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    Middle East
     Feb 1, 2013

Israel jet attack just a prelude
By Victor Kotsev

The initial announcement on Wednesday that Israeli jets had bombed a target on the border between Syria and Lebanon recalled how the news of the Israeli raid on the Syrian nuclear reactor was broken. Back then, the Syrian government first said that Israeli planes had breached Syrian air space and "dropped ammunition in the desert".

Now, too, Lebanese military sources initially claimed that "12 Israeli warplanes had violated Lebanese airspace in less than 24 hours". Subsequent leaks, however, are starting to reveal a much bigger picture.

Unnamed "regional security officials" quoted by the Associated Press claimed that the target of the attack was a convoy carrying Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles. Subsequently, Syrian state

television reported that a "military research center" had been struck not far from the capital Damascus, killing two soldiers and injuring five. By Wednesday evening, further reports claimed that the facility in the Jermana area had been used to produce and store chemical weapons.

The influential US-based analysis firm Stratfor provided more details in a report:
Four Israeli aircraft entered Lebanese airspace around 4:30 p.m. the evening of Jan. 29, but were relieved four hours later by other aircraft. Then at 2 a.m. the next day, these aircraft were replaced by yet another group, which remained in Lebanese airspace until about 8 a.m.. The duration of the operation is significant. The Israelis clearly anticipated a target to appear in a specific window of time; bombing a fixed target would not necessitate a prolonged mission. ... The ultimate objective of the strike remains unknown. It could have been meant to take out an actual convoy of surface-to-air missile systems that challenge Israeli air superiority. Just as plausible is that it was meant as a warning to discourage Hezbollah from transferring weapons into Lebanon as the Syria crisis continues to degrade.
We can expect that more details about the raid will emerge in the coming days and weeks, and it is possible that its scope will prove more extensive than currently believed. In the case of the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, it took months before the full truth came to light.

On the one hand, experts say that, based on the available information, it is unlikely Israel attacked a shipment of active chemical weapons. "The chances that someone was able to bomb a chemical weapons convoy without causing significant environmental damage is very small," said Dany Shoham, an expert on chemical and biological weapons in the Middle East at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in an interview with The Times of Israel. [1]

On the other hand, the attack on a Syrian military facility is more difficult to evaluate. The Israeli government issued several urgent warnings over the past week about the possibility of Syrian chemical weapons falling into the hands of the Lebanese militant organization Hezbollah, and for several days made preparations for a military operation. At least two Iron Dome anti-missile batteries were stationed in the northern part of Israel, and, according to reports in the Israeli press, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak cut short a foreign trip on Sunday.

On Tuesday, hours before the raid, the Israeli air force chief, General Amir Eshel, said Israel was engaged in "a campaign between wars" in which it was doing its best "to keep [our] efforts beneath the level at which war breaks out".

A consignment of advanced conventional weapons, such as the SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, could also have triggered the military response. "These are no less troubling than chemical weapons," said Giora Eiland, a former Israeli National Security advisor, in an interview with the Washington Post. "They are more widespread and not as tightly controlled by the regime, so they can fall into the hands of Hezbollah."

Experts caution that there is more to come. "The bigger problem is that this wasn't a one-time event," wrote the Israeli analyst Amos Harel in the daily Ha'aretz. "The worse Assad's position grows, the more attempts Hezbollah will make to grab whatever weapons it can get its hands on."

The international background to the operation is also significant. On Saturday, ostensibly in response to Israel's warnings and the heightened regional tensions, a top Iranian politician and diplomat said that "[an] attack on Syria is considered [an] attack on Iran and Iran's allies". Some reports in the Israeli press claim that Iran may have intentionally engineered the clash - by crossing an Israeli red line - to draw attention away from the civil war in Syria (which has so far cost more than 60,000 lives) and the Iranian nuclear program.

Meanwhile, Russia - another staunch Syrian ally - is reportedly conducting "the largest [naval] exercise since the dissolution of the Soviet Union" off Syria's coast. [2]

According to reports in Ha'aretz, the United States recently placed upgraded F-22 stealth fighters in the UAE [3] and "asked Jordan and Turkey to take action if Syria uses chemical weapons". [4]

Amid the increasing disintegration of central authority in Syria and several mysterious explosions in Lebanon in the past few weeks, tensions in the Levant are at a high. It is hard to tell how likely a regional war is in the near future, but it is clear that the Israeli operation on Tuesday night was a major development.

1. Israel likely didn't target chemical weapons, expert says, Times of Israel, January 30, 2013.
2. The Russian Fleet in the Mediterranean: Exercise or Military Operation?, INSS, January 29, 2012.
3. US upgrades strike capabilities against Iran, stations 'stealth' fighters in Gulf, Ha'aretz, January 27, 2013 (registration required).
4. US asked Jordan and Turkey to take action if Syria uses chemical weapons, Ha'aretz, January 28, 2013 (registration required).

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

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