The situation on Israeli-Syrian borders has escalated dramatically lately, after Israel conducted a series of operations deeper in the territory of the Arab republic.
On the night to March 17, Israel’s four F-15 military jets entered Syrian airspace targeting Homs province presumably in area of Tiyas (T-4) airbase. Israel’s defense force (Tzahal) aircrafts had not flown such long distance from its borders before. In all previous operations, they attacked the Lebanese Hezbollah and Syrian Army within the area of Golan Heights or Damascus province – mostly without penetrating Syrian airspace. Last Friday, they made an exception for several reasons.
Israel’s leadership took a risk consciously. In the targeted area, Syrian Armed Forces have rather a dense system of air defense. Besides, a limited contingent of Russian militaries and specialists are deployed at T-4 base helping Syrians among others to increase air-defense capacities. There was a risk, though minimal (considering high level of intelligence and destruction weapons used by Israel’s armed forces) to “hit” Russian partners in Syria.
Syrian sir force managed to launch several C-200 surface-to-air missiles that night. Furthermore, Damascus reported that an Israeli aircraft was shot down, though Tel Aviv refuted the reports immediately.
Strange as it may sound, the air raid and the retaliation by Syrian military worked for Israel’s political leadership and military command. After the March 9, high-level meeting in Moscow, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to convince President Vladimir Putin that the status quo in Syria is inadmissible for Israelis, since he needed to raise the stakes significantly. Israel expects a serious attitude from Russia about preventing Iran’s military build-up in the territory of Syria. With this message, Israel’s prime minister traveled to Moscow earlier this month. A few days later, it was necessary to put into actions Netanyahu’s words that Israeli army would destroy any target in Syria anyhow involved in Iran’s military build-up plans.
A military and diplomatic rush after March 17 was what Israel sought to attract Moscow’s attention. However, it’s one thing when Israel tried to convince Moscow with intelligence data, as it was on March 9, and quite another thing when it deliberately escalates the situation. Israel’s ambassador was summoned to Foreign Ministry of Russia over March 17 incident that could affect Russian citizens.
Another two, though more “moderate,” operations in Syria’s territory followed the Friday demarche of Israel. On March 19, in area of Golan Heights, on slopes of Mount Hermon, another airstrike took place, hitting a vehicle that was destroyed and its driver, Yasser al-Sayed, one of Hezbollah field commanders, was killed on the spot. According to Israeli intelligence, Sayed arrived there to prepare deployment of about 1,500 Iraqi troops from volunteer brigade Harakat al Nujaba from Syria’s Aleppo. Hezbollah leadership is behind concentration of pro-Iranian forces in Syria’s Quneitra. Naim Qassem, the second (after Hassan Nasrallah) person in Hezbollah hierarchy is named as coordinator.
Later in the evening on March 19, Middle East mass media reported that Israeli Air Force attacked anti-aircraft warfare of Syrian army and Hezbollah positions in Kalamun Hills. Reportedly, it was the second strike of Israel’s air force within the day.
Actions of Iranians, Hezbollah and Tehran’s other satellites in the region are inadmissible to Israel, the more so as, Iran’s actions come with unprecedented militarist statements of Lebanese Shiites saying they have means to destroy “any goal” in the territory of Israel (1).
Israel is preparing for a new war with Hezbollah with Iran’s shadow trailing after it. Destruction of Hezbollah fighters in area of Golan Heights without spillover of the military actions onto the border of Israel and Lebanon is the most desirable scenario for Tzahal. However, Israel demonstrates readiness for large-scale military escalation along the engagement line with “Iran’s marionettes.”
When Israel’s ambassador to Moscow Gary Koren was summoned to Russian Foreign Minister over strikes of Israeli air force in Syria, Chief of Israeli Armed Forces General Staff Gadi Eizenkot said declarations heard from Beirut recently make it clear that the next war address is “Lebanon and organizations acting from its consent.”
