Israel’s Syrian air strikes risk renewing escalation as Iran expands presence in Golan
Beirut - Buoyed by the White House’s strong anti-Iran animus and concerned over Iranian moves in Syria, Israel stepped up its covert air strikes against targets there said to be linked to Tehran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
The targeting expanded from suspected Hezbollah arms convoys and storage facilities to include what were reported to be Iranian weapons manufacturing facilities and military bases.
Other than launching anti-aircraft missiles at the intruding Israeli jets, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah have refrained from retaliatory measures. It is likely that Iran is looking to the bigger picture of entrenching its influence in Syria as the war winds down and is unwilling to risk an escalation with Israel by retaliating for the air strikes.
Early indications are emerging, however, that Iran and Hezbollah are seeking to expand their presence near the Golan Heights, a development that Israel has described as a “red line.”
While neither Israel nor Hezbollah is seeking to begin a war against the other at this stage, the fluidity of developments in Syria and the scale and variety of Israeli air strikes have increased the risk of a miscalculation that could spiral into a conflict.
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer on December 4 told Politico, a Washington publication, that the chances of an imminent war between Israel and Hezbollah were “higher than people think because of Iran’s continued push through the region.”
In response to the war jitters across Lebanon and Israel, Hezbollah reportedly placed units on alert in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley in anticipation of a flare-up. Nevertheless, Hezbollah officials said they were confident they could handle whatever may arise.
“In our weekly meetings, everyone is very calm,” said a veteran Hezbollah official in southern Lebanon. “We are completely ready for anything that happens, whether it is tomorrow or not for another two years.”
Also on December 4, Israeli jets attacked a facility belonging to the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) at Jamraya near Damascus. The target of the attack was unclear although the SSRC is the Syrian government institution responsible for research and development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as ballistic missiles and advanced conventional weaponry. The facility was struck at least once before, in January 2013, when an alleged convoy of SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles was destroyed.
The December attack on the SSRC facility followed several strikes against facilities allegedly connected to Iran and associated with weapons development. On December 2, part of a military base near Kiswah, south of Damascus, was destroyed in an Israeli air strike. Last month, the BBC reported that the facility, which had been expanded in the past year, was an Iranian military base.
On November 1, Israeli aircraft targeted a factory in the Hassia industrial complex in Qalamoun, north of Damascus. The purpose of the factory was unclear although Syrian authorities claimed it was a civilian copper works.
On September 6, an SSRC facility near Masyaf in Syria’s Hama province was attacked by Israeli jets, with several buildings constructed in the past three years destroyed or damaged. The site reportedly developed precision-guided, surface-to-surface missiles.
In the past several months, Israeli officials have focused much of their warnings about Iranian ambitions in Syria on allegations that Iran has established weapons-manufacturing factories in Lebanon and Syria. The assumption is that, because of Israel’s air strikes against arms convoys travelling from Syria to Hezbollah’s arsenals in Lebanon, it would be simpler to manufacture the missiles in Lebanon.
In March, Kuwait’s Al Jarida newspaper said that two factories had been established by Hezbollah in Lebanon, one near Hermel in the northern Bekaa for the construction of missiles such as the Fateh-110 family, and another near Zahrani in southern Lebanon for smaller, more conventional, armaments.
In August, Israeli media reported that a missile production facility was under construction with Iranian supervision east of the Syrian coastal town of Banias. The facility, which is visible on Google Earth, carries the hallmarks of a weapons production facility. At the time, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu accused Iran of turning Syria into a “base of military entrenchment.”
“It is also building sites to produce precision-guided missiles towards that end in both Syria and Lebanon. This is something that Israel cannot accept,” he said.
Under current rules of the game between Hezbollah and Israel, the latter is confining its air strikes to Syrian territory. The one time it attacked a target in Lebanon, in February 2014 — a building close to the Syrian border used for the transfer of weapons from Syria to Lebanon — Hezbollah retaliated with attacks against the Israeli military in the Golan Heights, wounding four soldiers in a roadside bomb attack.
All the attacks were unannounced at the time, one was belatedly claimed by Hezbollah but the Israelis understood the message and since then refrained from strikes inside Lebanon.
However, if the charges are accurate that Hezbollah operates missile and arms manufacturing plants in Lebanon and if Israel knows their exact locations, it would be difficult for the Israelis to ignore their existence. On the other hand, an air raid against the facilities could compel Hezbollah to retaliate to preserve the rules of the game, which raises the chances of escalation.
Adding to the already volatile mix are unconfirmed indications that Iran and Hezbollah may be preparing to expand their presence in the Golan Heights given that combat operations will soon draw down in eastern Syria with the defeat of the Islamic State.
A senior Iranian and Syrian military delegation recently toured the area around Khan Arnabeh and Hader in the northern Golan, a Western diplomatic source said.
“The visit was about stationing Hezbollah in Quneitra [province] and along the [separation] line with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights,” the source said.