Hizballah remains highly active in Syria, despite the fact that civil war there is drawing down, and it is actively trying to turn the south of the country into a launchpad for terrorist attacks against Israel.
An alleged Israeli Air Force strike early Wednesday on suspicious installations in southern Syria appears to be the latest reminder of Hizballah's ongoing activities.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, the strike hit Hizballah positions in the Tel al-Hara sector near the Golan Heights, causing damage, but not casualties.
"All the positions hit had the Lebanese Hizballah there," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Hizballah, Iran's Shi'ite terror army with a massive arsenal of surface-to-surface rockets, has withdrawn many of its forces in Syria back to bases in Lebanon. But that has not stopped it from keeping a low-profile presence beyond Lebanon's borders.
In March, the Israel Defense Forces exposed one such presence, which saw operatives gather intelligence on Israel from observation posts and military sites in south Syria, and training recruits in how to fire rockets, mortars, and sniper rifles.
Tel al-Hara, situated just 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) east of the Israeli Golan Heights, where the latest reported Israeli strike occurred, is a hill in the Syrian province of Daraa. According to the Observatory, Hizballah and the dictator Bashar al-Assad's regime stationed radars and surface-to-air missile batteries there.
"I believe Hizballah has not given up on Syria," Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of the Analysis Division of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. "Syria is an important asset for Hizballah, both in terms of assisting Assad in staying in his place, and in the context of serving Iranian interests."
According to Kuperwasser's assessment, Hizballah's main mission has evolved in recent months into building up a terrorist network that is mostly composed of Syrian recruits, but "which is trained, directed, and commanded by Hizballah forces. And these forces are, among other places, in the [Syrian] Golan Heights area," he said.
In this way, Hizballah hopes to initiate attacks against Israel from Syria, and particularly, from the Golan sector.
"This is their signature," Kuperwasser stated. "They do this through training recruits."
Additionally, Hizballah likely maintains ties to Shi'ite militias that Iran mobilized to Syria to assist Assad in defeating the Sunni rebels, although these militia forces are decreasing in number as the Syrian war winds down.
Hizballah's pattern of activity is in part a response to domestic criticism in Iran and among Hizballah's base in Lebanon, over the very costly involvement in Syria, according to Kuperwasser.
An estimated 1,250 Hizballah operatives were killed on Syrian battlefields, according to a study by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. Thousands more have sustained injuries, and caring for their needs has created a substantial drain on Hizballah's budget. The budget is also stretched due to the fact that the organization's state backer, Iran, is under considerable economic stress from U.S. sanctions.
In addition, Russia has demanded that Iran keep its forces away from the Syrian-Israeli border.
By keeping terror recruiters in the region, possibly disguised as Assad military personnel, Hizballah may have worked out a "bypass solution" to these restrictions, said Kuperwasser.
"It is less effective than having Iranian and Hizballah forces there directly," he said. But it is "a solution that also lines up with Russia's demands of a border zone free from an Iranian presence."
Lebanon and Syria – The Hizballah connection
Hours after today's reported Israeli strike, a drone from Lebanon briefly violated Israeli airspace before flying back into Lebanon.
The IDF said in a statement that it scrambled jets to the area to follow the drone's flight path, and that the drone was under Israeli surveillance as it observed Israeli military movements.
The aerial intrusion can be interpreted as a warning signal by Hizballah in response to the strike. If so, it underlines the linkage that exists between Syria and Lebanon, in which actions in one country can trigger an escalation in the neighboring state.
"Events in Syria can trigger the Lebanese sector, but I think it is clear that the 'rules of the game' are different in Syria compared to Lebanon," said Kuperwasser.
"An [Israeli] operation in Syria, even if it has its dangers, is much less dangerous than an operation in Lebanon. In Syria, there is an understanding that if Israel detects something that threatens it, it can take action," he added. "In Lebanon, on the other hand, the potential for escalation is much higher. The drone incident could be linked to the Syria strike. If so, it could be an attempt by Hizballah to examine ways to operate from Lebanon in response to what happened."
In the past, Hizballah struck out from Lebanon only when senior members were killed by alleged Israeli action. "It's not an automatic response," Kuperwasser said. "If Hizballah sustains significant casualties, it could weigh such an operation."
In the meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear on Wednesday that Israel will continue being proactive in Syria. "The chain of tests we are dealing with does not let up," he said. "We respond firmly and forcefully to any attack against us, but we do not act only after the fact; we are preventing the enemy's [buildup of] capabilities before [they] act."
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane's Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.