Israel Pours Fuel on Middle East Fire
Andrei AKULOV | 07.05.2013 | FEATURED STORY

Israel Pours Fuel on Middle East Fire

On May 5 Israeli warplanes struck areas in and around the Syrian capital allegedly targeting a shipment of high precision Iranian-made Fateh-110 missiles to be transported to Lebanon's Hezbollah group. The military research center in Jamraya was hit. The area houses a military headquarters, a research center and other sites. Western and Israeli officials suppose that the facility is involved in chemical weapons research. According to some unconfirmed reports, the Sunday's strike totally hit about 10 targets, including the headquarters of the army’s best strike component – the Fourth Division, headed by the president’s brother Maher, and the command of the government’s elite Republican Guard. On May 3 Israeli aircraft hit a shipment of missiles near the Lebanon’s border. Two air strikes in two days signal a sharp escalation of Israel's involvement in Syria's civil war. Israel has already responded to fears of retaliation by locating two batteries of its Iron Dome missile defense system near Haifa, close to the Lebanese border. The system protects against short-range rockets. The airspace over northern Israel and Haifa area is closed off to civilian flights.

In a similar airstrike in January, Israeli warplanes destroyed what was reported as a convoy of advanced air defense missiles that Syria wanted to hand over to Hezbollah. Damascus said the target was the same Jamraya research facility and denied trying to transfer advanced weapons to its ally. The surface-to-air missiles would compromise Israel’s ability to enter Lebanon’s airspace unhindered.

The Fateh-110 (or Conqueror) short-range ballistic missile is believed to be the most sophisticated weapon in the Hezbollah’s inventory. It is developed by Iran and first put into service in 2002. The Islamic Republic unveiled an upgraded version in 2012 that improved the weapon's accuracy and increased its range to 300 kilometers (185 miles). Now it is five times more accurate than the Scud missiles that Hezbollah has fired in the past. Launched from southern Lebanon it can strike Tel Aviv and even the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. The weapon is considered to be a game changer posing a threat to Israel's infrastructure and military installations.

World reaction

International reaction to Israel's latest airstrikes on Syria has been quick to come.

The Syrian government held an emergency meeting on the attacks, after which Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi read a statement at a news conference. He said the attack made the Middle East «more dangerous» and «opens the door wide to all possibilities». Syria had the right and the duty «to defend its people by all available means», he added. The Syrian Foreign Ministry statement said three military sites had been hit - a research center at Jamraya, a paragliding airport in the al-Dimas area of Damascus and a site in Maysaloun. In letters sent to the United Nations and the U.N. Security Council, Syria also said the Israeli strikes killed and wounded several people and «caused widespread destruction». In an exclusive interview with CNN, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad said «When they attack, this is a declaration of war». (1).

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast condemned an Israeli air strike against Syria and urged countries in the region to remain united against Israel, according to the Fars news agency. The brief statement gave no details. Lebanese media quoted Seyed Hassan Firouzabadi, the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, as saying: «Resistance forces will respond to the Israeli aggression… Iran will not allow to Israel destabilize the region».

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman condemned what he called «Israel's onslaught against Syria». Israel used Lebanese airspace to strike Syria, he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appealed for restraint to avoid escalating Syria's war, expressing concern over Israeli raids.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby condemned what he called Israeli strikes on Syrian territories and called for the United Nations Security Council to «move immediately in order to stop and prevent Israeli attacks on Syria».

The Egyptian presidency said they «violated international law and principles that will further complicate the situation».

In an interview with Telemundo, President Obama says that while he won't comment on reported Israeli airstrikes over Syria, he backs Israel's efforts in guarding against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah.

On May 6 Russian Foreign Ministry statement said Russia expresses concern over the attempts to further instigate tensions, the process which is not limited by Syria only, but affects the situation in Lebanon as well. The statement voiced by Ministry’s spokesman Alexander Lukashevich adds that it is indispensable to apply all possible efforts to preserve peace. As to him, Russia does everything it can to prevent the worst and hopes the countries, which can influence the situation, will do the same. (2)

Israel: motives and options

Israel has defined four types of weapons whose transfer to militant groups would not be tolerated: advanced air defense systems, ballistic missiles, sophisticated shore-to-sea missiles and chemical weapons. Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence who directs the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told the Washington Post this February that in accordance with this policy, «Any time Israel will have reliable intelligence that this is going to be transferred from Syria to Lebanon, it will act», although specific decisions to strike would be subject to assessments of the military value of the attack, the risk of escalation and the positions of foreign powers. As to him, «As the Syrian army becomes weaker and Hezbollah grows more isolated because of the loss of its Syrian patron, it makes sense that this will continue», Yadlin said, adding that Israeli responses would be weighed each time and «not happen automatically». The real dilemma facing Israeli officials, Yadlin said, is not whether to attack, but whether inaction would mean a greater threat later. «The correct comparison is the risk of escalation now and the risk of having a much more formidable enemy and many casualties in future hostilities», he said. (3)

On a number of occasions Israel has said it wants to stay out of the war, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly stated the Jewish state would be prepared to take military action to prevent sophisticated weapons from flowing from Syria to Hezbollah or other extremist groups. The Syrian conflict has increasingly affected Israel, as alarm mounts over the deployment of President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and the potential for it to fall into the hands of non-state militant groups.

Israel has already responded with fire to mortar and small arms fire spilling over the ceasefire line in the occupied Golan Heights this year.

