Israel's Free Hand on Syria
Yesterday, reports emerged of an Israeli airstrike against a truck convoy suspected of carrying "game changing" weapons systems from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. While previous reports had mainly focused on the threat of chemical weapons, this strike underscores the fact that Israel also remains vigilant against certain conventional weapons making their way to the Shiite group.
The operation might explain why, earlier on Sunday, Israel reinforced its defenses in the north, deploying two Iron Dome missile defense batteries near Haifa and in the Galilee, perhaps as a precaution against possible retaliation from Hezbollah. However, this targeted hit only highlights the party's vulnerability, especially in light of the ongoing war in Syria. Therefore, it will be forced to swallow this latest blow and is unlikely to retaliate and risk a larger conflagration with Israel. More troubling, though, is the ominous implication for Lebanon, should Hezbollah continue with such transfers. This time the strike was in Syria. Next time, Israel has signaled, it could well be in Lebanon.
As of now, the details of the airstrike remain limited. However, US officials have confirmed that a strike did take place against a convoy of trucks on the Syrian side of the border, and that they believed the trucks were carrying anti-aircraft weapons. Unnamed officials told the New York Times that Israel had notified Washington ahead of the strike, which means that the Israeli Air Force acted on very precise intelligence, and had cover from the US.
Aside from that, we don't know yet with certainty the exact location of the strike or the precise type of weaponry that was being transferred to Hezbollah warehouses across the border.
The Israeli daily Ha'aretz cited an unnamed Lebanese source who claimed the convoy originated in al-Qusayr, in the Homs countryside, and was headed toward Hermel, across the border. Meanwhile, Sky News reported that the Israeli jets hit the convoy near the Lebanese town of Nabi Sheet - presumably meaning that the trucks were headed there.
Nabi Sheet is known to be the site of Hezbollah weapons depots. Just last October there were "mysterious explosions" in one of those depots, killing three Hezbollah members. Meanwhile, al-Qusayr, whether or not it was the convoy's point of origin, is the area where Hezbollah has most heavily deployed its forces in Syria. Directly across the border from Hermel in Lebanon, al-Qusayr's countryside features a number of small Shiite hamlets that have facilitated Hezbollah movement there. Right before the Nabi Sheet blast in October, a senior Hezbollah commander who guided operations in al-Qusayr was killed in action there.
What's more, border areas like al-Qusayr and the countryside of Damascus along the border with the Beqaa region of Lebanon are the entryways of overland arms smuggling and also the sites of Hezbollah weapons storage facilities, especially since the 2006 war with Israel. This, among other things, explains why Hezbollah has maintained a strong presence there, fighting alongside, or on behalf of, the Assad regime's forces.
Take, for instance, what a source close to Hezbollah told NOW Arabic last month, when Syrian rebels took control of the Rankous border crossing, not far from Nabi Sheet. "The party is present operationally in the areas adjacent to Hermel," the source said, adding, "The Rankous crossing is close to Hezbollah's movement and, naturally, impacts it negatively." However, the source emphatically noted that Hezbollah would not tolerate such rebel presence in this area, as it was strategic for the Shiite group.
Such incursions by the rebels on these strategic border areas, which are vital for Hezbollah's military operations, are probably why the party has been transferring its assets from Syria into Lebanon for over a year now.
Israel has said that it was tightly monitoring this activity, watching closely for the transfer of strategic, or "game changing" weapons. For the most part, this has meant specific ballistic missiles or perhaps anti-aircraft systems that could complicate Israeli air operations and maneuvers in future conflict with Hezbollah. Although most reports following the strike, including the abovementioned statements of US officials as well as of other "regional security officials," identified the cargo as anti-aircraft systems, it cannot be discounted that the shipment may also have included other weapons, such as certain ballistic missiles that Israel considers "game changers."
Why Hezbollah chose to smuggle these systems at this moment is unclear. It could simply be that, having engaged in such transfers of its assets in Syria for a good year now without any Israeli interdiction, it thought it might be another routine operation. That Israel was able to obtain such detailed intelligence is a testament to its penetration of the organization.
What's more, although Israel prepared itself for possible retaliation, the lack of hesitance in taking out the convoy, on Syrian soil, underscores Hezbollah's predicament. With its Syrian strategic depth in shambles, the Party of God is not in a position to start a major war with Israel.
For Lebanon, however, the incident is foreboding. The immediate precedent to this strike was Israel's bombing of the Yarmouk arms complex in Sudan last October, after obtaining intelligence about a shipment of Iranian Fajr-5 rockets bound for Gaza. This should give the Lebanese pause. Like the targeting of the complex in Sudan, striking the convoy in Syria shows that Israel can go after the smuggling routes and distribution facilities before the weapons reach their destination. However, following the Yarmouk operation, Israel ended up going after targets in Gaza as well. The message is clear: next time, Israel could attack targets inside Lebanon.
The more the situation in Syria forces Hezbollah to smuggle assets it previously thought were best kept in Syria, the higher the risk that it will cross Israeli red lines. Not only has Israel shown that it will have no misgivings about taking action, but more importantly, both this strike and the campaign in Gaza before it did not elicit a word of protest from the US, Europe or even the major Arab states. Israel, in other words, will have a free hand.
At present, Lebanon was spared in part due to Hezbollah's weak strategic position, which constrained its ability to retaliate. And that's precisely why any hope for abiding stability in Lebanon lies in Hezbollah's permanent debilitation.