Government refuses to tell Israeli public about its airstrikes

May 6, 2013
Sarah Benton

A chicken farm near Damascus, destroyed by Israeli missile. Photo from Daily Mail.

With each strike, Israel both pressures Assad to respond and risks a blunder

According to foreign media reports, Israel’s recent attacks went well. But what will happen next time there’s intelligence information about attempted weapons transfers to Lebanon? One must assume there will be a next time, because neither Iran nor Hezbollah wants to see those advanced weapons in rebel hands.

By Amos Harel, Ha’aretz
May 06, 2013

Officially Israel still isn’t responding to claims that it attacked military targets in Syria early on Sunday morning for the second time in 48 hours. It isn’t responding in the local media, that is. Foreign agencies, like the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, somehow found what they described as “official Israeli sources” to confirm that the Israel Air Force had indeed struck in Syria.

But no matter: “Western intelligence sources” are happy to deliver the goods to Israeli journalists and explain that the targets hit contained shipments of Iranian Fateh-110 rockets that were en route from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, via Syria.

So what is the average Israeli supposed to think now? On the one hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is refraining from comment on the increased tension on the northern border. On the other hand, Netanyahu did convene his security cabinet to discuss the situation in the north ‏(according to foreign media, this was the second such meeting on the issue; the first had been Thursday night and was not announced to the Israeli press‏). And on the third hand, Netanyahu went ahead with his planned trip to China, as if everything was under control.

So what are we to make of the false alarms heard in the Golan Heights over the weekend? And why, if Netanyahu feels confident enough to fly to China, were Iron Dome batteries deployed near Safed and Haifa and civilian air traffic grounded in the north?

One can understand Israel’s assumed initial position that ambiguity could reduce the chance of a Syrian response. It’s harder to understand stubbornly sticking to that position after the secret is out, whether the leak came from Washington or from people who couldn’t restrain themselves in Jerusalem. The bottom line − if the reports of Israeli involvement are correct − is that Israel is now more involved in the Syrian civil war than ever, and after three attacks attributed to the Israel Defense Forces in three months, Israel is at greater risk of getting pulled into the fighting.

The chances of this happening have no doubt been debated for months, but the public was barely aware of it until this past weekend. With Israel grooming itself for the new season of “Big Brother,” wouldn’t it be prudent for the premier to explain to Israelis, if only in general terms, what’s going on in the north?

Netanyahu, apparently, thinks not. Meanwhile, except for necessary defensive measures like deploying the Iron Dome batteries, the IDF has avoided making any moves likely to cause further escalation, like calling up reserves or even boosting the forces along the northern border.

Lacking official explanations, the media is trying to supply its own reasons for the recent attacks. The most common one relates to Israel’s red lines being crossed on the northern front. Senior officials have long been warning that Israel would not tolerate the transfer of balance-altering weapons like the Fateh-110 to Hezbollah.

Assad following Shamir’s example?

In Tehran they are apparently concerned for the fate of their missile stores in Syria because of the progress the rebels are making. Or perhaps they fear that they will not be able to make use of the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut corridor much longer. As a result, Iran has been trying to move its weapons, and Israel moved to prevent this. Hezbollah never had the Fateh-110 in Lebanon before.

But every additional air strike endangers the fragile status quo between Israel and Syria. The troublesome question now is, where is Syrian President Bashar Assad’s red line?

It isn’t clear that Assad is interested in a revenge attack. For some time, Israeli intelligence has assessed that Assad would prefer not to enter into a direct confrontation with Israel because that could prove to be the death blow that will lead to his defeat in the war that’s really important to him − against the rebels. Perhaps Assad would prefer to remain the Yitzhak Shamir of this potential confrontation, and decide, as Shamir did during the 1991 Gulf War, that his country will respond at what he deems the proper time.

That’s what Israel hopes will happen, of course: That Assad will restrain himself and understand that the recent attacks were against the weapons shipment, not his regime, and recall that Jerusalem has been careful so far not to take sides in his battle for survival. It isn’t clear that the Syrian leader buys this argument.

What’s even more worrisome is that the attack opens a separate account with Iran and Hezbollah. Hezbollah could, for example try to close that account with a relatively limited volley of Katyushas on the north, without taking credit for it. The Iranian condemnation of the air strike was actually pretty reserved, with no direct threats.

