OLMERT WARNS OF LOOMING WAR WITH SYRIA
By David Dolan
Israeli officials decided to publicly warn during April that a major conflict may be looming with Syria in the coming months. This came after further evidence emerged that the Baathist regime ruling from Damascus is stepping up war preparations, along with allied Hizbullah militia forces in Lebanon. Meanwhile political fallout from last year's Second Lebanon War continued to swirl in Israel, with government cabinet ministers, legislators and regular citizens waiting for the release of the seminal Winograd Committee report on the conflict, expected in late April or early May. Many analysts predict the report could spell the end of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's public career, along with current Defence Minister Amir Peretz.
In an apparent effort to stave off growing demands that he immediately resign, Olmert expressed interest during April in pursuing a final Middle East peace accord in the coming months with regional Arab and Palestinian leaders, despite the threat of pending conflict with Syria and Hizbullah. While negotiations continued for a prisoner swap designed to free a kidnapped Israeli soldier and hundreds of Palestinian terrorists, more violence and chaos rocked the Gaza Strip during the month, prompting United Nations officials to warn that they may need to pull all aid workers out of the small coastal zone.
Prime Minster Olmert spoke several times during April about the very real possibility of conflict in the coming months with heavily armed Syria. He told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee on April 18 that Israel has no intention of attacking its northern neighbour, but repeated earlier warnings that the Assad regime is preparing for possible conflict with Israel, and therefore Israel must respond in kind.
Olmert said all Israeli military leaders and security chiefs share the assessment that Damascus is preparing for war. The Israeli leader added that Syrian officials seem to believe the United States is preparing to attack Iran's sprawling nuclear facilities, and will ask Israel to lash out at its Arab neighbour-Iran's chief Mideast ally-at the same time. But Olmert insisted he has no knowledge of any such White House plan, despite an ongoing American naval build-up in the Persian Gulf.
After touring the contested Golan Heights in late March-where he was briefed by senior IDF officers on the situation along the tense border-Olmert gave several newspaper interviews just before Passover in which he began to warn of the possibility of a major conflagration with Syria later this year. He said he had decided to openly state this in order to have a chance to publicly assure the Assad regime that Israel has no intention of attacking Syria. He said Israeli government and military leaders were concerned that "a Syrian miscalculation" may spark an armed conflict between the two countries. He confirmed that Israel had used the controversial visit of US House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Damascus in early April "to send a calming message" to senior Syrian officials that no IDF military offensive was being planned.
The Haaretz newspaper quoted an unidentified "senior security source" as saying that Israeli government leaders hoped the message delivered by Pelosi "will be understood in Damascus." The source added that it was not clear to Israeli officials if the Syrians were genuinely concerned that Israel might be plotting a joint attack with America, or were just bluffing as an excuse to prepare for their own premeditated assault upon Israel. "The question is whether Assad is looking for an excuse ... so that he can carry out an attack against Israel in the summer, or whether this is a mistaken assessment," said the source.
FRESH SYRIAN WARMONGERING
Soon after PM Olmert issued his initial warnings of possible conflict with Damascus in the coming months, a top Syrian government spokesman significantly upped tensions in the region by threatening to take the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights back by force. As Israel's annual Holocaust Memorial day commemorations were drawing to an end on the evening of April 16, Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal warned that his country may attempt to regain control over the disputed territory by force. "If Israel rejects the Arab peace initiative, the only way to get the Golan Heights back would be by means of resistance," he said at a press conference in Damascus. The Syrian official was apparently referring to the 2002 Saudi peace proposal, which was reaffirmed by Arab League nations at a summit meeting in April.
Language experts explained that the Arabic word for "resistance" (mukawama) can imply either full-scale warfare or more limited, terrorist style action. But it definitely speaks of violence in one form or another, they confirmed.
Israeli political analysts declared that Bilal's war threat was extremely serious, given that Syrian officials fully understand Israeli leaders cannot accept the Saudi plan under its current contours. Especially objectionable is the plan's demand for a complete Israeli withdrawal from every inch of Judea and Samaria, including Judaism's most sacred ground on earth inside Jerusalem's walled Old City, and its call for all Palestinian refugees to be granted the "right of return" to family ancestral properties inside of Israel's pre-1967 borders, which Israeli officials insist would effectively spell the end of the world's only majority Jewish state.
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has issued similar warlike statements several times since his surrogate Hizbullah militia force claimed victory in the 2006 armed conflict. Many Israeli analysts believe that last summer's Hizbullah rocket assault was launched at the behest of both Syria and Iran in an attempt to test Israel's response to sustained attacks upon its civilian population. They say Israel's unexpected difficulty in halting the daily barrages, which continued for over one month, along with the apparent gaps that showed up in its ground operations and reserve force deployments, greatly encouraged political and military officials in both Damascus and Tehran to think that victory over Israel's legendary military machine is now possible.
Various Israeli media reports warned during April that a looming war with Syria would undoubtedly pose a very significant challenge to Israel's armed forces. Many reports noted that prior to last year's intense 34 day conflict with Hizbullah militiamen in Lebanon, it was generally assumed by Israeli military strategists and political leaders that winning another war with Damascus would be a relatively easy task, as it was during the Six Day War fought 40 years ago this June. This assessment was based on the known fact that Israel's military hardware, especially IDF Air Force jets, radar systems and ground armoured forces, are mostly much newer and far more sophisticated than similar equipment possessed by Syria.
