Hizballah’s elite Radwan Force was originally designed to push in from Lebanon and conquer the Israeli Galilee. debkafile’s exclusive military sources report that on Thursday, July 30 Hassan Nasralla saw he had no option but to press this high-value contingent into service ,to extricate the combined Hizballah-Syrian armies from their month-long failure to recapture the key town of Zabadani – or even breach the defenses set up by the Al-Qaeda affiliated rebel Nusra Front.
This standoff with heavy casualties over the key town, which commands the main Damascus-Beirut highway, has become a symbolic make-or-break duel between the Iran-backed Shiite Hizballah and Al Qaeda’s Sunni Nusra Front. Nasrallah loses it at the cost of his organization’s credibility as a formidable fighting force.
Defeat would make western Damascus and eastern Lebanon more vulnerable to attack. And for Iran’s Lebanese proxy, it would leave an embarrassing question hanging in the air: If Hizballah under Iranian command combined with Syrian troops and backed by heavy artillery fire and air strikes can’t win a relatively small battle against no more than 1,200 rebel fighters across a nine-km square battleground, how much are its leaders’ boasts worth when they claim unbeatable prowess for winning major battles, including a war on Israel?
To save face in this landmark showdown, Hizballah decided to press into battle its most prestigious unit, named for Al-Hajj Radwan, the nom de guerre of Hizballah’s renowned military chief Imad Mughniye, whom Israel took out in February 2008.
Eight months ago, the Radwan Force lost its senior commanders. An Israeli air strike on Jan. 18 targeted a group of high Iranian and Hizballah officers on a visit to Quneitra on the Syrian Golan. They were surveying the terrain before relocating this elite unit to confront IDF positions on the Israeli Golan border. Iranian Gen. Ali Reza al-Tabatabai and the Hizballah district commander Jihad Mughniye (son of Imad) lost their lives in the Israeli raid and the plan was provisionally set aside.
If the Radwan Force manages to haul Hizballah out of its impasse in Zabadani, it may next be assigned to take up battle positions on the Golan.
But for now, its mission in the battle for Zabadani has three dimensions:
1. To disarm the enemy by commando raids, a tactic to be borrowed from the rebels defending the town. On the night of July 24, the rebels preemptively struck Hizballah and Syrian army positions around the town and captured some of them. The decision to deploy Radwan appears to have come in response to that painful setback.
2. To pull off a quick battlefield success at Zabadani, in view of intelligence reports that the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in northern Syria were preparing together to open a second front in Lebanon, in order to relieve the rebel force pinned down in Zabadani.
The two groups plan to cross into Lebanon and start attacking pro-Hizballah Shiite populations in the Beqaa Valley and the North. They propose to cut through the Bequaa Valley and head up to the important northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast.
3. Syrian President Bashar Asad is under extreme pressure for a battlefield success after admitting in a public speech last week to the loss of strategic territory to rebel forces and shrinking military manpower. He has earmarked a Zabadani victory – both as a turning-point for his flagging fortunes and for holding back the constant draining of his army by desertions and defections.
Our military sources reveal that, after Assad leaned hard on the Lebanese government and army to round up Syrian troops who went AWOL, Lebanese security forces went into action. They are picking up Syrian army deserters and putting them on buses driving in armored convoys into Syria. It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure up the fate of these unwilling returnees.