Middle East

Hezbollah parade in Lebanon
Israel has neither denied nor confirmed it was behind strikes near Damascus

All the signs suggest that Israel indeed did attack two targets west of Damascus overnight on Wednesday. One of those was an armory of the fourth division of the Syrian military, the other was on a highway connecting Damascus with Beirut, on Syrian territory. The fourth division is one of the elite units of the Syrian military, and in fact the largest currently deployed.

The division's commander is none other than Maher Assad – the brother of the president. If weapons were indeed transferred from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, as claimed by Arabic media and social networks, it's likely the munitions were first stored in the depots of the fourth Division, before they were hauled over to Lebanon. The second target was presumably the convoy transferring the weapons, headed for the Lebanese border.

The very fact the route chosen for the transfer was the fast and wide Damascus-Beirut highway suggests the cargo was particularly large, which is to say large land to land missiles. Hezbollah does have a large arsenal – comprising some 130,000 rockets and long-, medium- and long-range missiles – but the vast majority of its missiles aren't precision-guided and the group needs the supply it gets directly from Iran (of just the precision-guided missiles that can work serious damage on vital military and civilian targets within large parts of Israel's territory.

The motive

It's been some time since we've seen this kind of attacks by Israel. Military experts around the world claim the reason is Syria receiving a shipment of Russian SA-400 or SA-300 missiles that can hit an airplane flying over Lebanon, the Mediterranean or Israeli territory. Israel is hesitant to penetrate Syrian territory as it's hesitant to confront Russian forces, the argument goes, and because Assad has the backing of Russia's strongman President Vladimir Putin.

In the past there were incidents of rocket fire at Israeli planes, including a reported instance of Russian fire. Yet it could be that Israel hasn't attacked Syrian targets for a while because it's been some time since the Iranians transferred high quality missiles to Hezbollah. The reason for that was that the weapons manufacturing plant was, for nearly two years, under the control of the Islamic State group. Recently the Syrian military liberated the area of the plant, which is presumably what accounts for the resumption of the flow of missiles to the Lebanese terror group.

One should recall that in the past Israel was alleged to be behind attacks on convoys carrying sophisticated weaponry from Syria to Lebanon. In certain cases it was claimed these were ground-to-ground missiles of improved accuracy, slated as an addition to Hezbollah's extensive collection of missiles that can reach every point within Israel's territory.

In other cases, it was argued that Hezbollah got regular and portable anti-aircraft missiles from Syria so that it would be able to defend itself against attacks by the Israeli Air Force in the event of war. These missiles are small and highly portable, and can be transported to a different location in under one hour, which makes it very difficult to obtain precise intelligence on their location and demolish them.

Another kind of missiles bandied about is a Russian anti-ship missile with a range of 300 kilometers. While Russia has, so far, prevented its missiles from falling to Hezbollah's hands, yet it could be that Syria is behind a clandestine transfer of a number of such missiles. Finally, there's the highly unlikely possibility that the Syrian army tried to smuggle chemical weapons to Hezbollah.

Army estimated Assad won't respond

One can interpret the alleged Israeli attack as an act of low-key, clandestine warfare aimed to curb Hezbollah's growing in strength. Israel believes in leaving no fingerprints in its "interwar operations": if it actually did attack a convoy in Syria in the dead of night, it means it was carrying highly sophisticated weaponry.

Military and political officials in Israel refused to confirm or deny the allegations, in the hope that the Syrian regime would keep silent to avoid humiliation. Nevertheless, the official Syrian news agency reported on the attack.

Lately Assad has grown in confidence in view of his Hezbollah and Russian-aided successes in Aleppo against the rebels. Thus emboldened, he decided to provide weapons to Hezbollah, which is also why he may respond to the attack. If Israel's air force did, indeed, carry out the attack, one presumes it was after assessment by intelligence agencies that that the Russians won't respond and neither would Assad.

Ron Ben-Yishai is a senior Israeli defense analyst. This article is published courtesy of Ynet.

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