Security and Defense: Strong winds of war

MI doesn't foresee Syrian attack soon, but results of the war created dangerous reality on Syria's front.

idf training 298 idf (photo credit: IDF)
idf training 298 idf
(photo credit: IDF)
Wearing chemical warfare suits and masks, the soldiers ran into the building and started to evacuate those wounded in a non-conventional Syrian missile attack. The "attack" was a simulation, put on Tuesday for Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz at the Home Front Command's training center on the Tzrifin military base near Rishon Lezion. Following the exercise, Peretz turned to one of the soldiers and asked: "When there is a real incident, do you feel you will know what to do? Are you sure you won't go into shock?" His concern is not baseless. Four months after the war in Lebanon - during which 4,000 rockets slammed into the North - Military Intelligence is predicting that Israel is on a collision course toward a new round with Hizbullah and possibly even war with Syria. Peretz's visit to the HFC's training base was not a coincidence, but rather a desire to see first-hand how the IDF is preparing for the looming threats. It was not by chance he warned of non-conventional and chemical threats when speaking to reporters following the exercise. With Iran racing to obtain nuclear weapons, Peretz also wanted to ensure that Israel would be ready to deal with the aftermath of such an attack. According to Military Intelligence's assessments, obtained exclusively by The Jerusalem Post, Israel is headed toward at least two major military conflicts in 2007 - one against the Hamas army being built up despite the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, and the other against Hizbullah, which is also rebuilding its military wing and has begun receiving shipments of long-range, Iranian-made missiles smuggled into Lebanon by Syria. Senior officers who spoke with the Post this week referred to the possibility of a renewed conflict with Hizbullah in the coming months. MI does not believe that the cease-fire in Gaza will last more than a few weeks and feels that the continued daily smuggling of high-grade explosives and weaponry into Gaza from the Sinai will force Israel to deal with the Palestinian terror factions. THE IDF followed this week's events in Lebanon with extreme concern. The Hizbullah protests in Beirut, defense officials warned, have the potential to topple the US-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. If that happens, these officials predicted, UNIFIL could be expelled from southern Lebanon and Hizbullah would be able to return to its border outposts, just like before the war. Since the war ended with a UN-brokered cease-fire on August 14, Hizbullah has been receiving weapon shipments - including anti-tank missiles and long-range rockets - supplied by Damascus and transported into Lebanon through the Syrian border late at night. Hizbullah "nature reserves" - camouflaged underground systems of tunnels and bunkers - are still operating in southern Lebanon, despite the beefed-up presence of UNIFIL. These areas are designated as "closed military zones" for UNIFIL and are used as training centers for Hizbullah and storehouses for its weapons caches. The Lebanese political crisis, MI believes, may create a "proxy war" between Hizbullah and Saniora's government. MI saw this clash coming and predicted that following Israel's war in Lebanon, Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah would feel the need to show in one way or another that his guerrilla group had survived the IDF offensive. In addition to the protests, MI believes Hizbullah will also resume attacks against Israel in the coming weeks. The group won't necessarily launch Katyushas, but at least will fire anti-aircraft missiles at IAF aircraft flying over Lebanon. This, MI believes, will not be condemned by the international community, since countries like France, Germany and Italy - members of UNIFIL - have repeatedly slammed Israel for not stopping the overflights. More importantly, MI does not believe UNIFIL poses an obstacle to Hizbullah and that it is only a matter of time before the group returns to its former strength. SYRIA HAS been directly contributing to the tension in Lebanon. According to MI, Damascus is the leading suspect in the assassination of Pierre Gemayel two weeks ago, possibly an attempt by President Bashar Assad to extract revenge for Saniora's decision to back the establishment of an international tribunal to try those responsible for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri. MI does not foresee a Syrian attack in the near future, although the outcome of the war in Lebanon has created a new and dangerous reality on the Syrian front. The Syrian military has been on high alert since the war ended, and Assad has said on several occasions that military action is one way to recover the Golan Heights. Due to the slight risk of a war, OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin has suggested to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he examine the possibility of "engaging" Syria in a dialogue. Unlike Iran, Syria has previously held talks with Israel and has ties with the West MI believes it would like to retain. According to MI's assessment, if Israel offered to renew the dialogue, Assad would accept. If Israel does not make any diplomatic overtures to Syria, as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said it wouldn't, the chance of war will only increase. BY THE end of 2007, MI expects Iran to have mastered the necessary technology to proceed independently with its nuclear program. By the end of the decade, it predicts, Iran will have a nuclear bomb - unless it is stopped before then. As things look now, according to several high-ranking defense officials, the US will not attack Iran's nuclear sites. In addition, the Baker-Hamilton report that came out Wednesday and called on US President George W. Bush to engage Iran in a dialogue could lead to Washington's turning a blind eye to Teheran's nuclear program in exchange for help in stabilizing the situation in Iraq. Even if sanctions were imposed on Iran, the assessment is that they will not be effective. But other officials say that if the world stopped supplying Iran with refined fuel, the regime would need to consider suspending its enrichment of uranium. For Israel, 2007 is the critical year. Unlike the US, which sees the point of no return only when Iran has a nuclear bomb, Israel has been warning that the point is actually when the Iranians master the technology. At the moment, Israel is confronting Iran on two fronts - diplomatically and militarily. While Israeli leaders are pushing the world to take action to stop Iran's nuclear program, the IDF is also drawing up plans for the possibility that Israel will be left with no choice but a preemptive strike. THE CEASE-FIRE in Gaza will enter its third week on Sunday, despite IDF predictions that it would not last more than a few days. The question now is where does this lead? One option is to give in to Palestinian demands and extend the cease-fire to the West Bank. The National Security Council is currently drawing up a recommendation on the issue, with officials predicting that if Gaza remains quiet, Olmert will be willing to begin implementing the truce in the West Bank. The other option is to observe the cease-fire in Gaza and wait for the Palestinians to either return to firing Kassam rockets or establish a national unity government, one that accepts the three conditions of the Quartet - a cessation of terror, recognition of Israel's right to exist and honoring previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. If the cease-fire falls apart, the IDF believes it will be headed toward a major conflict in Gaza. Despite the cease-fire, the Palestinians are smuggling high-grade explosives and advanced weaponry into the Strip. Hamas has set up a 10,000-strong military, consisting of four brigades corresponding to four sections of the Gaza Strip. This army is believed to be armed with advanced anti-tank missiles, Grad-type Katyusha rockets and anti-aircraft missiles, possibly shoulder-fired, Soviet-made SA-7s. MI's assumption is that the cease-fire will last another few weeks at most. The major problem is that unlike the cease-fire before the unilateral disengagement, this time the Palestinians do not have an incentive to enforce it. OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin have been calling for a massive operation in the Gaza Strip for months, claiming that otherwise Gaza would turn into southern Lebanon. The end of the cease-fire could see the beginning of that operation.