Tuesday, January 22, two top Israeli officials arrived in Washington and Moscow to deliver prior notice of the Netanyahu government’s resolve to strike out against the military links binding Syria and Hizballah because they had grown into a major threat to its national security and an impediment to regional stability.
In Moscow, National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror met President Vladimir Putin’s aides and was warned off this venture, whereas in Washington, Military Intelligence director Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi fared much better.
According to its public statements, the Israeli government is obliged to take action if President Bashar Assad releases sophisticated arms including chemical weapons to Hizballah or any other terrorists.
But that is just a façade. Striking an arms convoy moving across the border from Syria to the Lebanese Hizballah would amount to no more than a sortie, whereas continuous, repeated pounding of the shared military frameworks or structures serving Syrian-Hizballah cooperation could stretch out for months and bring Iran into the fray.
Maj. Gen. Kochavi was questioned closely by US military and intelligence experts, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report, on IDF plans for achieving its objective and what precisely Israeli war planners mean by the destruction of the military interconnections between the Assad regime and Iran’s proxy, Hizballah.
The Israeli intelligence officer listed the prospective targets of attack, how they would be hit and the operation’s estimated timeframe.
Assad gains strategic hinterland in Lebanon – thanks to Hizballah
The plan was put before President Barack Obama for his approval together with five propositions:
1. As long as Iran, Syria and Hizballah are bound by a strong military alliance, the United States has little chance of achieving a breakthrough in diplomatic negotiations with Tehran or curbing its race for a nuclear weapon.
2. A successful Israel operation for severing the Syria-Hizballah military partnership would isolate Iran militarily and so reset the balance of military strength in the Middle East. In those circumstances, the US and Israel would find it easier to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear program if necessary.
3. The tight Hizballah-Syrian interdependence keeps Assad safe from attempts to unseat him. It has deepened to the point that his Shiite ally is abetting the Syrian ruler in his grab for parts of Lebanon as his strategic hinterland, focusing on the Hizballah strongholds in the Beqaa Valley. Already, Syrian command posts, intelligence centers and sophisticated weapons are being installed there and camps for loyal military units. So even if his regime is overthrown in Damascus, Assad will have a fallback headquarters in Lebanon from which to continue fighting.
4. The transfer of Syrian chemical weapons to Hizballah is no longer an issue; Israeli military intelligence has determined that some of those poison substances are already in Hizballah’s possession, and DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources recently reported that they had passed into Hizballah’s hands back in January 2012.
Thursday, Jan. 31, Saudi intelligence sources leaked a report that “in early 2012, Assad approved the transfer to Hizballah of mustard gas and missiles able to travel 300 kilometers and carry chemical warheads.”
Saudi sources say the transfer took place over 40 days, from Feb. 17 to the end of March, 2012.
Obama weighs the knock-on effect for Iran and Russia
Therefore, it was decided in Jerusalem that the time had come to cut to the chase and avoid getting sucked into another endless debate on whether or not Hizballah has acquired chemical weapons, like the argument circling interminably around the exact point reached by Iran in its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
According to the plan put before Washington, Israel proposed launching an air strike against the Jamraya “research institution” near Damascus, where Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah officers work together on developing the chemical weapons systems supplied to both the Syrian army and Hizballah.
5. For the sake of avoiding all-out war with Syria and Hizballah, Israel’s strategic planners proposed launching a series of controlled strikes, each one pinpointing a specific target common to all three in Syria and Lebanon.
The IDF can carry out this mission on its own with no need for direct US military assistance.
After studying the Israeli plan presented by the Israeli intelligence officer, Obama weighed two more considerations before reaching a decision:
a) US support of the Israeli plan presupposes the revival of the American-Russian Cold War in the Middle East. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Number One strategic commitment is the preservation of the Assad regime, an Israeli offensive with Washington’s blessing would have the weight of an ultimatum to Putin to ditch Assad, a step with knock-on impact on his credibility with Tehran. Obama does not imagine Putin caving in to this extent.
b) Israeli military action on the scale of offensives against Syria and Lebanon would almost inevitably set off hostilities with Iran and the onset of a major Iranian-Israeli war.
Irrespective of these considerations, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington report that Tuesday, Jan. 29, a week after military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi departed Washington, the US President’s approval of the Israeli plan was on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desk in Jerusalem. The next day it was up and running with the Israeli air strike at Jamraya.
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The average Israeli hardly noticed the war alert the IDF declared Friday, Jan. 25, because for the first time ever, security issues were pushed to the back of most of their consciousnesses by the fascinating political revolution quietly unfolding in their sight since the general election of Jan. 22.
An opinion poll conducted this week showed that had the vote had taken place today, Binyamin Netanyahu and his ruling Likud-Israel Beitenu would have shed more mandates than their 35 to 31 plunge and may even have been overtaken by Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid (Future) which netted 19 seats at its first try.
The war alert was ramped up to its peak level Tuesday, Jan 29, the day before the Israeli air strike in Syria.
During those five days, Israeli Air Force jets stood on the runways, their pilots in sitting in cockpits ready to take off within minutes of an order, and large armored and infantry forces massed along Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.
