WASHINGTON – New postwar intelligence indicates that the militant group Hezbollah had broader access to sophisticated weaponry than was publicly known – including large numbers of medium-range rockets made in Syria, according to U.S. and Israeli government officials and military analysts.
The size of the Hezbollah arsenal and the direct role of Syria in supplying it will complicate the already daunting task of keeping Hezbollah from fully rearming, the officials said.
Before the war, Hezbollah’s access to weapons supplied by Iran and shipped through other countries was well-documented. So, too, was Syria’s role in allowing transshipments of arms into Lebanon from Iran and its political support for Hezbollah. But official Washington believed Syria mostly was not supplying munitions directly.
The new weapons data indicating a broader Syrian role was gathered by Israel largely by examining debris left by shells that hit its land during the monthlong combat. The examination uncovered serial numbers and other defining characteristics of the weapons Hezbollah fired. Israel’s postwar forensics have shown some of the rockets were manufactured by the Syrian munitions industry, military sources said.
The disclosures dovetail with postwar diplomatic strategies. Israel, backed by the Bush administration, would like to see international peacekeepers deployed along the Syria-Lebanon border – a step it says is needed to prevent arms shipments to Hezbollah. Lebanon, backed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has resisted that idea, as have the Syrians.
Syrian officials would not confirm or deny the reports.
U.S. and European plans for stabilizing Lebanon rest heavily on preventing Hezbollah from fully rearming. While a U.N. peacekeeping force still being formed will not be asked to disarm the militia, it will try to prevent flows of new arms to militants.
Israel asserts that in the weeks since the cease-fire, Iran and Syria have actively tried to resupply Hezbollah, primarily via Syria’s long border with Lebanon. Iran is seeking to send in long-range rockets, but has been hampered by Israel’s sea and air embargo, according to Israeli officials. Syria’s attempts to send in shorter-range rockets via land routes may prove more successful because of the porousness of the frontier, they say.
“There’s a limit to what we can do in response to this,” said Miri Eisen, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The number of Hezbollah rockets fired at Israel was between 3,700 and 3,800 and the number destroyed was about 1,600, according to the Israeli military. That would be less than half of the amount that Israeli and U.S. intelligence officials believe Hezbollah had at the opening of the fighting.
In addition, Israel has acknowledged it underestimated the number of core Hezbollah fighters before the war. The Israeli military says it killed about 500 Hezbollah fighters, a figure which Hezbollah has not confirmed.
“At most, if you take the most dramatic claim we heard, they probably got about 15 percent of Hezbollah strength, and that includes wounded as well as killed in the forward area, which is not a decisive type of battle,” said Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading U.S. military analyst who recently returned from a series of meetings with Israeli military and intelligence officials.