Israel appears to be flexing its muscles with its largest military drill in almost 20 years and air strikes in Syria that have Lebanon’s Hezbollah in its sights.
Israeli officials said the ten-day exercise would involve tens of thousands of soldiers, including thousands of reserves, deploying aircraft, boats and submarines. More than 18 months were reportedly spent to prepare for the drill.
The drill is to simulate “scenarios we’ll be facing in the next confrontation with Hezbollah,” an unidentified defence source told Agence France-Presse. The last large-scale Israeli drill was in 1998, when it simulated war with Syria.
Israel said it suspects Hezbollah is preparing to attack the Jewish state, saying that the Lebanese movement has become mightier militarily than it was during the war between the two sides in 2006.
Hezbollah now has a presence in Syria, fighting alongside forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad against rebels opposing his rule, granting the Lebanese movement more opportunities to strike Israel from inside Syria.
Israeli officials said one of the aims of the exercise is to train the Israeli military to severely damage Hezbollah’s infrastructure and reduce the number and reach of its rocket arsenal.
Israel’s outgoing air force chief Amir Eshel admitted that, over the past five years, Israel had carried out nearly 100 air strikes in Syria. The targets of the strikes were suspected arms convoys either belonging to or possibly heading to Hezbollah.
Israel’s latest attack, which targeted a Syrian weapons manufacturing plant, is said to have the aim of preventing the site’s arms reaching Hezbollah.
Some say that the attack was a message to the United States and Russia, which — from the view of Tel Aviv — are not taking Israeli security into consideration.
“The attack attributed to Israel — the first to be reported since the [de-escalation zones] agreement was reached — may be interpreted as an Israeli signal of sorts to the world powers: You still need to take our security interests into account; we’re capable of disrupting the process of a future settlement in Syria if you insist on leaving us out of the picture,” wrote military analyst Amos Harel in Haaretz.
There are fears, however, that things might get out of control.
“To a great extent, Hezbollah, like Israel, is worried about a war and would prefer to avoid one — but in the Middle East things sometimes happen when you don’t exactly intend them,” Harel wrote.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry filed a complaint with the UN Security Council and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that said: “The Israeli aggression has become a norm. Those who attack the Syrian Army are direct supporters of terror groups.”
Israel appears less concerned with the Assad regime than with the presence of Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah, inside Syria.
Despite occupying the Syrian Golan Heights since 1967 and officially being in a state of war with Damascus, Israel has enjoyed relative peace with Syria. The Syrian border was the quietest among those of Israel’s neighbours. Prior to the March 2011 popular uprising against Assad, the United States was secretly courting the Syrian leader to distance himself from Iran and possibly establish ties with Tel Aviv.
“The threats to Israel are from armed militant groups, most of them aided and funded by Iran. They are grave threats but not existential ones,” said Israeli Military Intelligence Director Major-General Herzl Halevi.
Israel also appears to be wary of a “Syria that is connected to Iraq, that is connected to Iran, which are both connected to Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s Lebanon,” an Israeli security source told Al-Monitor website on condition of anonymity.
“If, in the past, the Syrian ruler was independent and it was impossible to pit him against Israel directly, it may soon be revealed that Syria has become a protectorate of Iran. It may become just another proxy with the goal of spilling as much Israeli blood as possible,” the source added.
Critics, however, accuse Israel of inflating its external threats to deflect attention from its policies towards the Palestinians and the occupied territories. They add that, by highlighting the mutual threat that Israel and some Arab countries face from Iran, Tel Aviv hopes to have a better standing that would end its relative isolation in the region.
Mamoon Alabbasi is Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor of The Arab Weekly. You can follow him on Twitter @MamoonAlabbasi