Israeli airstrikes along Syrian border aim at Hezbollah

Israeli airstrikes: Israel has not commented on reports that it struck a Hezbollah target Monday night, but the circumstances and recent history point to its involvement.

Ariel Schalit/AP/File
An Israeli F-16 jet fighter flies near the city of Ashdod, Israel, Nov. 18, 2012. Israeli jets reportedly staged airstrikes overnight Monday, Feb. 25, 2014 against suspected Hezbollah targets, along Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria.

Israeli jets reportedly staged airstrikes overnight Monday against suspected Hezbollah targets, most likely an arms convoy, along Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. Although it was unclear which side of the border was struck, the area is under the control of Hezbollah and has long served as a conduit for weapons going into Lebanon. 

The initial lack of comment from Hezbollah officials and muted response by the group's Al-Manar television channel, which said the attack occurred inside Syria, suggest that there will be no overt retaliation. In keeping with usual policy, a spokeswoman with the Israeli military’s news desk declined to confirm Israel’s involvement, saying only, “We don’t comment on foreign reports.”

The airstrikes occurred late Monday night in remote mountains close to Janta, a small Shiite village adjacent to the border with Syria. Eyewitnesses reported hearing loud explosions and seeing smoke billowing from the hills. The attack was preceded by intense overflights by Israeli aircraft and the launching of anti-missile flares. Lebanese news reports said that four missiles were fired in two separate sorties.

Israel has repeatedly warned that it will attack consignments of advanced weapons destined for Hezbollah and has staged several airstrikes in the past year against suspected caches of anti-ship missiles and air defense systems stored inside Syria, so far without retaliation.

Maj. Gen. Eyal Ben Reuven (res.), deputy head of the Israeli army’s Northern Command during the 2006 Lebanon war, played down concerns that preemptive airstrikes on Hezbollah could spark a fresh war. “Hezbollah now is very busy in [its] fighting in Syria, and the threat on Hezbollah in Lebanon. But I must say, … in the Middle East everything can happen. So we have, of course, to prepare ourselves for all kind of scenarios,” he told journalists in a conference call.

 The Iran-backed group has played a critical role in helping the Assad regime hold its ground and has suffered several hundred dead and wounded in the Syrian conflict. Its involvement has also made it a target for Al-Qaeda-linked groups that have mounted a series of car bomb attacks and rocket barrages against Shiite-populated pro-Hezbollah areas of Lebanon.

The precise location of the airstrike was unclear. Hezbollah operates a string of training camps in the rugged hills between Janta and the villages of Khodor and Brital in the eastern Bekaa Valley. They include support facilities, firing ranges and at least two small identical urban warfare training sites.

The camps, built following the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, are visible from the air and are well-known to the Israeli military, which flies surveillance missions over Lebanon using aircraft and pilotless drones on a near daily basis. However, the camps themselves are relatively low-value targets for risking a potential retaliation by Hezbollah.

Training camps

The fact that the group has built training camps in the open in the Bekaa Valley points to an increased need for such facilities to train new recruits and a degree of confidence that Israel would not attack them. Since the 2006 war, both sides have maintained a de-facto and cautious ceasefire along the Lebanon-Israel border. 

Another potential target for Monday's airstrikes is a Hezbollah depot housing advanced missile systems. Unlike the training camps, Hezbollah’s arms dumps are well hidden, often in specially built underground bunkers, and their locations are closely guarded secrets. If Israel obtained intelligence on the location of one or more arms depots, it would be a serious security breach. 

The most likely target, however, and one in keeping with past Israeli attacks in Syria, is a Hezbollah cross-border arms convoy. A hardened dirt track that winds through rugged mountains from Syria to Janta has been in use since the early 1980s to ferry arms and ammunition from Syrian military bases to Hezbollah depots inside Lebanon. That conclusion is strengthened by the fact that there are no significant Syrian military bases along the border opposite Janta that would warrant an Israeli airstrike. 

Monday night’s strike would be the sixth carried out by Israeli jets against “game-changing” weaponry in Syria since January 2013. Previous airstrikes reportedly targeted SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, Iranian-manufactured Fateh 110 surface-to-surface missiles as well as military bases belonging to the Syrian Army’s elite 4th Armored Division.

Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah is believed to have expanded its arsenal to 100,000 rockets and missiles, according to some Israeli estimates. They are believed to include Iranian- and Syrian-manufactured guided surface-to-surface missiles that could strike most locations in Israel, as well as long-range anti-ship missiles and air defense systems.

After a reported Israeli airstrike last October on a convoy of missiles headed from Syria to Hezbollah, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon did not take responsibility for the attack but declared that “we …. continue to maintain our red lines on Syria – not to allow the transfer of advanced Syrian weapons to hostile hands, especially Hezbollah."

Maj. Gen. Reuven said that Israel would take whatever action necessary to uphold such a “red line,” though he made clear he could not confirm Israel’s involvement last night. “We have very wide range, wide scope of acts against it, from deterrence in one side, through diplomacy efforts, up to attack," he said.

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