Syria boosts forces near border

Barak cancels trip to Germany due to tensions in north; infantry brigades mass on border.

Syrian soldier 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Syrian soldier 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Security forces have been put on high alert along the northern border, following a rise in tensions on Wednesday and senior defense officials' confirmation of Arab media reports that Syria has been beefing up its forces and calling up reserves ahead of a possible conflict with Israel. Due to the increased tensions in the North as well as in the Gaza Strip, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has canceled a trip to Germany scheduled for next week, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Barak was to meet with German intelligence chiefs to discuss Iran's nuclear program and efforts in Berlin to mediate between Hizbullah and Israel regarding abducted IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, officials said. Barak, who was to be accompanied by ministry director-general Pinhas Buchris, was also scheduled to meet with heads of parliamentary committees and pay a visit to the dock where Germany is building two Israeli Dolphin-class submarines. He was to sign an agreement concerning the submarines during his trip there. On Wednesday, the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi reported that Damascus was preparing for a large-scale Israeli attack against Syria and Hizbullah and has begun increasing its presence along its border with Lebanon, as well as calling up reserve forces. The paper claimed that Syria had also raised the alert level along its borders and had positioned three armored divisions, nine infantry brigades and special forces near the border with Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, fearing an Israeli infiltration there. This, the newspaper stated, would be a strategic spot for IDF ground forces to strike, as it both serves as a Hizbullah stronghold and would place troops in close range of Damascus. Israeli defense officials confirmed the report and said Israel had noticed movement by Syria's military formation in recent days. The assessment in Israel, the officials stressed, was that the maneuvers were being done as part of a defense measure and out of fears that if Hizbullah attacked Israel in retaliation to the February assassination of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, Israel would respond by attacking Syria. In light of the escalation in tensions, Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Dan Harel said Wednesday that if Israel were attacked by Syria or Hizbullah, the IDF's response would be "painful." "I do not see a reason for unusual tension [along the border]," Harel said during a press conference in Tel Aviv. "Neither side has an interest in a military conflict. Anyone who wants to hurt Israel should remember that we are the strongest country in the region and the response will be painful." Sources in Syria, quoted in the paper, said the nation's Interior Ministry would announce this weekend the results of its investigation into Mughniyeh's assassination. The report is likely to lay the blame on Mossad as well as certain Arab figures. The paper added that Hizbullah would refrain from avenging the assassination for the time being, so as not to give Israel "an excuse" to attack. Meanwhile, refurbished gas masks will be returned to the public in early 2009, the security cabinet decided Wednesday, in a decision recommended by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i. While the defense establishment has been collecting the masks for repair since last year, there has been much deliberation as to whether or not the need exists to return emergency kits, including gas masks, to citizens. Many thought that the task should be left to the Home Front Command, and that in the case of war soldiers could distribute the masks to civilians. A special committee that was established in the Defense Ministry, headed by former OC Home Front Command Maj.-Gen. Ze'ev Livneh, stated a number of times that there was no need for the kits to remain in civilian homes. Nevertheless, the committee decided to make the opposite decision. Brig.-Gen. (Res) Ze'ev Tzuk-Ram, the head of the newly formed National Emergency Authority for which Vilna'i is ultimately responsible, stated that "there is no need for alarm, we are speaking only of a technical procedure." A source in the Prime Minister's Office said there no connection between the reported rise in tension with Syria and the security decision on Wednesday to spend NIS 1.2 billion on redistributing gas masks starting at the beginning of next year. The source said that the decisions to redistribute the gas masks and to hold a drill preparing for missile attacks were part of the reprecutions of the Winograd Report and had nothing to do with Syria. Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.