According to foreign media reports, Israel’s recent attacks went well. But what will happen next time there’s intelligence information about attempted weapons transfers to Lebanon? One must assume there will be a next time, because neither Iran nor Hezbollah wants to see those advanced weapons in rebel hands.

But with each Israeli strike the pressure on Assad to respond will increase, since not responding makes him look weak. Each strike also brings another risk of a blunder, like the accidental killing of civilians. A Russian television station, incidentally, claimed yesterday that yesterday’s strike killed hundreds of civilians. That was a bald-faced lie. Israel estimates that only two people were killed and around 10 or so were wounded.

The American position in this instance is interesting. U.S. President Barack Obama refused to address the details of the attacks, but at a press conference expressed support for Israel’s right to defend itself against the transfer of modern weapons to Hezbollah.

The administration officials’ familiarity with the nature of the Syrian targets seems to indicate that there had been advance coordination with Israel, and make the attacks look more and more like part of a larger campaign that isn’t over yet.

Syria’s army is not quite what Israelis have been led to believe

In the shadow of two purported Israeli attacks in Damascus, it is clear that the Syrian Army has not been seriously preparing for war against Israel for quite a while.

By Anshel Pfeffer, Ha’aretz
May 05, 2013

For nearly four decades, generations of IDF fighters have been training in the Golan Heights to push back a Syrian attack. For 39 years, since the end of the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli-Syrian front has remained calm. Now, in the space of four months, three air-strikes around Damascus have been ascribed to Israel, and the Syrian cannons which supposedly target Israeli bases and villages in the Golan are silent.

Where are the masses of artillery, the ballistic missiles, armored divisions and commando battalions? Every foot-soldier in the Golani Brigade learns to recite the details of the Syrian order-of-forces in enemy-recognition lessons and reservists acquaint themselves with their positions for the day it comes.

Of course, the last two years of civil war has significantly degraded the Syrian Army – but to the extent that it has lost any capability of responding, even symbolically, to the Zionist enemy’s bombardment of their capital city?

So far there has been no response to the two strikes that occurred over the weekend, just as there was no response to the bombing in January. While as a precaution, an Iron Dome battery has been deployed to the north, it seems that Israel is not expecting retaliation. How else could one explain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sticking to his plan of spending five days this week on a working visit to China?

The question of why the Syrians have not responded joins another query that has been being asked for many months now, actually for nearly two years: How come, despite tens of thousands of desertions and armed uprisings throughout the country, reinforced by thousands of Jihadist fighters from around the world, entire units of the Syrian Army are still intact and fighting to keep Assad’s regime in place? Israeli intelligence officers who confidently announced in 2011 that Assad had only a few weeks left have, long ago, given up predicting his downfall.

“You Israelis have turned the Syrian Army into something much more frightening that it really is,” says a member of the Free Syrian Army who is currently in Europe trying to drum up more significant Western support. “The regime also said to the Syrian people for years that the army is there to fight the Zionist enemy,” he said. “But in reality, the military capabilities were neglected and they focused on making the army an organization of internal repression. Most of the units have very old and faulty equipment and those that did get relatively new tanks and armored cars are loyal Alawite units, which are responsible foremostly with protecting the regime.”

The neglect of the offensive capabilities of the Syrian Air Force is evident by the fact that the fighter-jets being used to bomb the rebels are not the relatively new ones that entered service in the 1990s, but ancient Mig-21 and Mig-23s, mainly over 30 years old and in some cases over 40.

The fragility of the Syrian lines on the Golan Heights were already noticeable eight years ago during the Second Lebanon War, when the Syrian Commando units that the IDF were expecting to see spread out across the border disappeared. They were almost certainly redeployed to bases nearer Damascus so as not to be harmed if the war boiled over from southern Lebanon. IDF soldiers serving on Mount Hermon in the snowy winter months saw it even earlier, when they watched as Syrian soldiers – without suitable clothing or shelter – froze to death. In intelligence briefings, they were told that these were cannon-fodder conscripts, while the elite forces were being kept for war. This assessment was not baseless, but it seems now very likely that the IDF exaggerated the threat posed by the Syrians, especially in recent years.

