The IDF on Thursday held intensive training maneuvers in preparation for a feared Syrian attack on the Golan Heights. Hundreds of tanks and thousands of soldiers, backed by helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, massed in the Judean Desert to drill simulations of war. The training exercise focused on Brigade 401 and its utilization of Israel's most advanced tank - the Merkava Mark 4 - against the Syrian advanced Russian-made T-72. Since the Second Lebanon War, Military Intelligence has claimed that war with Syria is now closer than ever, and the IDF is on heightened alert in the North in preparation for the possibility of a surprise attack.
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President Bashar Assad, analysts have said, was empowered by Hizbullah's surprise success while fighting the IDF. The assessment is that he might be motivated to launch hostilities in an effort to retrieve the Golan Heights, either by initiating a surprise attack to capture one or two Israeli communities or by firing long-range ballistic missiles at the home front.
The assumption within the defense establishment is that while war with Syria would definitely be of a conventional nature, Damascus would most likely utilize its strong ballistic missile arsenal and its division of several thousand commandos.
Thursday's drill indicated that the IDF has not ruled out the possibility that a war would also entail tank battles, once believed to have been a relic of historic wars like the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
The simulation began Thursday with the tanks gathering in an offensive posture on the outskirts of the battlefield. The first mission given to the armored forces was to create passageways and build makeshift bridges over deep ravines, similar to the valleys and rivers in the Golan Heights.
The tanks were backed up by artillery fire and supported by infantry troops, some traveling in armored personnel carriers and others being flown into the field by transport helicopters.
One of the interesting changes instituted in the exercise was the use of real IDF Merkava tanks to impersonate Syrian ones. In the past, the IDF refrained from using tanks to impersonate the enemy due to the high cost, making do with Hummer patrol vehicles. This time, the army apparently wanted the real thing.
"We are preparing for the possibility of war on all fronts," said Col. Roni Belkin, deputy commander of Division 162. "To do that, we need to find a solution for a wide range of scenarios."
In one of the possible scenarios envisaged by analysts, Syrian soldiers sweep across the Israeli side of the border, taking over the northern community of Merom Golan with an elite commando unit from the 14th Special Forces Division of the Syrian Armed Forces. Simultaneously, Syrian Chief of Staff Gen. Ali Habib gives the order and hundreds of T-72 tanks from the Damascus-based Republican Guard Mechanized Division - alongside thousands of commandos and infantry troops - begin deploying along the Syrian side of the border, ready for a broad offensive. The Syrian ballistic missile division goes into high alert and coordinates are set for the long-range Scud D, capable of hitting any target inside Israel.
On the Israeli side, in this scenario, Northern Command and Military Intelligence are taken by surprise. IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi quickly comes to his senses and orders the mobilization of the Armored Corps and Infantry Corps on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. Full-fledged war seems about to erupt.
Not long ago, this kind of sequence would have seemed inconceivable, but since the Second Lebanon War it has turned into a genuine concern for the Israeli defense establishment.
The rising tensions between Israel and Syria were underlined last week when a top Syrian minister threatened to use military action to redeem the Golan Heights.
If war with Syria erupts, the IDF would also face a strong array of advanced antitank missiles, which Hizbullah successfully used last summer against IDF tanks.
During the last battle of the war - what has become known as the battle of the Saluki - Brigade 401 lost 12 soldiers to Hizbullah antitank missiles. The assumption is that this weapon would play a key role in war with Syria.
To deal with this threat, the IDF has announced plans to purchase, by the end of the year, several dozen "Trophy" protection systems developed by Rafael, which are capable of intercepting incoming antitank missiles.
According to Brig.-Gen. Halutzy Rudoy of the Armored Corps, the most significant aspect of the exercise was to learn how to effectively use the tank in the battlefield. During the Lebanon war, tank crews failed to activate smoke systems that can create tank cover as it maneuvers through enemy territory.
"The tank is still an excellent tool for achieving our goals in the battlefield," Rudoy said. "But you need to know how to use it."