Israel girds for Golan war with Iran, Hezbollah
Beirut - Amid the carnage of Syria’s civil war, well into its sixth year, Israeli military chiefs say that Iran and its prized proxy, Hezbollah, are surreptitiously seeking to establish a new front in an older conflict, the Iran-backed group’s 30-year war against the Jewish state that until recently was waged almost exclusively from neighbouring Lebanon.
The centre of this strategy, which Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has frequently espoused in recent months, is the Golan Heights, a 1,000-metre-high volcanic plateau that overlooks northern Israel. It has been a battleground since biblical times.
Israel seized the western two-thirds of the heights in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981. It refuses to surrender this occupied enclave from where it has the Syrian capital, Damascus, within the range of its artillery.
The Golan has also acted as a buffer zone that protects Israel from any spillover from the war raging in Syria. However, if the Israelis are correct, that may be changing, with the Tehran regime, which with Russia dominates Syrian military strategy, using Hezbollah to establish a new forward base against the Jewish state.
“Like other foreign and domestic actors, Hezbollah has seized on the Syrian civil war to improve its position in the country and the surrounding region,” the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed in an April 6th analysis.
Stratfor amplified recent reports that Hezbollah has been setting up bases on the Golan and in other parts of southern Syria where it has strong forces on the ground supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad just as its patron Iran does.
If Assad manages to stay in power, he will likely have to surrender control of the Golan to Iran and Hezbollah to threaten Israel.
The efforts by Hezbollah “to expand and solidify its control in Syria will only increase in the future”, Stratfor noted.
Satellite imagery recently showed that Hezbollah has built up a major base outside Qusair, a town near Syria’s border with Lebanon, which Hezbollah forces stormed in June 2013 in their first major engagement in the Syrian war.
According to Stratfor, Hezbollah plans use Qusair to stockpile weapons, including artillery pieces, short-range rockets and mortars along with about 60 T-72 tanks it acquired in the Syrian fighting.
There are reports that long-range ballistic missiles — including Iranian-built Shahabs and Fateh-110s — have been deployed at Qusair, although satellite imagery has not confirmed this.
Senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers reportedly inspect the Qusair base frequently and, according to Stratfor, treat it “as an Iranian asset”, part of Hezbollah’s plans to keep a permanent force of 3,000 fighters or more in Syria.
Since January 2013, the Israelis have mounted as many as ten air strikes to destroy advanced weaponry moving from Syria to Lebanon for Hezbollah, supposedly including Russian-made air-defence missile systems that could pose a serious threat to Israel’s long-held control of the skies over Syria and Lebanon at a stroke.
The most recent such strike was on April 25th, 2015. There have been none since the Russians installed advanced S-300 air-defence systems around the airbase they have built near Latakia since their September 2015 intervention in Syria, although Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has declared the operations to block weapons deliveries to Hezbollah would continue.
That could ignite a new conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, which last went to war in 2006 when Hezbollah fought Israel’s vaunted military to a standstill.
But these days, Hezbollah, which has seen an estimated 1,200 fighters killed and three times that many wounded in Syria since 2012, has its hands full and is not looking for another fight with Israel right now.
However, the 2006 war ended badly for Israel, which failed in its objective to crush Hezbollah and suffered an unprecedented month-long bombardment of about 4,000 missiles and most analysts are convinced that both sides see it as “unfinished business”.
A July 16th threat assessment by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a right-leaning Washington think-tank, observed that “the next war between Israel and Hezbollah will likely not be confined to the Lebanese-Israeli border. Hezbollah will try to shift some of the weight of the battle to Syria and the Golan Heights.
“Indeed… Hezbollah and Iran plan to connect the Golan Heights to the terror group’s South Lebanon stronghold — to make it one contiguous front against Israel.”
This concept has been given some weight in recent months as Iran’s IRGC and Hezbollah have established bases in the Syrian-controlled sector of the Golan amid an uptick in violence that has triggered Israeli action directed primarily at Hezbollah and the IRGC.
On January 18th, 2015, an Israeli Apache helicopter gunship fired missiles into a convoy carrying IRGC and Hezbollah commanders on a reconnaissance sweep near the Golan’s largely deserted capital, Quneitra.
Among the dead were an IRGC brigadier-general, Mohammad Allah Daddi, a ballistic missile specialist, and three Hezbollah leaders: Abu Ali Reza, a senior field commander, and Mohammed Issa, who was understood to have been overseeing the setting up of missile bases on the Golan.
Hezbollah also lost Jihad Mughniyeh, eldest son of Imad Mughniyeh, the group’s long-time military chief who was assassinated in a Damascus car bombing on February 12th, 2008, supposedly a joint operation by the CIA and Israel’s Mossad intelligence service.
Syrian sources said Allah Daddi had overall charge of building four missile bases near the border with Israel.
Israel’s Channel 2 television reported that Issa was responsible for coordinating the transfer of missiles from Syria and Iran as well as Hezbollah’s arsenal in Lebanon. Reza was considered a central Hezbollah figure whose mission was to plan an offensive on Israel’s northern border in any future conflict, including overrunning the Galilee region.
Israel, as usual, did not acknowledge the attack but there seems little doubt that the targeted group was known to the Israelis and that the air strike was intended as a particularly sharp warning to Iran and Hezbollah.
Iranian leaders reportedly telephoned Nasrallah urging him not to retaliate for the loss of so many commanders in one action so as to avoid triggering a major conflict, as he had done in July 2006 with a cross-border raid in which five Israelis were killed and two captured.
Possibly with the destructive consequences of that war in mind, and not wishing to fight Israel while engaged in heavy fighting in Syria, Nasrallah did not retaliate in force.
On December 19th, 2015, Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze Muslim who joined Hezbollah while imprisoned in Israel for killing a Jewish family in a Palestinian raid in 1979, was killed along with several Hezbollah commanders in a night-time missile strike on his apartment building in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana.
Kuntar, who spent nearly three decades behind bars, was released in 2008 in an exchange with Hezbollah for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers whose capture triggered the 2006 war.
At the time of his death, Kuntar was tasked with recruiting Syrian Druze living in the Golan region into an Iranian-controlled militia to fight the Jewish state.
In the next war, which many see coming, Israel is preparing to fight a very different enemy. Hezbollah may have suffered heavy casualties in Syria but it has also learned how to fight conventional wars, with armour and artillery and manoeuvring big battalions across strange terrain rather than the small-scale actions that constituted most of its combat against Israel between 1982 and 2000.