IDF intelligence officials have warned for some time that the northern front -- long Israel's quietest -- was about to change • Events of recent weeks show that these predictions are now coming to fruition.
The events of recent weeks along the border with Lebanon and Syria leave no room for doubt: The north is once again a terror front. Eight attacks in the last year, four of them recently, have made it sufficiently obvious that the years of quiet are now a thing of the past. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Israel who is surprised by these developments. In 2011, shortly after the eruption of the civil war in Syria, intelligence officials warned that terrorist elements were liable to move closer to the border fence on the Golan Heights. They based this assessment on the success of jihadist elements to carve out a presence in wide swaths of Syria where the central government has ceased to function, including in parts of the Golan.
The real wake-up call came a few months later, when hundreds of Palestinians from Syria effortlessly crossed the porous border fence into Majdal Shams. IDF officers realized that the emerging circumstances along the border would make it impossible to prevent future attacks. This compelled them to undertake a quick, massive construction project that included a reinforced fence as well as the stationing of advanced surveillance equipment and intelligence outposts.
The army also expedited the deployment of a full-fledged division which would now take responsibility for the Golan. The thinking was obvious. The Israel Defense Forces would no longer rely on one armored division tasked with routine patrols, but a division that is commensurate with those stationed along the frontiers with Lebanon, Egypt, and Gaza and which would become intimately familiar with the terrain while developing a combat capability that is tailored to the Golan front.
Less than two months after it was formed, the new division is just about up to speed. Its commander, Lt. Col. Ofek Buchris, certainly remembers quite a number of events during his years of service in Lebanon, events which served as a guide in the investigation he headed into the attack which left four paratroopers wounded on Tuesday. The explosive device was planted in a very vulnerable area from the IDF's standpoint -- a gated area that lies between the older border fence and the newly constructed security fence. These pocket enclaves (of which there are similar ones throughout the frontier area) were created as a result of engineering considerations, and they helped those who perpetrated the act to escape without a trace.
A terror signal from Damascus
When the paratroopers' patrol reached the area in question, they spotted a suspicious figure inside the enclave. The soldiers initially thought it was a shepherd, and they tried to shoo him away from the area. They left their jeeps, taking the bait. The moment they set foot on the eastern side of the fence, inside the enclave, the explosive device was detonated.
Arab language media sources claimed that it was a kidnap attempt, but an investigation ruled out this possibility since no additional enemy forces were spotted in the vicinity. The IDF also noticed that the explosive device had "Lebanese" hallmarks, and similar ones were used by Hezbollah in the past. That doesn't mean Hezbollah was linked to this particular incident. Indeed, there are plenty of elements in Syria with enough know-how to prepare these kinds of explosives. Besides, Hezbollah operatives were taught to prepare these kinds of explosives by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who are also in Syria.
Still, the immediate Israeli impulse on Tuesday was to blame Hezbollah. The Lebanese Shiite group did declare its intention to strike at the IDF in late February, when foreign media outlets reported that Israel destroyed a convoy carrying weapons from Syria to Lebanon. Israeli officials viewed this incident as a direct continuation of the bomb which was detonated near an IDF patrol along the Lebanese border earlier this month. At the time, Israel accused Hezbollah. The IDF even attacked a number of the organization's outposts in the Har Dov region in hopes of restoring deterrence.
On Wednesday, the rhetoric toward Hezbollah was slightly moderated. A senior official acknowledged that Israel possessed no evidence linking Hezbollah to Tuesday's incident. Instead, the blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of Syria. The official said it was "clear beyond all doubt" that the Assad regime was responsible the attack, albeit indirectly.
The organization which carried out the operation is a terrorist outfit funded by three officially sanctioned security agencies in Damascus, one of which, the Homeland Security Force, does "dirty work" and secret operations for the regime. One indication that points directly to Damascus is the fact that this attack, like those before it, occurred in an area that is completely under the control of Assad's military. Other areas of the Golan on the Syrian side of the border have long since fallen to rebel forces. Thus far, no terrorist attacks against Israel have originated from these regions.
