Perhaps they are, perhaps they’re not, but Assad fancies opening up a new battle front on the Golan Heights:
Syrian President Bashar Assad gave an interview to the Hezbollah affiliated television network Al Manar Thursday and commented on the state of the civil war currently plaguing his country, the transfer of S-300 missiles from Russia and Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflict.
Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar had already published excerpts from the interview, including Assad’s claim that the first shipment of S-300 missiles had arrived from Russia and that the Russians remain adamant in their commitment to complete the arms deal.
Regarding Israel, Assad said that “There is pressure by the people to open a new front in the Golan, and even in the Arab world there is readiness to join the fight against Israel.”
Yes. Because if there’s one thing you can be sure of in the Arab world is that when the going gets tough for dictators, dictators declare war on Israel. It’s the best way to unify everyone around a common enemy.
The Lebanese newspaper al-Diyar reported Friday that Israel had succeeded in thwarting the missile deal by threatening to start an all-out war should Russia deliver the S-300s to the embattled Bashar Assad regime.
The report also claimed that Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to compensate Assad with the delivery of other “effective and powerful weapons,” including modern aircraft and helicopters, to use against the Syrian rebels. According to al-Diyar, Putin also passed a message to Assad saying that the entry of Hezbollah into the Syrian conflict was not helpful. Hezbollah has a reported 5,000-7,000 gunmen now fighting with Assad’s forces.
Israeli sources said Thursday that Syria has only paid for one-third of the S-300 contract. They added that, even if the deal is eventually honored, it would take months for the S-300 batteries to be operational.
“It is not clear to me that the Russians are interested in transferring the weapons. Right now, it’s more of a threat,” said Ehud Ya’ari, Channel 2′s veteran, well-connected commentator.
Russia’s declared intention to deliver the sophisticated systems, which can intercept fighter jets and cruise missiles, has created a tense standoff between Israel, Syria, and Russia, with Israel threatening to do “whatever it takes” to prevent the weapons being deployed, and Syria responding that it would retaliate in kind for any Israeli strike.
Israeli media reports said Netanyahu had warned Putin of a descent into war should Russia make the delivery. Netanyahu said that if acquired by Assad, the S-300 “is likely to draw us into a response, and could send the region deteriorating into war,” Channel 2 reported.
Aside from the unique strategic capacities that the S-300 air-defense missiles would afford Syria, putting planes taking off from central Israel and its main international airport within the missiles’ range, Jerusalem also fears that the system could fall into the hands of terror groups like Hezbollah.
In any event, the missiles are not operational yet, but will Israel bomb them anyway?
As Yiftah Shapir, director of the Military Balance Project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, recently noted, Syria would require considerable time before it could master the S- 300 air defense system. It needs to train Syrian personnel to use it. Russian technicians are unlikely to operate the batteries on behalf of Assad, as they’d be placing themselves at very high risk.Nevertheless, Assad’s message contains a declaration of intent to eventually cross an Israeli red line on arms proliferation, and this is a serious development which has a real potential to spark a confrontation.
There are several reasons why Israel has no intention of allowing Syria to set up S-300 batteries.
With its sophisticated radars and range of 200 kilometers, the S-300 can target civilian air traffic in northern Israel, hamper Israel Air Force aircraft flying over the Galilee or the Golan Heights, and disrupt IAF surveillance flights over Lebanon to monitor Hezbollah.
The system can also disrupt Israeli efforts to intercept the transit of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah through Syria.
Finally, and perhaps most important, Assad might be tempted to send S-300 batteries to Hezbollah or Iran.
Despite being neck deep in the bloody Syrian war, Hezbollah continues to prepare itself for war with Israel, and obtaining the S-300 would boost its confidence to challenge the IAF.
A more confident Hezbollah might be tempted to resume cross-border attacks on Israel, which in turn could quickly drag the region to war.
The S-300 in Iranian hands will complicate what is already a very challenging potential mission: Striking Iran’s nuclear sites.
In light of these factors, when might Israel take action? Strikes might be ordered against components of the batteries in transit on Syrian soil. Alternatively, Israel might bide its time and attack just before the batteries go online.
It’s worth remembering that Israel possesses advanced electronic warfare capabilities. As one source from the IDF’s Electronic Warfare Section told The Jerusalem Post last month, “The government instructed us to prepare and know how to operate in every operational arena.”
Assad is surely aware that Israel won’t wait for the batteries to become operational, and may therefore choose not to cross that line at all.
Behind closed doors, it is safe to assume, diplomatic pressure is being applied on Moscow to refrain from taking a step that can further destabilize an explosive region.
If Israel does bomb them, then Syria promises immediate retaliation.
In an odd reversal of roles, Russia is trying to calm Israel down about the missile sale – although with a hint of menace behind those words:
On Tuesday night, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations said that the sale of the weapons was not the start of an arms race and recommended Israel stay calm over the deal.
In an interview with CNN, Vitaly Churkin suggested that Israel consider the risks involved in taking action against the missile delivery.
“The Israelis will keep a cool head and refrain from reckless actions,” he said, adding that in the past Russia has responded to Israeli concerns about advanced weapons shipments falling into the wrong hands by guaranteeing that the arms only go to their intended destinations and not to third parties.
As if the S-300 missile sale was not enough, further security complications arose with an announcement that Russia is going to provide Syria with 10 MiG-29 fighter planes:
Russian arms manufacturer says it is signing a contract to deliver at least 10 fighter jets to Syria.
Sergei Korotkov, general director of the MiG company that makes the jets, told Russian news agencies Friday that a Syrian delegation was in Moscow to discuss terms and deadlines of a new contract supplying MiG-29 M/M2 fighters to Syria.
Korotkov did not say how many MiGs Syria were buying, but says it would be “more than 10.”
Meanwhile, pass the popcorn: Hezbollah has ordered Hamas out of Lebanon:
Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah has ordered Palestinian Sunni group Hamas to have its operatives leave Lebanon effective immediately.
A senior Hezbollah security official informed Ali Baraka, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, of the demand, the Middle East Online news agency reported on Thursday.
The move came because of Hamas support for the Syrian rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad, according to the report. Both Hezbollah and Syria are allies of Iran, which provides them with financial and military support.
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the The Jerusalem Post from Washington, “Whether or not Hamas is being driven out of Lebanon is not as important as the fact that it has been minimized in the Iranian ‘Axis of Resistance.’” Hamas abandoned its headquarters in Damascus last year, in a sign of tension with Iran, Hezbollah and Syria, said Schanzer. Hamas is getting far less aid from Iran now, and more from Sunni sponsors such as Qatar and Turkey, he said.
It’s not all roses for Hezbollah though. Eighteen rockets fired by Syrian rebels hit a Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon on Saturday:
Eighteen rockets and mortars rounds from Syria slammed into Lebanon on Saturday, the largest cross-border salvo to hit a Hezbollah stronghold since Syrian rebels threatened to retaliate for the Lebanese terror group’s armed support of Syrian President Bashar Assad. On Sunday two rockets exploded in a Hezbollah-controlled area of Beirut.
The rockets targeted the Baalbek region, the latest sign that Syria’s civil war is increasingly destabilizing Lebanon. On Friday, the Lebanese parliament decided to put off general elections, originally scheduled for June, by 17 months, blaming a deteriorating security situation in the country.
In Qatar, an influential Sunni Muslim cleric whose TV show is watched by millions across the region, fanned the sectarian flames ignited by the Syria conflict and urged Sunnis everywhere to join the fight against Assad.
“I call on Muslims everywhere to help their brothers be victorious,” Yusuf al-Qaradawi said in his Friday sermon in the Qatari capital of Doha. “If I had the ability I would go and fight with them.”
“Everyone who has the ability and has training to kill … is required to go,” said al-Qaradawi, who is in his 80s. “We cannot ask our brothers to be killed while we watch.”
He denounced Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as “more infidel than Christians and Jews” and Shiite Muslim Hezbollah as “the party of the devil.”
The Syrian conflict, now in its third year, has taken on dark sectarian overtones. It has escalated from a local uprising into a civil war and is not increasingly shifting into a proxy war.
Predominantly Sunni rebels backed by Sunni states Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are fighting against a regime that relies on support from Alawites, Shiites and Christians at home, and is aided by Iran and Hezbollah. The Syria conflict is also part of a wider battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional influence.
Sunni fighters from Iraq and Lebanon have crossed into Syria to help those fighting Assad, while Shiites from Iraq have joined the battle on the regime’s side.
Western officials said the number of Hezbollah terrorists taking part in the Syrian war is lower than previously estimated. They claimed only about 2,000 Hezbollah men are fighting in Syria, not several thousand.
On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nation’s two top officials dealing with human rights and humanitarian issues said they were alarmed by reports that thousands of civilians are trapped in Qusair and that hundreds of wounded people are in urgent need of medical care.
The UN officials called for a cease-fire to allow the wounded to be evacuated. They said more than 10,000 people have fled to two nearby towns and need food, bedding, water and medical care.
The Red Cross said it has requested access to Qusair and is prepared to enter the city immediately to help the civilians there.
Syria’s political opposition cited Hezbollah’s role in the war and the dire situation in Qusair as reasons for not attending peace talks with the regime in Geneva, which the US and Russia had hoped could be launched at an international conference this month.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s role in Syria set off a mounting backlash from the rebels who threatened to target the militia’s bases in Lebanon if the militant group does not withdraw its fighters.
Over the past week, Syrian rebels have fired dozens of rockets on Lebanon’s northeastern region of Hermel, across the border from Qusair, but Saturday’s attack was the first on the Baalbek region, a Hezbollah stronghold.
Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries that are easily enflamed. Lebanon, itself plagued by decades of strife, has been on edge since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, which began as mostly peaceful protests against Assad’s regime but later degenerated into all-out civil war.
Some Lebanese Sunnis support the Syrian rebels, while some Shiites back Assad’s regime. In the majority Sunni city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon, Sunnis backing the rebels and Alawites supporting Assad have repeatedly fought each other with rockets and grenades.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has firmly linked the militia’s fate with that of the Assad regime, but in a speech last week also pledged to keep the fighting out of Lebanon.
Syrian opposition activists say Assad’s army has fired dozens of devastating Scud-type missiles at rebel-held areas in the last six months, out of a ballistic arsenal believed to number in the hundreds.
Amid these extremely heightened tensions, Binyamin Netanyahu has ordered the government to spend another $350 million to equip the entire Israeli population with gas masks:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking Thursday at a meeting concluding this week’s Home Front drill, instructed government ministries to equip all of Israel’s residents with gas mask kits. The exercise, called “Turning Point 7,” tested the country’s readiness for chemical and conventional rocket attacks.
Only 58% percent of Israelis have gas masks, and it is estimated that it will take NIS 1.3 billion (some $350 million) to cover the rest of the population. In addition, it will cost NIS 300 million (some $80 million) annually to maintain the kits.
Demand for gas masks has risen by 30 percent over the past two weeks, as Israelis have become increasingly skittish over the prospect of war breaking out in the north. The rise comes in the wake of two aerial bombings near Damascus earlier this month, reportedly carried out by Israel. An Israeli analyst said Thursday that Syrian-Israeli tensions are now “incendiary.”
Facing the threat of thousands of enemy rockets, Israel’s home front is more vulnerable than ever, Netanyahu added at the meeting.
“We are deep in the era of missiles that are aimed at civilian population areas,” Netanyahu said during a meeting of the Emergency Economy Committee. “We must prepare defensively and offensively for the new era of warfare. The state of Israel is the most threatened state in the world. Around us are tens of thousands of missiles and rockets that could hit our home front.”
Netanyahu said that November’s Operation Pillar of Defense, during which Hamas terrorists fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza at Israeli civilian areas, was a small example of the change in the nature of the threats Israel faces.
I’ve been wishing for both sides to lose in Syria, but the way things look at the moment, that neither looks likely nor do any of the options promise peace and quiet for Israel.