Patriot and Iron Dome missile interceptors mushroomed around Israel’s northern towns and Israeli hospitals were told to stand by for a war emergency and a sudden surge of casualties from the war front, missile attacks or chemical warfare. Television and radio newsrooms kept staff overnight in case of a sudden eruption of hostilities.
Chemical threat triggered unfolding Israeli war alert
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that the alert was triggered Friday afternoon, Jan. 25 by an order picked up from Hizballah headquarters to the brigades standing ready in the Beqaa Valley of East Lebanon. They were told to advance across the border and deploy outside Syrian chemical weapons stores and facilities.
Embedded in the order was a one-word code telling the Hizballah units to stand by to enter the stores and remove the poison substances to an unspecified destination. The Shiite terrorist group had come close enough to commandeering the weapons for Israeli forces to go on peak alert for moving in.
Early Saturday morning, Jan. 26, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recalled Defense Minister Ehud Barak from a family trip overseas and told him a special Israeli Air Force flight was on its way to bring him home without delay, because hostilities with Syria and Hizballah could erupt at any moment with Iran’s possible involvement.
Barak, who is about to retire, was at his Defense Ministry office in Tel Aviv later that morning. With IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and his deputy, Maj Gen. Gadi Eizenkott, until recently OC Northern Command and therefore conversant with the Syrian and Lebanese fronts, preparations for a war contingency were put in place.
Attack on Syria tantamount to attack on Iran
Tehran is kept fully abreast of events in Syria by its early warning station on the Syrian peak of the Hermon ridge opposite the Golan and northern Israel. This electronic facility constantly sweeps Israel for every military movement on land, sea and air. In the light of its input that Saturday, Ali Akbar Velayati, one of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s closest aides, went on record with a warning that Iran would deem any attack on Syria an attack on itself:
“Syria has a very basic and key role in the region for promoting firm policies of resistance [against Israel]… For this reason an attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.”
This was the first time an Iranian official had explicitly committed Tehran to war action over Syria.
The next day, Sunday, January 27, a second chemical war threat raised its head in Syria.
It centered on the Menagh Air Base (or Minnigh airport, Minakh Air Base), a Syrian Air Force installation six kilometers south of Aleppo – originally home to the Syrian 4th Flying Training Squadron, MBB 223 Flamingo trainer aircraft and Mi-8 helicopters.
But last December, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report, President Bashar Assad ordered the base’s conversion to a chemical warfare site, housing missiles and rockets fitted with chemical warheads and bombs filled with sarin nerve gas.
This arsenal was located ready for use as needed against the Syrian rebel concentration in Aleppo and the northern region of Idlib.
Also moved into the Menagh Air Base were Iranian- and Syrian-made short- and medium-range surface-to-surface missiles, many of them adapted to chemical warheads.
Islamist terrorists race for chemical attack on Israel
Syrian rebels have fought repeatedly to seize the strategic Menagh Air Base, but Sunday saw them massing in large numbers around the base and, as the week wore on, coming close to seizing this chemical arsenal.
The rebel force closing in on the base is reported by our military experts as consisting of three groups: The Al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusrah; the al-Tawhid (Unity) Brigade – the Free Syrian Army’s Aleppo unit, which has three subsections, the Fursan al-Jabal Brigade, the Daret Izza Brigade and the Ahrar al-Shamal Brigade; and the Suqour al-Sham Brigade – the Falcons of the Levant Brigade, another FSA unit, which is assigned to the Idlib front.
The ideology these FSA groups share has been described as Islamist but not jihadist, although some of their officers and fighters are close to Jabhat al-Nusrah.
Israeli and American military and intelligence analysts agree that if the Menagh Air Base falls into the hands of any or all these three rebel forces, they won’t hesitate to conduct mass executions of the Syrian troops and officers defending the base, or fire chemical missiles at regime targets inside Syria or at Israel and Jordan.
Israel was further troubled by a video posted on the Internet depicting gunmen holding up cans containing chemicals and threatening to hurl them at Syrian troops – evidence that Islamist terrorists in rebel ranks and backed by foreign powers, have acquired chemical weapons.
A second video showed the bodies of rabbits dead from inhaling poison gases.
Is Qatar ready to fund chemical arms for Syrian rebels?
British newspapers of Jan. 21 carried an email exchange between two senior officials of the British-based contractor Britam Defence outlining a scheme “approved by Washington” explaining that Qatar was ready to fund rebel use of chemical weapons in Syria.
In Israel, this rush of infromation confirmed their fears that the three rebel forces closing in on the Syrian air base are racing each other in a contest for the first to shoot a chemical missile at an Israeli civilian or military target.
The apprehension decided Israel’s armed forces to elevate its war level alert on the night of Tuesday, Jan. 29.
One plan drawn up for averting the threat is to drop large special force units on the Menagh Air Base to take charge of the base and its chemical and missile arsenals, followed by large cargo transports and helicopters that would lift the arsenal out to Israel.
This was only one of the contingency plans drafted in Israel for surgical strikes on the dangerous facilities dotted around Syria.
Israel and American military and intelligence experts are of the opinion that neither Bashar Assad nor Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah will take Israel military action in Syria for long and will eventually send their troops on the offensive for retaliation.