Israel's Free Hand on Syria

By Tony Badran

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.

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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.

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Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. Originally published on NOW Lebanon, republished with permission.

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