This certainly doesn't provide Israel with foolproof immunity from attack, as global jihadist elements will train their sights on Israel once they dispense of their enemies inside Syria. From Israel's standpoint, however, the attack shows that Syria is officially "enabling and assisting" terrorist operations to be carried out from its territory against Israel.
Avoiding a new front
A more in-depth analysis seems to highlight the wider regional context in which these attacks have occurred. As we mentioned before, there have been eight terrorist attacks along the border with Lebanon and Syria since May 2013. One of them was a rocket attack on the western Galilee perpetrated in August of last year by the Abdallah Azzam Brigades, a Lebanese offshoot of the global jihadist movement. Another rocket attack on the town of Margaliot last December has yet to be attributed to a specific group.
The other six attacks could be clearly traced to the Lebanese/Syrian desire to avenge Israeli actions. The rocket attack on an IDF post on Mount Hermon in May 2013 took place immediately after an IAF strike on Damascus. Another rocket strike on Mount Hermon last month was carried out immediately after Israel was fingered for the attack on the weapons convoy in Lebanon.
The device which was set off on Har Dov was certainly a response by Hezbollah to that same attack, but the three bombs that went off on the Golan Heights -- the first which was detonated near an IDF jeep in the Al-Khader region in December 2013 following the targeted killing -- according to foreign reports -- of senior Hezbollah operative Hassan Lakhis in Beirut; the second of which was neutralized near the entrance to Quneitra earlier this month; and the third which blew up this week and wounded four soldiers -- appear to be an attempt to create a new balance of terror in the north.
In order to prevent this balance from taking shape, Israel dispatched IAF jets to strike at targets near Quneitra. The targets belonged to the three organizations responsible for planting the explosive device -- the 90th Division, the Homeland Security Force, and Military Defense, all of whom received messages indicating that Israel was aware of their involvement as well as a warning against committing future terrorist activities of this sort.
Most experts in Israel believe that the message was received loud and clear in Syria, and that it would refrain from intensifying matters on the border in the immediate future. On the other hand, a number of officials believe that the Assad regime (with the obvious encouragement of Iran) will not completely cease and desist but rather will try to camouflage such actions in the future.
If the latter scenario comes to pass, Israel will have to re-evaluate whether to intensify its response. In months past Israel has made do with symbolic, light retaliatory action. Initially, IDF officers claimed that the attacks on Israel were mere "ricochets" from the civil war, and that the responses were aimed at areas near Syrian army positions. The goal was to spur the Syrian military to act in preventing rocket fire against Israel. But as the attacks kept coming, the IDF began to directly strike Syrian targets. It even began using precision-guided artillery and missile fire.
The IAF airstrike this week was yet another escalation. While the IAF was said to be behind six attacks on convoys of advanced arms destined for Hezbollah, Israel has never officially acknowledged this. The last time that targets within Syria were attacked from the air by Israel -- which officially claimed credit -- was in October 2003, when it hit a terrorist training camp near Ain es Saheb. The strike came in the wake of a deadly suicide bombing in Haifa which claimed the lives of 19 Israelis. The order to carry out the Haifa attack originated in the headquarters of a terrorist organization in Damascus.
At the time, Syria did not end its involvement in terrorism, and it is doubtful it will do so this time as well. There is too much evidence to the contrary: While the mood in Damascus is not rosy, it is certainly much better than it was months ago. In recent months, forces loyal to Assad have made significant gains in the fighting against the rebels, and they certainly have justification to feel that, for the time being, the existential threat to the regime has been removed.
Another factor working in Assad's favor is the bolstered international standing of its patron, Russia, combined with the weakening of the United States, two developments that are certainly welcomed by the Alawite regime. All that's left for the rebels are the empty promises of the West, all while Iran and Hezbollah have recruited thousands of their people in the campaign to boost the Syrian regime.
