In the past year, the IDF has started to use a new term: the war between wars. The way that things seemed here in the last weekend, the attack in Syria that occurred on Tuesday evening according to foreign sources fits the term, but it has the potential to escalate into a much more significant conflict.
The last bomb has yet to be dropped, and it's impossible to detach what happened from the broad regional association, which reaches all the way to Iran.
The Cabinet Convenes
Hours after the Israel elections came to an end, Binyamin Netanyahu's political-security cabinet gathered for a dramatic discussion. The cabinet is a body lacking any formal authority, but is one that is considered to be the most prominent decision-making forum in Israel. The cabinet of the outgoing government was one of the best in recent decades - it had checks and balances, and it usually held very relevant and discreet meetings.
Alongside Prime Minister Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, who in the past few years were considered as the ones pushing for an attack in Iran, were ministers Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, who firmly opposed the notion. Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs, Moshe Ya’alon, supported an attack and also opposed it (according to chancing circumstances), and former head of Shabak Avi Dichter also represented a powerful reinforcement for the group. Other deputy prime ministers, Silvan Shalom and Eli Yishai, also have considerable experience of their own in making fateful defensive decisions.
Netanyahu’s transit government is functioning as any other government. Whatever happened or didn’t happen in Syria is attributed since Wednesday to foreign media, and therefore it is only possible to refer to the following facts: after Wednesday, the cabinet ministers gathered in several more times. The head of Israel’s National-Security Bureau, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Ya'akov Amidror, left for Moscow, while the head of the IDF’s Directorate of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Kochavi met his colleagues in the US (the reports that Israel delivered an early announcement regarding an attack are much more probable).
Minister Shalon was on Israeli radio on Sunday to speak about the cabinet meeting that took place last Wednesday. A “leak” such as this is a standard means of signaling to the other side that ‘we know you are planning to move strategic weapons from Syria to Lebanon’. Sometimes such messages are sufficient, and the message is understood without the need to use military force. However, this is not always the case.
Iran apparently ‘sensed’ something, and issued an unusual message on Saturday, that Iran would view any attack on Syrian soil as though it were a direct attack against it. In the days prior to the attack, there were reports of two Iron Dome missiles that were deployed in the Israeli north (one near Haifa, the other in the area of the city Zephath). NATO also deployed Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, intended to intercept missiles – an old request on Turkey’s part. It is unclear if there is a link between this deployment and the timing of the attack in Syria, as is indicated by foreign media reports.
The Lights are Turned On at the Kiriya
The events of the past few days didn’t come out of nowhere. It has been possible to see the lights turned on late at night in the Kiriya base in Tel Aviv for a long time now. 2013 is not an ordinary defense year - the IDF considers it to be a “decisive year” with regards to Iran, even if there is no certainty that things will be determined. All of the fronts are sensitive and volatile, and the dramatic events of the Syrian civil war have kept the people at the Kiriya base up at night, just as in the IDF's Northern Command.
The main question is what is the target that was attacked, and it is quite possible that there is truth to the Syrian claim that it was the “research center” in the Damascus region, rather than a weapon’s convoy. It is quite possible that all the details concerning the attacked target have yet to be revealed (such as if the “research center” reported by Syria is connected to the Iranian nuclear project – not all of Syria’s nuclear capabilities were destroyed in the attack of the reactor in Dayr az-Zawr in September 2007).
One thing can be determined with certainty: throughout the recent period, there was genuine concern in Israel from Hassan Nasrallah’s intention of getting his hands on a formidable weapons arsenal, and technology usually reserved for military powers, certainly not aorganization with no state responsibility. Nasrallah’s intent to acquire weapons to damage Israel’s strategic superiority did not come into existence yesterday. In fact, it began a day after the Second Lebanon War came to a conclusion in August 2006. Nasrallah wanted to challenge Israel’s military superiority with weaponry that could seriously harm the IDF and the Israeli homefront. Syria also pursued this desire on its part after the attack on the Syrian reactor in Dayr az-Zawr. A short time after the attack, it began discussions with Russia for acquiring antiaircraft missile systems, including SA-17 missiles, which the IDF views as a very serious challenge.
Israel has long been working under the assumption that the advanced weaponry in Syria will end up in Hezbollah’s hands, sooner or later. Kornet antitank missiles, which were supplied to Syria by Russia in the last decade, were transferred to Lebanon, and caused dozens of IDF casualties in the Second Lebanon War. The Syrian civil war and the disintegration of Bashar Assad's military have only increased recent concerns that very advanced weapons will find their way to Lebanon; The assessment was that Nasrallah is interested in transferring weapons belonging to his organization into Lebanese territory, out of the assumption that Israel will not attack it. He is now worried that opposition forces in Assad's regime will be the ones to take over his weapons, if he does not hurry to acquire them.
