AN ISRAELI soldier stands near a mobile artillery unit as it fires a shell into southern Lebanon on July 13, 2006, a day after IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were abducted by Hezbollah.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Throughout 2016, there were very few reports about two alleged strikes by the Israel Air Force against weapons convoys traveling from Syria to Hezbollah.
This was in a sharp contrast to dozens of reports about similar attacks in the preceding three years, so commentators reached the conclusion that Israel was reducing its involvement in Syria due to the massive Russian presence there in general, and the deployment of its air force and its sophisticated anti-aircraft radars and batteries, which practically cover the entirety of Israel, in particular. But the attack attributed to the IAF which took place at 1 a.m. on Wednesday proves that the impression is wrong: despite Russian involvement in the bloody Syrian civil war, Israel still maintains, at least partially, its freedom of action in Syria.
This is certainly the case in areas very close to the Israeli border, as we saw earlier this week when IAF attacked an ISIS position and took responsibility for it, in retaliation for an ISIS attack on an Israeli patrol on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights.
But when it comes to areas more distant from the border – certainly near Damascus – the operation is much more complicated, risky and could spin out of control.
According to reports emerging from Syria, the IAF attacked a weapons convoy – on the outskirts of the Syrian capital and on the main road to Beirut – which was destined for Hezbollah. Israel has kept silent, neither confirming nor denying the reports.
Such a mission is very sensitive indeed. Though the attack was aimed, as reported, against Hezbollah, it is interpreted – and rightly so – also as a strike against the Assad regime, which is either responsible for the weapon shipment or turning a blind eye to it. Indirectly, a strike against Bashar Assad can be perceived as an assault or humiliation of Russia, which is behind the regime and aiding in its consolidation. Already last night reports suggested that Russia is asking for clarifications from Israel.
Israel and Russia established a special red line link for “deconfliction,” to avoid unintended clashes between the two sides. For this purpose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow four times over the last year for talks with President Vladimir Putin, and senior IDF and IAF officers met with their Russian counterparts.
But it is very unlikely that Israel informed Russia ahead of the reported attack. Nations don’t do that not even with their friends, because it may jeopardize the operation and risk life.
Bearing in mind these circumstances and complications, one has to conclude that the targets attacked, as reported, were very important to Israel and worth the risk and the ramifications.
It can also be assumed that the intelligence was excellent, and that it was a feasible operation.
In the past, Israeli leaders said – and Netanyahu and defense ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Avigdor Liberman reiterated – that Israel has no intention of getting involved in the civil war, but that it would religiously guard its national interests. That included retaliation for every intentional and unintentional violation of Israeli sovereignty, as well as preventing shipments of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel is mainly concerned about Yakhont land-sea cruise missiles, anti-aircraft batteries and radars, and components that would increase the accuracy of Hezbollah ground-to-ground missiles. If indeed Israel is behind the latest attack, most probably this was the motivation.
It is important, however, to stress that Israel is also very cautious not to violate Lebanese sovereignty. In the past – after an IAF strike on Lebanese soil – Hezbollah threatened to retaliate. For the Shi’ite organization, Israeli strikes on Syrian soil are tolerable.
Will they be also accepted by Russia and by Assad?