It is propitious to remember here that this March Israeli Major-General Yair Golan, head of the military’s Northern Command, raised the possibility of creating a buffer zone in Syria should President Bashar al-Assad be toppled in cooperation with local forces wary of jihadist fighters. (4) He expressed the widely spread opinion saying «many hundreds» of radical Islamists were fighting in Syria’s two-year-old civil war and could «take root» in Israel’s northern neighbor should Assad fall. According to him, the Israeli military was working on the assumption that these fighters would ultimately launch attacks against Israel, which captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. «One measure we certainly cannot rule out is to create a security zone on the other side of the border», Golan said in an interview published on March 25 in the Yisrael Hayom daily. «If an opportunity presents itself – and it hasn’t as yet – we should not hesitate», he said. «Everything should be done wisely and secretly, with a true examination of where the interests of the other side lie». The General pointed to the example of the «security zone» Israeli forces maintained for 15 years in southern Lebanon with the stated aim of keeping Hezbollah guerrillas and rockets away from Israel’s border. In recent months, a number of rockets fired during fighting between Syrian forces and rebels have fallen inside the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The strategic plateau is monitored by U.N. observers and had been quiet for decades.

The conflict has actually split the Israeli defence community into two camps — those who oppose the fall of Assad, and those who see his ouster as less dangerous for Israel. Some see Syrian president Assad as a «lynchpin» connecting Iran and Hezbollah. If it collapses this will be a very serious blow to Iran, Hezbollah and the whole axis. Others say this scenario runs the risk of Islamists and jihadists becoming a dominant force in a future Syria. The question is - will a victorious jihadist-dominated rebel force be a cohesive threat to Israel as are Assad, Iran and Hezbollah linked together? Whatever happens, the possibility of chemical and conventional strike weapons falling into wrong hands is perceived as the major concern for Israel now.

Should a conflict flare-up, the Israeli military possesses sophisticated real-time intelligence and upgraded drones. For any potential land operation, it has fortified its Merkava armored personnel vehicles, activated a new tank-defense that can shoot down anti-tank rockets and recently deployed Iron Dome, a rocket defense system that shot down hundreds of rockets during a recent round of fighting against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

Some aspects adding up to general picture

There is one more thing to add to the picture. On April 30 - right before the escalation - Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah chief, made one of his most anticipated addresses since the start of the Arab Spring. He said armed formations will never abandon their support for the Assad regime in Syria. In a television interview he reiterated that Hezbollah fighters would continue to operate in Syria's Qusayr region to protect Lebanese citizens from sectarian attacks by rebel militias. (5) This is the first time ever he that Hezbollah fighters were actively defending the Saida Zainab Shrine in southern Damascus from rebel attacks. His speech comes after personal meetings with Ayatollah Khameini in Tehran. It is likely that meetings with the Iranian leadership included directives regarding Hezbollah's continued participation in the Syrian conflict. The fact the group has pushed in the Qusayr region and increases its involvement elsewhere in Syria cannot be is one more reason for concern on the part of Israel. Following his meeting with Nasrallah in Beirut, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov denounced Hezbollah's participation in the Syrian conflict. Currently, Hezbollah fighters have succeeded in gaining control of the countryside surrounding the rebel-held town of Qusayr. Control over this area is crucial to preserving the traversing Homs-Damascus highway, which remains a key resupply route for the Assad regime. With the assistance of Syrian military artillery and air power, Hezbollah is likely to succeed in gaining control over the entire area, particularly in the absence of rebel reinforcements.

In this context, a surprise April 30 Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) drill in northern Israel was likely meant as a show of force toward Hezbollah from making similar provocations in an effort to preserve this image. The IDF is assessed to believe that Hezbollah does not wish to enter into a conflict with Israel given that much of its manpower has been deployed to northern Lebanon and Syria.

One more event should be recalled here. The airstrikes come as Washington is mulling over how to respond to growing indications that the opponents of Syrian government, not the government, as Carla Ponte, a member of the UN independent commission of inquiry on Syria, has just stated, may have used chemical weapons in the civil war. President Barack Obama has described the use of such weapons as a «red line» before and said the administration was weighing options — including possible military action. But the US was more inclined to believe it was the regular army, not the opposition, who was to blame.

Sometime before - on March 19 - Adm. James Stavridis, the commander of U.S. European Command, said that NATO was conducting contingency planning for possible military involvement in Syria and American forces would be prepared if called upon by the United Nations and member countries. He told a Senate panel that the United States was «looking at a variety of operations». «We are prepared if called upon to be engaged», Stavridis told the Senate Armed Services Committee. (6)

The attacks have fuelled debates over US involvement. On May 5 the New York Times wrote «The apparent ease with which Israel struck missile sites and, by Syrian accounts, a major military research center near Damascus in recent days has stoked debate in Washington about whether American-led airstrikes are the logical next step to cripple President Bashar al-Assad’s ability to counter the rebel forces or use chemical weapons».(7) According to the newspaper «That option was already being debated in secret by the United States, Britain and France in the days leading to the Israeli strikes, according to American and foreign officials involved in the discussions». It adds «The Pentagon developed such options months ago, but in recent weeks, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Central Command, which runs military operations in the Middle East, have been asked to refine them and explore how strikes would be coordinated with allies».

Talking about the Syrian air defense capability, Senator John McCain said on «Fox News Sunday» that «the Israelis seem to be able to penetrate it fairly easily». He went on to say that the United States would be capable of disabling the Syrian air defenses on the ground «with cruise missiles, cratering their runways».

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As the events unfold, the Syria’s situation is involving more actors, the aggravation continues. Too many interests and security concerns are entangled in the Middle East quagmire. In June 2012 Russia launched an initiative offering to host an international conference on Syria (8). The idea was repeated by President Putin this January during talks with President Michel Suleiman. If supported by interested actors, it would be just the thing to do under the conditions of balancing on the verge of sparking big fire. No doubt the issue will add to the Russia-US agenda when US State Secretary John Kerry comes to Moscow on May 7.