen years that were of no use to it in the conflict it actually fought in that time may very well be a sign it takes a very long-term view and values armor pieces for a lot more than their most immediate utility.
Hezbollah showed in 2006 that it is probably the most professional non-state warfighting organization in the world. Having acquired armor it is now also one of the best-equipped.
It is ironic but since the 2003 start of the half-assed and hare-brained US project to make the Middle East safe for Israel Iran, Israel’s only near peer competitor in the region, has been provided a useful ally in Iraq, and Hezbollah, the only credible fighting force on its borders, has been gifted the opportunity to develop an armored branch.
A further irony is that Hezbollah may not have even intended to shock the world in this manner, but would have been happy to keep its armor under wraps for a while longer. Firstly, the war-torn al-Qusayr is largely abandoned so the armored display there certainly wasn’t put up for the benefit of Syrians but for militia’s own morale.
Furthermore, any photos Hezbollah normally releases are carefully redacted, for example the faces of its fighters are blacked out — this is not the case with many of the images from the parade, implying these are private photos taken by the rank and file to show off to friends and family that ended up on the Internet. A rare slip up in the group’s discipline then, but one that Syria watchers will be grateful for.