According to Arab media, Israel executed its third strike against Syrian and Hizballah targets in the Qalamoun area on the Syrian Lebanese border Sunday night, April 26 – shortly after Hizballah attempted to plant an explosive device near an Israeli Golan military post.
But then, Monday morning, anonymous Israeli sources improbably attributed this air strike to possible Syrian opposition action by the Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.
Hizballah was meanwhile identified as responsible for the thwarted bomb attack on the Israeli Sheita military post guarding the northern Golan border with Syria. “Four terrorists placed an explosive on a fence near Majdel Shams. The air force thwarted the attack, killing all four,” a military spokesman said.
On the face of it, Israel’s purported third air strike over Syrian territory in five days, this time targeting the Wadi a-Sheikh and Al Abasiya regions of the Qalamoun mountains, was in retaliation for the thwarted Hizballah attack on the Golan.
However, DEBKAfile’s military sources give the exchange of blows a different slant: It is more likely to be the onset of a systematic Israeli campaign to wipe out Syrian-Hizballah military bases repositioned on the mountain range as depots and launching-pads for firing long-range missiles into Israel from Syrian territory.
A clue to this objective was offered Sunday night by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in a firm statement that Israel would not permit Iran to arm Hizballah with advanced weapons. He did not explicitly admit to the air strikes of last Wednesday and Saturday,which were reported by Arab TV stations to have hit surface-to-surface missile depots on Qalamoun. But he nearly gave the game away. He accused Iran of trying to arm Hizballah with advanced weapons by every possible route. “We will not allow the delivery of sophisticated weapons to terrorist groups, Hizballah in particular… or allow Hizballah to establish a terror infrastructure on our borders with Israel,” the minister said, adding: “We know how to lay hands on anyone who threatens Israeli citizens, along our borders or even far from them.”
In a previous report, DEBKAfile disclosed that Syrian and Hizballah forces were on the point of conducting an offensive, under Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers, to flush Syrian rebels out of their last remaining pockets on the mountain slopes in order to clear the Syrian-Lebanese highway link for troop and arms convoys between the two countries.
We also reported that Hizballah had already relocated substantial military manpower and missile stocks from northern Lebanon to an enclave it now controlled on the Syrian Qalamoun mountains.
The anonymous sources’ attribution of Sunday night’s air strike to the Nusra Front sounded more like a lame cover story than a serious supposition. The Syrian opposition has never managed to use air power against the armies of Assad and Hizballah. Nusra did capture a few fighter-bombers from the enemy, but never acquired the technical infrastructure, ordnance or trained pilots to fly them.
This improbable theory would in any case contradict the warning message Israel was clearly addressing to Damascus and Hizballah that any violations of Israel’s red lines on their part would be met with action to knock over their military set-up on their shared border, section by section – even at the risk of a showdown with Iran in the Syrian arena.
Israel’s destruction of the Qalamoun war machine would have four far-reaching ramifications:
- It would impair the Syrian army’s capabilities and strike at the heart of the Assad regime.
- It would give a strong leg up to the Syrian opposition, especially Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, which is emerging as the strongest and most effective paramilitary force in the Syrian opposition camp.
- It would curtail the transformation of the Qalamoun Mts. into Hizballah’s most important forward base of attack against Israel.
It is hard to see Tehran standing by if the sparring escalates further and Israel continues to punch away at the Islamic Republic’s two most valuable strategic assets. Direct action by Iran would not be its style. Tehran would rather put the Syrian army and Hizballah up to stepping up its campaign of terror against Israel, possibly by expanding the arena across two borders into Lebanon and Israel itself.
Last week, the Obama administration managed to hold back the clash threatening to blow up opposite Yemen by the US, Saudi and Egyptian navies against an Iran convoy. Washington is likely to lean hard on Israel and Tehran to make sure that the current sparring does not run out of control and explode into a military showdown.
If this happened, Tehran would likely refuse to sign the nuclear deal which is nearing conclusion with the world powers led by the US.
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