The War Nerd: How many soldiers does Hezbollah actually have?
And why is it so hard to find out?
I was researching the fight between Hezbollah and Islamic State (IS) in northeastern Lebanon when I noticed something very odd in the stories about Hezbollah.
In the first place, there aren’t nearly as many as there are about IS. The reason that’s odd is that Hezbollah is a much stronger military force than Islamic State. In fact, the reason I decided not to do a whole article on the Qalamoun Campaign is that it was too simple a story: Hezbollah kicked IS’s ass, period.
But it’s surprisingly hard to get a sane estimate of Hezbollah manpower. Some of the published estimates are just laughable. There are stories out there that Hezbollah is getting by with only “1000 full-time fighters,” backed up by “6000-7000” reserves.
The Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF’s) total strength is roughly 700,000 including reserves.
Hezbollah fought the IDF to a draw, at the very least, in 2006. So if Hezbollah’s strength, including reserves, was something like 7- or 8000 – well, I’m no mathematician, but I think that would mean they beat a force that was a nice, tidy 100 times bigger than their own, which would mean that either Hezbollah is fielding supermen, or the IDF is even worse than the Iraqi Army.
Most stories about Hezbollah’s power ignore its soldiers and jump directly to its “rocket arsenal.” For example the Wikipedia entry “Hezbollah Military Strength” starts out:
“In October 2006, Hezbollah claimed to have an arsenal of at least 33,000 rockets. The Pentagon believes that Hezbollah has a rocket arsenal of around 30,000. According to IranTracker, estimates of Hezbollah's overall missile arsenal range from 40,000 to 50,000 large-caliber munitions of all kinds. Israel estimates that Hezbollah has about 40,000, most of them shorter-range rockets and mortar shells.”
Reading this, you’d think Hezbollah was some kind of fully automated missile warehouse, only capable of attacking Israel by launching sneaky rockets, like science dweebs in a park firing off their latest Estes Corp. products.
Truth is, these unguided surface-to-surface missiles are noisy distractions, no more. If they were anything more, we’d have to take Hamas seriously as a military force, and nobody pretends to do that—except the Israelis, when they’re looking for an excuse to bomb Gaza again.
What’s going on here is that the US and Israel want to exaggerate the power of Hezbollah’s rockets, while completely blacking out what really scares them: the fact that man for man, squad for squad, Hezbollah’s infantry is better than Israel’s.
The US and Israeli apparatchiks agree on understating Hezbollah’s strength, but for different reasons. The Americans are just stubborn, sore losers. Yeah, Hezbollah killed 241 Marines in Beirut in 1983 (in fact I have a friend who helped clear away the bodies and insists that there were a lot more than 241) -- but that was an act of war, and if anyone bears moral responsibility for it, it’s Reagan.
He sent those marines to prop up Israeli/US proxies without bothering to find out anything about Lebanon. Reagan, that grinning conscience-free house-cat of a president, went through the motions after the bombing; croaked a few platitudes about revenge, pretended to squirt a few for the Marines’ families…and then, very quietly, ordered surviving American troops out of Lebanon three months after the attack. That was Reagan’s world: a crust of lies on a lake of sleaze.
Hezbollah came of age in that rotten world, and offended the Americans and Israelis simply by doing the same grim stuff, only better. A lot better. Of course it wasn’t that hard to be better than US intelligence in Beirut, as shown by one of Hezbollah’s best operations, the kidnapping of William F. Buckley, a CIA official.
They grabbed him, tortured all the info he had out of him, and dumped the body. Rough stuff, but it’s hard to weep for a smug idiot who actually refused to alter his route to and from work—in Beirut! In 1983!
“Army Major General Carl Stiner had warned Buckley that he was in danger, but Buckley told him that ‘I have a pretty good intelligence network. I think I'm secure.’ However, according to Stiner, Buckley continued to live in his apartment and travel the same route to and from work every day.”
I’ll refrain from making any jokes about William F. Buckley’s vocabulary under torture (e.g. “a veritable thesaurus of pain”, etc.). As far as I can tell, the Beirut Buckley was a normal inarticulate army retread, no relation to the National Review Yalie with the Mister Howell voice (though, in an interesting side note, that William F. Buckley also served in the CIA, as he admitted himself.)
But the famous Buckley—the Big Buckley, if you will—did his spying and assassinating in Latin America, where US agents get to do all the killing without any risk of getting killed themselves. Nice work if you can get it through your oil-man dad.
At any rate, if you meet anyone named Buckley, and he introduces himself as “Bill,” you can just assume he commutes to Langley, can’t speak a single foreign language decently, and makes way more money than he reports to the IRS.
Hezbollah managed another impressive operation in Beirut that helped to put the Langley crowd in a permanent sulk. These crazy-brilliant Shi’ites set off a huge bomb that pretty much wiped out the Beirut franchise of the CIA, right when the spooks were having their big top-secret meeting.
Again, a brilliant wartime operation, nothing to get huffy about. Beirut was a free-fire zone for every faction, and the US certainly killed more than enough Shia to avenge the dead. And contrary to popular belief, Hezbollah is not the moral equivalent of Islamic State. Hezbollah does not commit sectarian massacres, and has been all too willing to make typically Lebanese alliances with sleazy politicians from all the local sects.
Yet Israel still treats Hezbollah as if it were worse than the IS creeps tearing Syria apart. In fact Israel has made it very clear that it prefers groups like Islamic State and Jabhad al Nusra to Hezbollah.
The reason for this hatred is simple fear. Israel fears Hezbollah, but has contempt for Sunni militias. The fear is well grounded, too. It goes back to 1982, when the Begin government idiotically invaded Southern Lebanon, infuriating the Lebanese Shia who’d ignored the Israel/Palestine war until then.
