Israel steps up shadow war with Hezbollah

Sunday 15/01/2017
Vast majority of arms supplied to Hezbollah from Iran pass through Syria

Beirut - Israel’s Institute for Nation­al Security Studies (INSS) stressed in its annual strategic assessment, released January 2nd, that Hezbollah remains the most serious threat the Jewish state faces.
It urged Israel’s intelligence es­tablishment to intensity efforts to block the transfer of advanced weapons systems to Hezbollah — a process that may already be under way with a spate of air and missiles strikes against Syria.
The vast majority of the arms supplied to Hezbollah from Iran pass through Syria. Hezbollah, a key force keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power amid the war in the country, is reportedly building military bases and seek­ing to establish a presence in the disputed Golan Heights, a strategic volcanic plateau that overlooks Is­rael’s agricultural heartland.
Iran, Hezbollah’s patron and arms supplier, is listed as the second-ranking military threat by INSS, in part because of its distance from Israel.
Combined, Iran and Hezbollah, which serves as the Islamic repub­lic’s strategic arm in the Levant, present a comprehensive threat to Israel that far exceeds any other. This ranges from Iran’s growing bal­listic missile force and the nuclear weapons Israel’s military leaders are convinced it will develop in the coming years to Hezbollah’s emerg­ing tactical capabilities.
Much of that is due to advanced weaponry it amassed in recent years despite repeated Israeli air strikes against weapons convoys and targeted assassinations in Syria and Lebanon of key figures in ac­quiring or developing Hezbollah’s firepower.
Hezbollah is estimated — largely by Israel — to possess more than 130,000 rockets and missiles, in­cluding long-range weapons capa­ble of destroying city blocks.
In recent weeks, the covert war between Israel and Hezbollah that has dragged on for five years ap­parently flared again, possibly this time with higher stakes.
There have been several missiles attacks reported in Syria, all pre­sumably Israeli weapons launched from either the Israeli-occupied sector of the Golan Heights or from Lebanese airspace. These were ap­parently aimed at curtailing de­liveries of advanced weapons to Hezbollah that in the past have reportedly included Soviet-era SA- 22 air defence missiles, which, for the first time, allow Hezbollah to directly challenge Israel’s control of the air in Lebanon and Syria, and Yakhont anti-ship missiles that could be used against Israel’s off­shore gas facilities.
On November 30th, at least two missiles, apparently fired by Israeli jets in Lebanese airspace, hit a con­voy of trucks outside Damascus, triggering speculation the trucks were carrying advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
On December 2nd, Israel report­edly conducted two air strikes us­ing Popeye missiles around Damas­cus, one against a weapons depot manned by the Syrian Army’s crack 4th Armoured Division at Sabbou­ra, north-west of the Syrian capital. The other blasted several cars near the Damascus-Beirut highway.
In a 3am strike on December 7th, several surface-to-surface mis­siles hit installations in the Mezzeh military airbase at Damascus Inter­national Airport, where Hezbollah maintains a high-security facility for receiving arms airlifted from Iran before they are trucked to Leb­anon. The missiles started several big fires at the airport, triggering major explosions.
In a separate attack on that date, Hezbollah facilities in and around the town of Zabadani, on the bor­der with Lebanon and a key junc­tion in the overland arms route to Hezbollah strongpoints, were hit. On January 13th, Syria accused Is­rael of another missile strike on the Mezzeh base in a predawn attack that triggered multiple explosions and caused casualties.
Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu acknowledged for the first time in April 2016 that Israel has been mounting air strikes in Syrian territory to curb shipments of what he called “game-changing weaponry” to Hezbollah.
The Jerusalem Post suggested on December 8th that the Israelis’ strikes the previous day had tar­geted “the presumed base of the Syrian Army’s secretive Unit 450, a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre that is at the centre of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons programme north of Damascus”.
On the same day, Israel’s hawkish Defence minister, Avigdor Lieber­man, raised the ante by claim­ing that the Israeli Air Force had thwarted an attempt to transfer chemical weapons from Syria to Lebanon.
If that is true, it suggests that Hezbollah and Iran may be pre­pared to escalate the covert efforts to upgrade Hezbollah’s arsenal to a highly dangerous new level.
Lieberman often shoots from the hip and his comments may have had political overtones but it was the first time a top-level Israeli offi­cial had voiced such concerns.
These air and missile strikes con­stitute what the Israelis call a “cam­paign between wars”, a concept that involves overt and covert oper­ations designed to thwart emerging threats, particularly the acquisition of advanced weaponry.
This is a finely balanced confron­tation short of war in which both sides observe certain restraints that will prevent hostilities escalating to all-out conflict.
But now Israel seems to be step­ping up the shadowy conflict with Hezbollah, as Iran seeks to estab­lish a presence in the divided Go­lan, a red line for Israel.
Lieberman warned that while Is­rael has no interest in intervening in the Syrian war, it would take ac­tion to preserve Israelis’ security, particularly on advanced weapons transfers to Hezbollah. Israel, he declared, “will make decisions ac­cording to this policy without tak­ing other circumstances or restric­tion into account”.