Israel’s airforce attacked a convoy on the Syrian-Lebanese border yesterday morning, after the Israelis warned their Lebanese enemy Hezbollah against using chaos in Syria to acquire anti-aircraft missiles or chemical weapons.
Regional officials said that in the days leading up to the airstrike, Israel had been planning to hit a shipment of weapons bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. They said the shipment included sophisticated, Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, which would be strategically “game-changing” in the hands of Hezbollah – which is committed to Israel’s destruction and has gone to war against the Jewish state in the past.
The Israeli military declined to comment, and Syrian officials and state media were silent on the issue. A US official said the strike hit a convoy of lorries.
A source among rebels fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said an air strike around dawn blasted a convoy on a mountain track about three miles south of where the main Damascus-Beirut highway crosses the border. “It attacked trucks carrying sophisticated weapons from the regime to Hezbollah,” the source said, adding it took place inside Syria, though the border there is poorly defined.
Such a strike would fit its existing policy of pre-emptive covert and overt action to curb Iranian-backed Hezbollah and does not necessarily indicate a major escalation of the war in Syria. It does, however, indicate how the erosion of Mr Assad’s family rule after 42 years is seen by Israel as posing a threat.
Though Israel this week echoed concerns in the United States about Syrian chemical weapons, officials say a more immediate worry is that the civil war could see weapons that are capable of denting its massive superiority in airpower and tanks from reaching Hezbollah; the group fought Israel in 2006 and remains a more pressing threat than its Syrian and Iranian sponsors.
Yesterday’s strike could have been a rapid response to an opportunity. But a stream of Israeli comment on Syria in recent days was a reminder of a standing policy of pre-emptive strikes and may have been intended to limit surprise in world capitals. The head of the Israeli air force said only hours before the strike that his corps, which has an array of the latest jet bombers, attack helicopters and unmanned drones at its disposal, was involved in a covert “campaign between wars”.
Major-General Amir Eshel told a conference on Tuesday: “This campaign is 24/7, 365 days a year. We are taking action to reduce the immediate threats, to create better conditions in which we will be able to win the wars – when they happen.”
In Lebanon, the army reported a heavy presence of Israeli jets over its territory throughout the night, following several days of increased incursions into Lebanese airspace. Israeli jets routinely fly over Lebanon and there have been unconfirmed reports in previous years of air strikes on Hezbollah arms shipments.
An Israeli attack inside Syria could be diplomatically provocative, particularly since Mr Assad’s Iranian ally said on Saturday that it would view such a strike as an attack on itself. Israel views Iran as its principal enemy and is engaged in a bitter confrontation over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
On Sunday, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is set for a new term after an election this month, told his cabinet that both developments in Iran and turmoil in Arab states, notably Syria and Egypt, meant Israel must be strong.
“In the east, north and south, everything is in ferment and we must be prepared, strong and determined in the face of all possible developments,” he said.
The Israeli military confirmed this week it had lately deployed two batteries of its Iron Dome rocket-interceptor system around the northern city of Haifa, which came under heavy Hezbollah missile fire during a brief war in 2006. Israel’s refusal to comment yesterday is usual in such cases; it has, for example, never admitted a 2007 air strike on a suspected Syrian nuclear site despite US confirmation of it.
By not confirming that raid, Israel may have ensured that Mr Assad did not feel obliged to retaliate. For 40 years, Syria has offered little but bellicose words against Israel. A failing Assad administration, some Israelis fear, might be tempted into more action, while Syria’s Islamist rebels are also hostile to Israel and could present a threat if they seize heavier weapons.