Within a few months, the invasion turned the Shia from docile peasants, the poorest of Lebanon’s poor, to fighters way tougher than any Palestinian. From 1982 on, Israel faced constant harassment from the Shi’ite peasantry of South Lebanon. The IDF was finally driven out in May 2000. The next encounter between Hezbollah and Israel started with a Hezbollah kidnapping along the border, in 2006. When the IDF tried to go into Hezbollah territory to get its soldiers back, they were defeated outright.
Mark Perry and Alistair Crooke described how Hezbollah faced down the IDF:
Hezbollah’s fighters proved to be dedicated and disciplined. Using intelligence assets to pinpoint Israeli infantry penetrations, they proved the equal of Israel’s best fighting units. In some cases, Israeli units were defeated on the field of battle, forced into sudden retreats or forced to rely on air cover to save elements from being overrun. Even toward the end of the war, on August 9, the IDF announced that 15 of its reserve soldiers were killed and 40 wounded in fighting in the villages of Marjayoun, Khiam and Kila–a stunning casualty rate for a marginal piece of real estate.
The IDF resorted to bombing civilian infrastructure all over Lebanon rather than confronting Hezbollah on the ground. It was an ugly way to make a lost war look like victory.
Since the 2006 debacle, Israel has been avoiding combat with Hezbollah, focusing on feeding absurd stories to the Western press about how Hezbollah is on the ropes, at death’s door, and bleeding out in its efforts to prop up Assad’s regime in Syria.
You can see for yourself how common these stories about poor, doomed Hezbollah are. Google “Hezbollah in trouble” and you’ll get 424,000 responses, going all the way back to the beginning of the group in the 1980s. Hezbollah, the miraculous corpse that never dies. There are opera deaths that are more plausible. Here are the first three entries for “Hezbollah in trouble”:
It’s fun, in a cruel way, to read old stories like #1 and #2, which date from 2012. Hezbollah was on its last legs back then, according to Michael Totten, who wrote this gem: “…If the Assad regime is pulled down in Damascus, expect a great deal of Hezbollah’s local support to simply evaporate.”
It’s not easy to get two big predictions wrong in one sentence, but by connecting Hezbollah’s fall to the any-minute-now fall of Assad, Totten nailed it. It’s 2015; Assad hasn’t fallen, and Hezbollah’s support has grown.
But we’re dealing with fever dreams here, not realistic predictions. The hate these guys feel for Hezbollah blinds them. And of course there’s no penalty for being wrong, not even this wildly.
The first entry, “Hezbollah is in Trouble,” comes from a right-wing Israeli site, YNet. They had Iran and Hezbollah all measured for a double coffin:
“With Iran plummeting and Assad sinking, Hezbollah is also going down. The days of its intoxication with power are gone. The Shiite axis is fighting for its life and Hezbollah has become the most hated organization in the Arab world. Those betting on the Syrian president, who butchers with no mercy, are crushing along with him.”
Iran was “plummeting”? How did Iran “plummet” in 2012? Arguing that Assad is “sinking” is a little more reasonable, but again, it’s 2015 and the Alawites are still afloat.
Because they’re a tribe. Tribes don’t die. The Alawites of Syria and the Shia of South Lebanon and the Bekaa valley are typical Levantine tribes: paranoid, cohesive, virtually impossible to eradicate. You’d think the Israelis, a classic Levantine enclave themselves, would understand that.
Absurd as these doom-y predictions are, they won’t stop coming. Like porn, they, ah, “satisfy a need.”
And they show up in some sites that should know better, like The Atlantic, which published #3 back in 2011. Yes, Hezbollah was on its last legs in 2011, just as it was in 2012, and 2013, and ’14, and ’15. So confident am I of the eventual triumph of good over evil that I will go out on a limb here and predict that Hezbollah will be on its very last legs fifty years from now, as well.
In fact, Hezbollah is stronger than ever. It’s not just the strongest armed force in Lebanon—much stronger than the official Lebanese Army; it’s also the strongest Arab armed force, period.
In 2014, Benny Gantz, a top IDF general, admitted as much, trashing all the “doomed Hezbollah” stories by saying that Hezbollah had more combat power than all but the five top nation-state armies in the world. And Gantz turned the dumb-ass meme about Syria on its head, arguing that what makes Hezbollah more dangerous than ever is its combat experience in Syria.
Gantz was brutally honest about the situation, admitting that the only thing deterring Hezbollah from attacking Israel is the prospect that the IAF would retaliate by flattening every civilian building in Lebanon, which would interfere with Hezbollah’s political ambitions within the country:
“‘Hezbollah is like a state and they know exactly what is going to happen in Lebanon if they start a war with us, and that this would set Lebanon back decades,’ [Gantz] said.”
So why isn’t there any Hezbollah push-back against these silly lies? It’s precisely because Hezbollah is dead serious about the ballot box, as well as the bullet. And in order for the party to make it in Lebanese politics, Hezbollah prefers not to look as powerful as it really is. It is committed to playing to Lebanese politics as intensely as it makes war – the old “AK in one hand, ballad in the other” approach. The last thing Nasrallah needs is to start screaming “I could crush your puny militias!” to the other armed and paranoid sects of Lebanon.
Interestingly, then, Hezbollah may be the only armed force in the whole Middle East that makes a policy of understating its own strength. And that’s one of the most impressive signs of strength, when your party has the discipline to refrain from the boasting and hyperbole that makes most Middle Eastern militaries sound like playground jerks.