There are no signs of Syria's renewed appetite for conflict on the Golan Heights. On the contrary, the immediate reaction from Damascus following the IAF strike was to accuse Israel of seeking to destabilize the region. Nonetheless, officials in Damascus are not too eager to open up a direct front with Israel.
This aversion to conflict can also be found on the southern side of the border as well. In the last three years, Israel has maintained its policy of not being sucked into the vortex raging in the north. Thus far, it has succeeded quite nicely, particularly in light of the six attacks on the weapons convoys that were attributed to Israel, according to foreign media reports. However, in light of recent statements by the prime minister, the defense minister and the army chief of staff, all of whom declared that the policy of retaliation would continue, forecasts are quite disconcerting.
Israel is determined to continue acting against Hezbollah's "increased capabilities," which means retaliating immediately against any violation of its sovereignty. In light of this week's events and the need to curtail the motivation of the enemy to take revenge, the widely held working assumption is that quiet won't last over time and that the IDF will once again be challenged to respond.
Ya'alon brings calm
Just as the IDF is trying to cope with a complex security situation in the north, it is also doing the same on its borders with Gaza and Sinai. The Gaza Strip was quiet this week after the exchange of blows that took place last week, while Sinai was preoccupied with its internal affairs following the accidental death of a top operative from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the local branch of global jihad.
Just like in Syria and Lebanon, Israel is being forced to deal with a situation on the southern border that is characterized by a breakdown in central authority and increasing doubt as to whether it is possible to genuinely deter the other side. It was against this backdrop that the press once again resurrected the proposal by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to reoccupy the Strip.
This idea is not on the agenda, but in recent days it was difficult to ignore the opinions heard by other ministers and senior officials with the defense establishment who support harsher measures by the IDF in response to the rocket fire from Gaza.
The man who has taken the lead in enacting the retaliatory policy is Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon. During the recent events in the north, Ya'alon once again found himself in the middle of a damaging verbal spat with the Obama administration. On the surface, it seems the controversy has been put to rest following a telephone conversation between Ya'alon and his American counterpart, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Those who know what is taking place behind the scenes are aware that it isn't just the Obama administration that is having a hard time figuring out why it is so urgent for Ya'alon to lob verbal shots at them. Officials in Jerusalem and the Kirya Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv are also having trouble explaining Ya'alon's insistence on rehashing the same criticisms.
Veteran Ya'alonologists say the explanation is quite simple. The man is sincere and frank. His mouth is expressing what is in his heart, and he says what's on his mind. There is a good deal of truth to this. Nonetheless, a person who occupied the posts of Military Intelligence chief and IDF chief of staff is expected to display a bit more tact, all the more so during these crazy times in which we live.
In light of the increasing uncertainty along the border, Israel is liable to find itself at any given moment dragged into a military confrontation that it doesn't want in the north -- either in Lebanon or Syria -- or in Gaza. In such a scenario, not only will Israel need to coordinate its steps with Washington, but it will also need a great deal of backing and legitimacy. Ya'alon knows this full well, which is why it is reasonable to expect that from now on he will seek to build bridges with the administration rather than burn them.
Fortunately for Ya'alon, the media attention devoted to his sour ties with the Americans has considerably shrunk in light of the latest developments in the Harpaz affair. The clichéd phrase, "The IDF is monitoring the events," is appropriate when it comes to this case, now more than ever. This time, senior officers are worried they will be summoned for questioning by the police.
One individual well-versed in the details predicted this week that "the investigation won't impact officers currently serving." That means Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot is still a leading candidate to replace Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz next February. Soon, a new round of senior appointments is expected in the IDF, chief among them will be new names who will head Military Intelligence and the Northern Command. These key promotions will be made in the shadow of the rising tensions and the new circumstances taking root on the borders.
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