IDF soldiers at the border with Lebanon in November 2005. (Photo: Efi Sharir/AFP/Le Monde)
Late Tuesday evening Israeli planes bombed a weapons convoy in Syria destined for Lebanon, marking Israel’s military entry into the now two-year crisis in Syria. Earlier Israeli officials announced they would strike Syria if the embattled Bashar al-Assad lost control over his chemical weapons, but commentators are questioning if the impetus for the air raid was Lebanon, specifically Hezbollah.
In possible preparation for the air assault, over the weekend Israel relocated two Iron Dome anti-missile systems to the north, notes LebanonNow‘s Tony Badran:
The operation might explain why, earlier on Sunday, Israel reinforced its defenses in the north, deploying two Iron Dome missile defense batteries near Haifa and in the Galilee, perhaps as a precaution against possible retaliation from Hezbollah. However, this targeted hit only highlights the party’s vulnerability, especially in light of the ongoing war in Syria. Therefore, it will be forced to swallow this latest blow and is unlikely to retaliate and risk a larger conflagration with Israel. More troubling, though, is the ominous implication for Lebanon, should Hezbollah continue with such transfers. This time the strike was in Syria. Next time, Israel has signaled, it could well be in Lebanon.
Days before the air raid, Israel’s Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom alluded to the possibility of a preemptive strike in an interview with Army Radio, reported the Toronto Star. Speaking about the transfer of weapons from Syria to Lebanon, Shalom said, “It would be crossing a line that would demand a different approach, including even action.” When asked specifically about preemption, Shalom said “We will have to make the decisions.”
Until now, there is no confirmation of the exact location of the strike or the target. Although most reports are stating a weapons convoy was hit, some in Syria have alleged a military research center was targeted. Today the Lebanese newspaper L’Orient le Jour reported:
[R]esidents near Damascus told the AFP that the missiles had hit a ‘research center for non-conventional weapons. ‘ According to the residents the center is located in al-Hameh, fifteen kilometers to the northwest of Damascus, and was hit by six missiles, which partially destroyed the center, causing a fire and at least two deaths….
On the other hand, under the condition of anonymity Lebanese security sources affirmed that the strike was about an ‘armed convoy heading in the direction of Lebanon that touched on the Syrian side of the border around 23:30 GMT,’ without specifying the exact location of the attack.
Yesterday Reuters reported a “Western diplomat” also confirmed that weapons being delivered to Lebanon were the target:
‘The target was a truck loaded with weapons, heading from Syria to Lebanon,’ said one Western diplomat, echoing others who said the convoy’s load may have included anti-aircraft missiles or long-range rockets. Several sources ruled out the presence in the convoy of chemical weapons, about which Israel has also raised concerns.
Diplomatic sources from three countries told Reuters that chemical weapons were believed to be stored at Jamraya, and that it was possible that the convoy was near the large site when it came under attack early on Wednesday.
However, there was no suggestion that the vehicles themselves had been carrying chemical weapons.
In a build-up to the air raid, Israel increased its monitoring of Hizbollah by repeatedly violating Lebanese airspace on Friday, Sunday and Tuesday–the day of the strike. On Wednesday Le Monde reported:
For its part the Lebanese army reported an intensive flight over its territory by the Israeli Air Force, stating 16 combat planes had entered Lebanese airspace during Tuesday alone. ‘In violation of Lebanese sovereignty and resolution 1701, eight Israeli warplanes flew over several Lebanese regions from 9 h 30 (7: 30 pm GMT) [...] and left Lebanese airspace at 16 h 30,’ said a statement from the Lebanese army.
The Daily Star logged the times that the eight aircraft violated Lebanese airspace:
The warplanes flew over various Lebanese areas between 12:20 p.m. and 11:10 p.m.
The military added that a reconnaissance plane also violated Lebanese airspace Sunday, entering from Naqoura village and conducting aerial maneuvers over Riyaq and Baalbek.
The plan entered at 12:10 and left Lebanon at 5 p.m.
But as of now, at least publicly, Israel is keeping quiet on the strike in Syria, violating Lebanon’s airspace, and relocating anti-missile systems to the north of the state. Yet today the New York Times reported (keeping par with the plethora of news agencies that are quoting off the record officials) an, “American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Israel had notified the United States about the attack.”