He said Israel’s Armed Forces will be attacking Lebanese government institutions without any hesitation, even if they do not belong to Hezbollah. Eizenkot said they take measures to prevent supply of weapons to Hezbollah (from Syria). In his words, Hezbollah is trying to get more precise and destructive weapon to attack Israel from the rear.
Israel’s number one enemy in the north of its borders possess such weapons. Israel needs to choose the right time to make a preventive strike on Hezbollah targets in Syria and Lebanon. Israel is actively preparing for a new clash with Lebanese Shiites. With its strikes on March 17 and 19 Israel pursued the following goals.
In the military aspect, Israel seeks to prevent dense concentration of pro-Iranian groups in area of Golan Heights, stable control of Damascus-Beirut highway, the transit and permanent transportation of troops, by them. Israel deems concentration of the given forces in the southwest of Syria as “regional threat.” They say Iranian military and fighters of various pro-Iranian groups, at least 25,000 people, are in Syria now. Part of them is deployed closer to the borders of Israel after Aleppo’s liberation and repeated liberation of Palmyra from Daesh militants.
Iranians received a clear message – “you base in Syria will be destroyed as soon as it is established.” Netanyahu arrived in Moscow with that message and asked the Kremlin to have Tehran “informed.” Israel’s leadership is trying to choose the right time for its warnings. President of Iran Hassan Rouhani is visiting Russia in late March. Iranians call that visit “landmark.” The sides are expected to ink a package of trade and economic agreements unprecedented for Russian-Iranian relations. During Rouhani’s visit, the sides will discuss also military and political issues with a focus on Syria. Perhaps, Iran’s president will be informed of Netanyahu’s message during his visit to Russia. So, Israel’s recent strikes on targets in Syria are believed to be an important addition to the verbal message on “red lines.”
There is another military reason why Israel started striking Syria’s territory more confidently. Approximately in the first half of April, the entire line of Israel’s ballistic missile defense systems will be put on alert. These are small, medium and long range missile interception systems Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow, respectively. Israel’s partner in that super costly project is U.S. and its defense corporation. Arrow was tested in military conditions against Syrian air defense on March 17. Perhaps, they are going to test David’s Sling medium-range missile interception system next, which gives more confidence to Israel. Besides military reasons, there are evident geopolitical explanation of Tzahal’s intensified actions on the Syrian front. The coming four years of growing anti-Iranian tendency in U.S. and the Sunni camp of the Middle East will become a period of severe confrontation with the Shiite superpower. What was missed during “weak” Barack Obama’s presidency will be restored under decisive “pro-Israeli” Donald Trump. Such sentiments are evident in the political and military circles in Israel.
The efforts to oust Iran from Syria and other points of their growing influence in the region (Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain) may prompt a large-scale war in the Middle East. The trigger can be, for instance, Israel’s strike on military “advisors” of Iran. However, not only Israel is ready for such “apocalyptic” scenario that may destabilize and have unpredictable consequences for the Middle East and the world, generally. Iran and Hezbollah have enough enemies in the region. Such forces as Saudi Arabia and its orbit of influence in the zone of the Persian Gulf, and even “neutral” Turkey and Pakistan may not resist the temptation to make a collective power blow on Iran.
They are inciting Tehran to step up efforts to create its own nuclear warhead as a strategic factor to deter its numerous enemies. This will ruin the “nuclear deal” of 2015 triggering mechanisms to prepare for a direct armed conflict between Israel and Iran. At such “steep turn” Israel may face very serious challenges, but Tel Aviv thinks it’s worth the cost and builds on the “now or never” principle.
On March 2, Hezbollah disseminated a video of strategic facilities of Israel’s nuclear program. The video spotlighted that Hezbollah has enough means to deliver weapons to the indicated points of Israel’s criminal nuclear and military infrastructures. Earlier, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah warned Israelis on capacities of Lebanese Shiites “to target” both nuclear reactor in Dimona and ammonium storage facility in Haifa.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau