Israel girds for Golan war with Iran, Hezbollah

By Ed Blanche, The Arab Weekly   |   Sept. 6, 2016 at 9:33 AM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Amid the carnage of Syria's civil war, well into its sixth year, Is­raeli military chiefs say that Iran and its prized proxy, Hezbollah, are surrepti­tiously seeking to establish a new front in an older conflict, the Iran-backed group's 30-year war against the Jewish state that until recently was waged almost exclusively from neighboring Lebanon.

The center of this strategy, which Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasral­lah, has frequently espoused in re ­cent months, is the Golan Heights, a 1,000-meter-high volcanic plateau that overlooks northern Israel. It has been a battleground since bibli­cal times.

Israel seized the western two-thirds of the heights in the 1967 Mid­dle East war and annexed it in 1981. It refuses to surrender this occupied enclave from where it has the Syrian capital, Damascus, within the range of its artillery.

The Golan has also acted as a buffer zone that protects Israel from any spillover from the war raging in Syria. However, if the Israelis are correct, that may be changing, with the Tehran regime, which with Rus­sia dominates Syrian military strat­egy, using Hezbollah to establish a new forward base against the Jew­ish state.

"Like other foreign and domes­tic actors, Hezbollah has seized on the Syrian civil war to improve its position in the country and the surrounding region," the U.S.-based global security consultancy Stratfor observed in an April 6 analysis.

Stratfor amplified recent reports that Hezbollah has been setting up bases on the Golan and in other parts of southern Syria where it has strong forces on the ground sup­porting the regime of Syrian Presi­dent Bashar al-Assad just as its patron Iran does.

If Assad manages to stay in power, he will likely have to surrender con­trol of the Golan to Iran and Hezbol­lah to threaten Israel.

The efforts by Hezbollah "to ex­pand and solidify its control in Syria will only increase in the future," Stratfor noted.

Satellite imagery recently showed that Hezbollah has built up a major base outside Qusair, a town near Syria's border with Lebanon, which Hezbollah forces stormed in June 2013 in their first major engagement in the Syrian war.

According to Stratfor, Hezbol­lah plans use Qusair to stockpile weapons, including artillery pieces, short-range rockets and mortars along with about 60 T-72 tanks it ac­quired in the Syrian fighting.

There are reports that long-range ballistic missiles — including Ira­nian-built Shahabs and Fateh-110s — have been deployed at Qusair, although satellite imagery has not confirmed this.

Senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps officers report­edly inspect the Qusair base fre­quently and, according to Stratfor, treat it "as an Iranian asset," part of Hezbollah's plans to keep a perma­nent force of 3,000 fighters or more in Syria.

Since January 2013, the Israelis have mounted as many as 10 airstrikes to destroy advanced weap­onry moving from Syria to Leba­non for Hezbollah, supposedly in­cluding Russian-made air-defense missile systems that could pose a serious threat to Israel's long-held control of the skies over Syria and Lebanon at a stroke.

The most recent such strike was on April 25, 2015. There have been none since the Russians installed advanced S-300 air-defense sys­tems around the airbase they have built near Latakia since their Sep­tember 2015 intervention in Syria, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared the operations to block weapons deliv­eries to Hezbollah would continue.

That could ignite a new conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, which last went to war in 2006 when Hezbollah fought Israel's vaunted military to a standstill.

But these days, Hezbollah, which has seen an estimated 1,200 fight­ers killed and three times that many wounded in Syria since 2012, has its hands full and is not looking for an­other fight with Israel right now.

However, the 2006 war ended badly for Israel, which failed in its objective to crush Hezbollah and suffered an unprecedented monthlong bombardment of about 4,000 missiles and most analysts are con­vinced that both sides see it as "un­finished business."

A July 16 threat assessment by the Foundation for Defense of De­mocracies, a right-leaning Washington think-tank, observed that "the next war between Israel and Hezbollah will likely not be confined to the Lebanese-Israeli border. Hezbollah will try to shift some of the weight of the battle to Syria and the Golan Heights.

"Indeed... Hezbollah and Iran plan to connect the Golan Heights to the terror group's South Lebanon stronghold — to make it one contig­uous front against Israel."

This concept has been given some weight in recent months as Iran's IRGC and Hezbollah have es­tablished bases in the Syrian-con­troled sector of the Golan amid an uptick in violence that has triggered Israeli action directed primarily at Hezbollah and the IRGC.

On Jan. 18, 2015, an Israeli Apache helicopter gunship fired missiles into a convoy carrying IRGC and Hezbollah commanders on a reconnaissance sweep near the Golan's largely deserted capital, Quneitra.

Among the dead were an IRGC brigadier-general, Mohammad Al­lah Daddi, a ballistic missile spe­cialist, and three Hezbollah lead­ers: Abu Ali Reza, a senior field commander, and Mohammed Issa, who was understood to have been overseeing the setting up of missile bases on the Golan.

Hezbollah also lost Jihad Mughni­yeh, eldest son of Imad Mughniyeh, the group's long-time military chief who was assassinated in a Damas­cus car bombing on Feb. 12, 2008, supposedly a joint operation by the CIA and Israel's Mossad intel­ligence service.

Syrian sources said Allah Daddi had overall charge of building four missile bases near the border with Israel.

Israel's Channel 2 television re­ported that Issa was responsible for coordinating the transfer of missiles from Syria and Iran as well as Hez­bollah's arsenal in Lebanon. Reza was considered a central Hezbollah figure whose mission was to plan an offensive on Israel's northern bor­der in any future conflict, including overrunning the Galilee region.

Israel, as usual, did not acknowl­edge the attack but there seems lit­tle doubt that the targeted group was known to the Israelis and that the airstrike was intended as a par­ticularly sharp warning to Iran and Hezbollah.

Iranian leaders reportedly tel­ephoned Nasrallah urging him not to retaliate for the loss of so many commanders in one action so as to avoid triggering a major conflict, as he had done in July 2006 with a cross-border raid in which five Is­raelis were killed and two captured.

Possibly with the destructive consequences of that war in mind, and not wishing to fight Israel while engaged in heavy fighting in Syria, Nasrallah did not retaliate in force.

On Dec. 19, 2015, Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze Muslim who joined Hezbollah while im­prisoned in Israel for killing a Jew­ish family in a Palestinian raid in 1979, was killed along with several Hezbollah commanders in a nighttime missile strike on his apartment building in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana.

Kuntar, who spent nearly three decades behind bars, was released in 2008 in an exchange with Hez­bollah for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers whose capture triggered the 2006 war.

At the time of his death, Kuntar was tasked with recruiting Syrian Druze living in the Golan region into an Iranian-controlled militia to fight the Jewish state.

In the next war, which many see coming, Israel is preparing to fight a very different enemy. Hezbollah may have suffered heavy casualties in Syria but it has also learned how to fight conventional wars, with armor and artillery and maneu­vring big battalions across strange terrain rather than the small-scale actions that constituted most of its combat against Israel between 1982 and 2000.

This report originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.

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