On Sunday, May 19, AFP reported that Israel is “acting” to prevent Syrian weapons from reaching Lebanon’s Hezbollah and will continue to do so, according to statements made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
His remarks came two weeks after Israel purportedly conducted air strikes near Damascus, which a senior Israeli source said were aimed at preventing the transfer of sophisticated Iranian arms to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Netanyahu said the Middle East was going through its most sensitive period for decades, with the conflict in Syria at the center of the turmoil.
According to a report on Israel National News, on Monday morning, May 20, “IDF soldiers carrying out routine security assignments along the border with Syria reported that shots were fired in their direction from the Syrian side of the border.” No one was reported hurt in the incident.
INN says that the IDF’s general assessment is that the gunfire is spillover from the fighting in Syria, between forces loyal to President Assad and rebels. There have been several incidents of fire from Syria hitting Israel in the last few months, including mortar shells. While the IDF said it saw the shells as “strays,” it responded with fire on some of the occasions.
Responding to reports that appeared in London’s Sunday Times asserting that Syrian missiles were aimed at Tel Aviv, Netanyahu gave assurances that “the Israeli government acts in a responsible, determined and prudent manner to ensure the State of Israel’s main interest, which is the security of its citizens according to the policy we set: to prevent as far as possible leakage of advanced weapons to Hezbollah and terrorist elements.”
The British paper reported that reconnaissance satellites have revealed preparations made by the Syrian army to deploy surface-to-surface Tishreen missiles, according to a Jerusalem Post report. Syrian President Bashar Assad, the report said, is ready to use these missiles should Israel decide to conduct a strike on Damascus. Uzi Rubin, an Israeli missile expert was also quoted in the Sunday Times as saying that should Syria fire the Tishreen missiles at Israel, they could result in the paralysis of all commercial flights coming in and out of the country, according to the Jerusalem Post.
“We are closely following developments and changes there, and we are prepared for any scenario,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “We will ensure the security interests of the citizens of Israel in the future.”
Israel has repeatedly warned that it would not permit the transfer of advanced weapons or chemical agents to Hezbollah or to any other militant groups.
Earlier this month, it had been alleged that after Israel conducted two airstrikes on several missile facilities in Syria, adding to the uncertainty of the internecine warfare that has plagued Syria for the last two years.
The Jerusalem Post has reported that according to a close ally of Netanyahu, Israel declined to confirm the airstrikes in order to reduce the pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to engage in a serious retaliation against Israel.
Subsequent to the two alleged Israeli airstrikes in Syria, Al Mayadeen TV in Lebanon on May 5 quoted a Syrian official as saying that Syria has missile batteries aimed at Israel.
On January 30, another strike on Syrian soil, which was also attributed to Israel by regional sources, destroyed what military intelligence officials said was a shipment of Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles destined for Hezbollah, according to the AFP.
The war of words between the two nations have heated up as threats of retaliation against Israel have been expressed by various officials in Syria, but thus far Syria has made no move toward a military response. President Assad has echoed these threats to retaliate immediately and without warning should Israel strike again, according to The Jerusalem Post.
After an alleged Israeli raid on a Syrian chemical weapons facility in February, Assad made some veiled threats himself in an interview with the Sunday Times in early March in which he said that Syria had always retaliated to Israeli actions, “but we retaliated in our own way, and only the Israelis know what we mean. Retaliation does not mean missile for missile or bullet for bullet. Our own way does not have to be announced.”
Assad was also quoted in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar as saying Syria is interested in a different kind of revenge on Israel. “We want strategic revenge, by opening the door of resistance and turning the entire Syria into a resistance nation,” he said, expressing his wishes to emulate Hezbollah who turned Lebanon into a “resistance nation,” according to The Jerusalem Post.
An unnamed senior Israeli official was quoted in the New York Times on Wednesday, May 15, as saying that “if Syrian President Assad reacts by attacking Israel, or tries to strike Israel through terrorist proxies, he will risk forfeiting his regime, for Israel will retaliate.” He added that Israel “is determined to continue to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. The transfer of such weapons to Hezbollah will destabilize and endanger the entire region.”
“Iran has been exerting increasing influence across the region, in countries including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and even in the Gulf States, such as Kuwait and Bahrain,” Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira told JNS.org.
Shapira, a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs (JCPA), recently published a report detailing Iranian intentions to partner with Hezbollah to affectively grab control of Syria. The report cites coordination at the highest levels between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah. “Syria is the bridge between Iran and Lebanon,” Shapira said.
Last week, Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin and warned him against delivering advanced S-300 missiles to Damascus, which could severely complicate any future air attacks on Syrian soil, according to an AFP report.
Putin, however, was not convinced by Netanyahu’s arguments and according to a New York Times report Moscow has sent advanced antiship cruise missiles to Syria; a move that illustrates the depth of its support for the Assad regime, said American officials on Thursday.
The New York Times also reports that in the past Russia provided Syria with a version of the missiles, called Yakhonts. Those missiles that were shipped to Syria in the last few days are outfitted with an advanced radar that makes them more effective, according to American officials who are familiar with classified intelligence reports and would only discuss the shipment on the basis of anonymity.
The top U.S. military officer says Russian missile shipments to Syria are “ill-timed” and “very unfortunate.”
The remarks by General Martin Dempsey were the first U.S. confirmation that Russia made the sale of so-called ship-killer cruise missiles to Syria.
Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday the missiles will embolden President Assad and prolong the suffering in Syria. Russia has said it is fulfilling its contractual obligations to Syria and has no interest in seeing President Assad remain in power.
Speaking to Israel’s Channel 2 television station, Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense ministry official warned that these missiles as well could end up in the clutches of Hezbollah and its Iranian benefactor. “If Hezbollah and Iran do support Syria and help it maintain the regime, why would they not give these weapons to Hezbollah?” he queried.“If they transfer such dangerous weapons, it’s a threat to us, to the Americans in the Persian Gulf and everywhere,” he added.