Iran, Syria, the HizbAllah and Palestinian terrorist organizations actively prepare for escalation in the strikes against Israel. The terrorist strikes from Lebanon may be used by Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad to attrite Israel and even instigate a widening of the crisis leading to a wider Syrian-Israeli confrontation. The recent reinforcing and training of the HizbAllah and other terrorist organizations by Iran constitute the key to this potential escalation. The Israeli Government is fully aware of these developments.
In a May 9, 1997, interview with Haaretz, IDF Intelligence Corps chief Moshe Ya'alon pointed to the growing role of terrorism in Assad's policy. While negotiating for peace, Assad is simultaneously exercising other options by which it hopes to exert pressure on Israel, both in the Lebanese theater and by means of terror.
Damascus hosts the headquarters of all the Palestinian terrorist organizations. Violence and terrorism while negotiations are in progress is the tool Assad has chosen. Concurrently, Damascus is keeping all other options open. The Syrians have a war strategy based on the element of surprise. Echoing the strategic percept of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Syrians opt for seizing territory with the intention of using it to then initiate a political process that will compel Israel for major concessions.
Gen. Ya'alon assesses that Syria would not require foreign aid to launch a limited war, and that it in the event of a war it would activate the HizbAllah in Lebanon. A likely scenario leading to war will have Assad bring[ing] about a deterioration of the situation that would enable him to be perceived as reacting to an Israeli maneuver, for example in Lebanon. And even the continuation of the current level of violence in South Lebanon is of strategic importance. The on-going confrontation with the HizbAllah is an unwinnable war as long as Iran is there concedes Uri Lubrani, the coordinator of Israel's activities in Lebanon.
The emergence of such Syrian-Iranian strategic capabilities in Lebanon is the result of an intensive joint effort. In the first four months of 1997 alone, the Iranians flew to Damascus 37 plane loads -- all Boeing 747 Jumbo Jets -- of weapons and ammunition for the HizbAllah. Among the weapons supplied are advanced shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, Raad anti-tank guided missiles (an Iranian development of the Soviet lethal AT-3 SAGGER with longer range and more powerful warhead), Fajr-3 240 mm Katyusha-rockets (with a 40km/25mile range), sophisticated electronic systems for bombs and mines, as well as a host of other weapon systems and large quantities of ammunition.
At the same time, Syria and Iran are expanding a program of intense military training for HizbAllah, Amal, and Palestinian terrorists (mainly the PFLP-GC) in bases in both Syria and Labanon. Moreover, Syrian and Iranian officers and NCOs now deploy along with the newly trained terrorists into south Lebanon, thus ensuring better and more efficient use of the new weapons.
The deployment of these quality assets has already been reflected in a series of engagements with the IDF and the SLA in which the Hizballah and Palestinian forces demonstrated better skills and tactics, as well as mastership of advanced weapons. The HizbAllah's large-scale attack on the Sujud strong-point on May 12 (Israel's Independence Day), and the fierce clash with an IDF patrol on the night of May 15-16 that resulted in three Israeli fatalities and five wounded, are the latest examples of the newly acquired improved capabilities, audacity and courage of the terrorist forces in southern Lebanon.
No less important is the impact that this deployment of reinforcements has already had on the HizbAllah units in southern Lebanon. After a winter of setbacks and mounting casualties in the relentless fight against the IDF and the SLA, cracks emerged in some of the local HizbAllah units. The crisis was so severe that recruitment markedly declined and there were even numerous cases of desertion -- an unheard of phenomena among the ideologically committed fighters of the HizbAllah. The arrival of the Syrians, Iranians, and fresh elite fighters boosted morale and rejuvenated the entire HizbAllah-Palestinian system in southern Lebanon.
And this is only the beginning. There is mounting evidence that Syria, Iran, and their sponsored terrorists -- particularly the elite forces of the HizbAllah and the PFLP-GC -- are actively preparing for the launch of spectacular operations against the IDF and the SLA. Among these are plans to kidnap Israeli soldiers, surprise barrages of long-range rockets against Haifa, exploding massive car-bombs with suicide drivers in order to inflict heavy casualties on the IDF, and anti-aircraft ambushes aimed to challenge the invincible lethality of the Israeli Air Force.
Meanwhile, Damascus also activated the new arrangements with the Palestinian terrorists in the territories. Israel now has information that the March 1997 bombing in Cafe Apropos in Tel Aviv was conducted not only in the aftermath of a green light from Yassir Arafat, but also in coordination with the HAMAS command center in Damascus -- itself controlled by Syrian and Iranian intelligence.
The gang [that carried out the bombing] has links of some sort with the external HAMAS organization, which is headquartered in Damascus. The connection is with Damascus, Ya'alon stressed. By now, Israeli intelligence has ample information about widespread preparations throughout the PA-held zones for the resumption of terrorist strikes, including spectacular and suicide operations, against Israel. The Islamist organizations are convinced that the time is ripe for the resumption of terrorist campaigns. There is an atmosphere in the field of terror attacks, Yaalon told the Knesset Foreign Affair and Defense Committee on May 13.
Presently, the Islamist forces in south Lebanon, and particularly the HizbAllah, have no doubt about the meaning of the impending escalation of terrorism throughout the region. For example, on May 9, 1997, the HizbAllah's organ -- al-'Ahd -- published an analysis of the recent developments in south Lebanon.
The HizbAllah stresses the use of escalation in south Lebanon as means to break the political deadlock between Israel and Syria, albeit blaming Israel for the belligerence. "Though the escalation... the Zionist enemy is seeking to achieve security and political objectives by keeping the south under a controlled degree of tension." The Israeli government can no longer withstand the political price of impasse in the peace process because of the building international pressure. "The search for an outlet from the political deadlock is a permanent policy for Israeli governments and the Lebanese arena has remained one of the places fit for such an outlet, which takes the form of military escalation, as was the practice in similar circumstances."
Significantly, the HizbAllah analysis anticipates the possibility of the fighting in south Lebanon escalating to a regional war. Al-'Ahd notes that "several sources are expressing fears that there is a Zionist plan [to escalate the fighting against the HizbAllah in south Lebanon] in preparation for pouncing on it through a large-scale aggression against the south, especially as the political climate in the region is overcast and regional moves are pointing to new military alliances under US political and military cover that are beating the drums of war [against Syria] and preparing for it. Lebanon cannot in this case be immune from all this because it will be a direct target in any war in the region or Zionist aggression in the south that might possibly be carried out as a substitute for a large-scale war. In both cases, Lebanon remains the target of the Zionist escalation."
And the HizbAllah vows to do all in its power to derail Israel's plans. The growing flow of better weapons and skilled fighters from Iran and Syria will be of use in this endeavor.
Yossef Bodansky is the Freeman Center's World Terrorism Analyst.