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Threatened Israel most likely behind airstrikes

WHEN Israel refuses to confirm or deny reports of military action it is believed to have carried out, most intelligence analysts sit up and take notice.

That was the case yesterday following claims Israeli aircraft had targeted a military research centre north-west of the Syrian capital Damascus on Wednesday and perhaps also hit a convoy of lorries carrying weapons bound for neighbouring Lebanon.

If Russia's response to the alleged airstrikes is anything to go by, Israel's reticence is understandable. Moscow, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, lost no time in seizing the diplomatic initiative, saying that if the reports are confirmed the airstrikes constitute "unprovoked attacks on the territory of a sovereign country which blatantly violates the UN Charter".

Russia would say such a thing, given its steadfast reluctance thus far to denounce President Assad during the 22-month Syrian conflict that is estimated to have killed more than 60,000 people.

As for Israel, it knows all too well the potential implications of such a strike on Syria and for that reason is remaining schtum. Even Israeli newspapers yesterday limited their response to quoting foreign media as journalists in the country remained subject to censorship on security and military issues.

While establishing a clear and accurate picture of exactly what happened continues to be difficult, most intelligence sources are convinced Israel did carry out strikes. Assuming this to be the case, three factors are worth closer scrutiny. The first is the actual details that have leaked about the operation itself, the second is what the Israeli action reveals about the prevailing situation inside Syria and, lastly, what it tells us about the Syrian conflict's potential to ignite in neighbouring Lebanon.

Let's take the details of the operation first. It was as early as last week that the Israelis set the diplomatic groundwork for their intended Syria operation when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu dispatched two senior aides to Washington and Moscow with an identical message.

The Israelis made clear in no uncertain terms that if the Assad regime ventured to allow Syrian arms, conventional or chemical, to reach the Shi'a Islamic militant group and political party Hezbollah based in Lebanon, then the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) would prevent their delivery by force.

In Moscow on Monday, Israeli National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror delivered just such a message to his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, while in Washington Israeli military intelligence chief Major General Aviv Kochavi handed a similar communique to Obama administration officials.

Around the same time, Israel also deployed its Iron Dome missile defence system near the northern Israeli town of Haifa in preparation for any Hezbollah retaliatory attacks for its airstrikes. In other words, the die was cast.

A little over a day later, on Tuesday evening, four Israeli aircraft entered Lebanese airspace at 4.30pm and four hours later were relieved by other aircraft. Then at 2am early Wednesday, these aircraft were replaced by yet another group, which remained in Lebanese airspace until later that morning.

These timings are significant. According to some well-placed security analysts at the independent intelligence think-tank Stratfor, the duration of the operation suggests the Israelis clearly anticipated a target to appear in that specific time frame.

The bombing of a fixed target would not, they say, have necessitated such a prolonged mission. This brings us to what that moving target actually was, with some security sources insisting it was a convoy shipment of Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles being trafficked to Hezbollah.

There is no doubt that in Hezbollah's hands such weapons could seriously undermine the Israeli air force's ability to conduct operations in the region, which would plausibly explain why such a shipment of SA-17s would be the operation's objective.

However, leaks from Jerusalem also indicate Israeli intelligence has been anxiously monitoring potential chemical weapons traffic into Lebanon.

At the start of this week Ynet, an Israeli online news portal, reported Hezbollah had established several bases in Syria near suspected Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles. This includes the Jamraya facility some analysts believe houses Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Centre, said to be the state organisation responsible for developing biological and chemical weapons.

Were such weapons perhaps also part of the shipment heading to Hezbollah in Lebanon?

Accepting the premise that Israeli airstrikes did take place, what does this tell us about the situation inside Syria itself and the conflict's capacity to spread into Lebanon?

Certainly Israel in the past has never shied away from launching pre-emptive military strikes when it feels threatened. Operation Opera, a surprise airstrike in 1981 that destroyed the Osirak Iraqi nuclear reactor and the 2007 bombing of the Syrian nuclear installation near Deir Ezzor in 2007, are cases in point. Then there was Israel's alleged attack last year on a Sudanese arms factory believed to be supplying weapons to Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

But even given these precedents, this week's airstrikes carried with them an even greater potential for international diplomatic fallout.

It is a measure of how seriously the Israelis now take and react to the political disintegration of Syria and the capacity of jihadist and Islamic extremist elements to benefit from the chaos that they gambled on the strikes.

Israel is now faced with instability on every one of its borders – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt/Gaza. These multiple threats have in turn created a new strategic environment in Israel.

In striking at Hezbollah's capacity to arm itself with more sophisticated tactical weapons derived from Syria, Israel is laying down a marker.

The Israeli Government and military recognises President Assad's regime is all too ready to acknowledge the debt it owes Hezbollah for the assistance it has rendered in attempts to quell the Syrian insurgency.

Given this, Jerusalem will do everything in its power to ensure Mr Assad is unable to repay that debt by providing his Hezbollah ally with the weapons and material to prepare for a war with Israel far more damaging than that of 2006 when the two implacable foes last crossed swords.

Yesterday Syria formally complained to the United Nations over the reported Israeli airstrikes. For now it's as good a confirmation of the Israeli action as we are likely to get. That said, Damascus can complain all it wants. Israel rarely pays much attention to international diplomatic niceties when it perceives its security to be threatened. That much recent history in the Middle East has certainly shown us.

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