This is partly due to the trauma of the Yom Kippur War when Israel was caught unawares by the Egyptians in Sinai and the Syrians on the Golan. In any case, it is much easier, even for the best intelligence agencies, to count the number of tanks and artillery barrels than to assess their level of maintenance and the motivation of the operators. Nearly every year, when the IDF fought a battle to enlarge its budget, it had little interest in admitting that the only significant enemy-state that remains on Israel’s borders does not field an especially fearsome army any longer and that the quality of its arms systems and the level of training have seriously eroded through long years of economic depression. Acknowledging that could have led to the closure of IDF armored divisions. In any case, now it’s clear that the Syrian Army has not been seriously preparing for war against Israel for quite a while.

This doesn’t mean that Assad no longer has the capability to cause significant damage to the Israeli home-front, with ballistic missiles (some with chemical warheads) – and there is always the possibility that Hezbollah would do that for him, though right now the Lebanese movement is itself getting stuck in Syria, fighting the rebels in an effort to keep its ally in power. But using that capability to hurt Israel would undoubtedly lead to a devastating Israeli counter-attack, which would expose the fact that, beyond its missiles, the Syrian Army today is little more than a militia dedicated to propping up the regime.

Iran denies reports its weapons targeted in Syria

Revolutionary Guards official says arms targeted in Syria didn’t come from Iran adding that ‘Syria doesn’t need Iran’s military aid’. Rights group says at least 15 soldiers killed in strike

By News agencies/Ynet news
May 06, 2013

A top Iranian general said any arms Israel targeted in Syria did not come from the Islamic Republic, in remarks published on the Revolutionary Guards website on Monday.

Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri “denied Western and Israeli media reports that an Iranian weapons depot has been targeted in Syria,” the website reported.

“The Syrian government does not need Iran’s military aid, and these sorts of reports are propaganda and psychological war,” added the deputy chief of the armed forces.

Meanwhile, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog said on Monday that the alleged Israeli strikes on Syrian military targets over the weekend killed at least 15 soldiers and dozens more were unaccounted for.

“At least 15 soldiers were killed, and dozens more are missing” after the strikes near Damascus early on Sunday, the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP news agency.

“These three sites (targeted) would usually have around 150 soldiers in them, but it’s not clear if they were all there at the time of the strikes.”

In Israel, the IDF ‘s Northern Command said that Israel’s northern airspace is expected to reopen for commercial flights in the coming hours. On Sunday, It was decided to halt flights until Thursday due to tensions in the north. Northern Command Chief Major General Yair Golan said “there are no winds of war.”

Also Monday, a US intelligence official said that Washington was not given any warning before the air strikes in Syria.

Without confirming that Israel was behind the attacks, the intelligence official said that the United States was essentially told of the air raids “after the fact” and was notified as the bombs went off.

“It would not be unusual for them to take aggressive steps when there was some chance that some sophisticated weapons system would fall into the hands of people like Hezbollah ,” the US intelligence official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

AFP, Reuters and Yoav Zitun contributed to this report

Syrian Observatory: 42 soldiers killed in Israel strike

Opposition group says at least 42 soldiers killed in alleged IAF strikes in Damascus, more than 100 still missing; NYT quotes doctor at Syrian military hospital as saying at least 100 soldiers killed, dozens wounded.

May 06, 2013

People search for survivors in the rubble in a damaged area in Syria Photo: REUTERS/Aref Hretani

“At least 42 soldiers were killed in the strikes, and another 100 who would usually be at the targeted sites remain unaccounted for,” Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group, told AFP on Monday.

Earlier Monday, a high-ranking Syrian military source was quoted by the New York Times as saying that dozens of elite Republican Guard troops stationed by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s palace in Damascus were killed in the strike.

The paper also quoted a doctor at the Syrian military’s Tishreen Hospital as saying there were at least 100 dead soldiers and many dozens more wounded.

Israel has not commented on two airstrikes early Sunday morning and early Friday, that allegedly targeted Iranian weapons destined for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Syrian President Assad on Monday threatened retaliation without warning to any further attack on his country, Kuwait daily Alrai reported.

Assad reportedly notified Washington via Moscow that orders had been given to allow deployed ground-to-ground and ground-to-air missile batteries to be used against Israel without advance notice in the event of another attack.


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