Israel is concerned that many weapons from the looted Syrian warehouses will end up in Lebanon. This is not all: Israel is also deeply concerned that the Assad military will transfer very advanced short-to-sea Yakhont missiles to Hezbollah, against the background of the chaos in Syria. The Yakhont has a range of hundreds of kilometers, maximal precision and supersonic speed. In the hands of Hezbollah, such a missile could pose a serious threat to naval vessels, and even the northern gas drilling rigs.
In the event of all-out war, it could completely paralyze the country’s naval traffic. Israel is worried that advanced surface-to-surface missiles with GPS guidance will also be transferred to Lebanon, including improved Scud D missiles and Syrian-produced M-600 rockets. Furthermore, there is the issue of the Syrian chemical weapons, another troubling issue from Israel’s perspective. The Syrian military has 1,000 tons of chemical warfare agents, and it is enough that just a minuscule percentage fall to the hands of Hezbollah, or other elements that belong to Global Jihad organizations (and then end up beyond Syria's borders) in order to create an unprecedented terror threat.
Syria began acquiring chemical agents in the 1980s. It initially acquired mustard gas and then produced or acquired Sarin gas. In the late 1990s, very troubling (and reliable) reports were received concerning the acquisition of VX nerve gas - a substance which his essentially a compound of two different materials, whose combination creates a lethal chemical reaction.
Thus far, only one chemical weapon warehouse has fallen into the hands of the Syrian opposition, which has made no use of it. The reports about the use of chemical weapons, allegedly done by Assad forces a month and a half ago, quickly turned out to be false. The Syrian military forces apparently used a ‘non-lethal’ weapon, something that has a greater resemblance to tear gas than to mustard gas.
Israel has already signaled several times in recent months that it will not accept the weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah, or any other elements that could transfer them to terror groups. These signals have helped in at least two occasions: in instances where it seemed as though Assad-loyal forces were considering the use of chemical weapons, they reconsidered the intention and locked the warehouses. However, the more the Assad regime crumbles, so does the danger that the chemical weapons might end up in Nasrallah’s warehouses in Lebanon, or fall into the hands of the Global Jihad groups. The US also has plans on how to deal with the Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles after the fall of the Assad regime, which involve thousands of fighters and hundreds of aircraft; it is doubtful if they can be materialized.
Hezbollah Raises its Head
Another question being asked is how Syria and Hezbollah will respond to the attack, which Syria has already publicly admitted. The assumption is that the Assad regime is in such a bad state that it has no possibility for launching a genuine front against Israel. In the case of Hassan Nasrallah, the situation is much more complicated, as usual. In order to get into Nasrallah's head (a task that the Israeli intelligence agencies would be willing to fund with enormous budgets – Nasrallah is a fascinating regional player, with surprising moves), it is important to understand that the Israeli discourse - as though Hezbollah has been deterred and fearful since 2006 – is superficial and shallow. The saying about the supposed deterrence might sound good, but it isn’t really correct.
It isn’t that Hezbollah does not fear Israel: it is more interested in the instructions from its patrons in Tehran. In this matter, it is important to understand that Iran built up Hezbollah primarily in order to attack Israel in the event of an attack on the nuclear facilities in its territory. It has no interest in wearing out this force (as the Hamas and Islamic Jihad forces were considerably worn out during Pillar of Defense).
Generally, Nasrallah does not find himself in a glorious era: the internal criticism directed towards him in Lebanon is considerable, and even extremist Sunni organizations are challenging the Shiite movement’s total hegemony. In the past year, he has actually raised his head in Israel’s direction. After six years of radio silence since the Second Lebanon War, he has carried out several provocations. The most prominent of which was the terrorist attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, in the past summer (an attack where Hezbollah’s fingerprints were very obvious) and the launch of the Iranian UAV that hovered in the skies of the Israeli south in October 2012. Contrary to what is commonly believed, the IAF did not "miss” the UAV – it followed it for more than half an hour until it was decided to shoot it down).
Nasrallah remains a popular figure in the Arab world, a very serious enemy for Israel. One ore more successful strikes will not prevent him from fulfilling his dream of acquiring strategic weapons. If he is equipped with the weapons he craves, dealing with Hezbollah will certainly be very difficult, in every potential scenario of a third war in Lebanon.