But last year's confrontation clearly demonstrated that massive firings of enemy missiles upon civilian population centres in any new conflict could itself be enough to give Syria a fighting chance to prevail, especially if non-conventional warheads were employed. After all, Hizbullah is a mere militia force, comprised of an estimated 5,000 active Lebanese fighters, aided by several hundred Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders stationed in Shiite portions of Lebanon. The militia, based in a relatively small piece of territory in southern Beirut and south Lebanon, does not even enjoy the full support of all Lebanese nationals, to say the least. On the strategic plane, its Syrian and Iranian-supplied rockets and missiles could only reach the northern third of Israel. It possessed no air force to counter Israeli warplanes, nor tank or armoured divisions to fend off Israeli ground advances.
By contrast, Syria's fulltime army has close to 400,000 active service personnel divided into 12 divisions. One of those, comprised of an estimated 10,000 soldiers, is a highly trained force assigned the task of deploying and guarding Syria's substantial missile and rocket arsenal. Another elite commando unit, also containing some 10,000 men, would serve as a formidable frontline hammer in expected ground fighting on the Golan Heights. Syria's navy is smaller than Israel's and not nearly as well equipped (Israel has taken possession of four German-built submarines in the past few years, said to be capable of firing nuclear warheads; something Syria cannot match). Still, it is also thought to have improved its Mediterranean Sea capabilities to an unknown extent in recent years.
Damascus has recently integrated a major new weapons acquisition into its existing arsenal. A Russian designed and supplied anti-aircraft system called the Stretlet has been deployed in several locations, which is believed to give Syrian gunners a much better chance of taking out Israeli aircraft in any conflict. However Israeli defence analysts believe it has been quite a few years since Syria received new foreign built tanks, fighter aircraft or armoured vehicles, and point out that Israel still has a clear advantage in all of those areas, despite the fact that its standing army is less than half the size of Syria's. Israeli defence officials can call up an estimated 400,000 additional reserve soldiers in a full-scale emergency, but Syrian leaders can better that statistic as well, with nearly two million men believed to be enrolled in its standby military forces.
THE MISSILE THREAT
Israeli military analysts say that Syria has focused most of its war preparations on missile construction and deployments. Most worrisome is the fast-paced production of Scud D missiles, said to be considerably more advanced that the Scud B and C rockets that Saddam Hussein launched at Israel in 1991. Security officials say that Syria now possesses hundreds of the deadly missiles, which have a range of over 350 miles-meaning they can potentially strike every portion of Israel from Haifa to Eilat.
Older Scud missiles are also in Syria's arsenal, along with an estimated 60 Soviet-era SS-21 missiles that can each carry six warheads capable of striking independent targets. Foreign strategic think tanks say that Syria has at least 30 known ground launchers for its Scud missiles, dispersed in several locations. Israeli officials say Syria also possesses untold thousands of shorter range Katyusha rockets, similar to the ones that proved quite deadly and destructive to northern Israeli cities and towns last July and August.
The long-range Scud D and SS-21 missiles are thought to be deployable from three main locations inside Syria. One is situated not far from the Golan Heights border with Israel. Missiles fired from this site could reach all the way into Egypt and northern Saudi Arabia, say security analysts. However, this site is also the most vulnerable to an Israeli counter strike due to its close proximity to the disputed border.
The largest missile storage and launching sites are located much further north. According to a news report produced by the CBN network's Jerusalem correspondent, Chris Mitchell, during April, a site located just a few miles north of Lebanon is "the heart of Syria's missile program." Another site further north acts is said to contain the largest chemical weapons manufacturing plants in the country.
HAMA AND HOMS
The main Syrian missile site is situated in the city of Hama, with a reported population of nearly 1.5 million people. Hama is well-known in the Middle East, since it was partially destroyed-and thousands of its civilian residents mercilessly slaughtered-upon the orders of the late Syrian strongman Hafez Assad in 1981. Syrian military rockets were fired at large portions of Hama after a Muslim fundamentalist revolt against Assad's oppressive rule broke out in the city. The bodies of the dead were later callously ploughed underground in place, instead of being given proper burials, since the brutal regime wanted to make clear it would not tolerate any such anti-government action in the future.
According to the CBN report, the Hama missile complex-situated nearly 250 miles north of Israel's border with Lebanon-contains some 30 hardened concrete bunkers where hundreds of Scud D missiles and many multiple rocket launchers are stored. Experts say that more than a ton of non-conventional chemical warheads could be fired from the site within minutes of an attack order being received.
Another major missile site is said to be located in the city of Homs ("Hims" in Arabic) with a population of over 1.5 million souls. The city is situated 20 miles from Lebanon's northern border with Syria, or some 200 miles north of Haifa. The CBN report said security experts have identified a previously unknown chemical warhead facility at the site. It said rocket-carrying military vehicles can drive through an underground hardened building at the sprawling complex where chemical warheads are stored, ready to be quickly fitted upon the ballistic missiles. Nearby missile launchers can then shoot the toxic warheads into the upper atmosphere in the direction of pre-calculated Israeli targets.
GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS
Israeli security experts say that the highly sophisticated Arrow anti-missile and radar system, funded jointly by the United States and Israel, could probably successfully intercept most incoming Scuds. It could also take out longer-range Iranian Shahab-3 missiles, believed to have been produced in cooperation with North Korean and Pakistani specialists. Still, they warn that Syria is thought to possess vast stockpiles of deadly VX and Sarin nerve gas, so even a few successful strikes could prove devastating for Israeli population centres.
Experts also warn that Syria's short-range Katyusha rockets could prove to be very deadly and disruptive to Israel's northern residents, especially if Hizbullah joins in any massive Syrian strike. They note that if such rockets were launched from the southern Golan Heights, they could potentially reach further south than Lebanese rockets did in 2006. On top of that, Syria's standing arsenal, including rocket launchers, is believed to be much larger and generally more up to date than Hizbullah possessed during last summer's war.
Illustrating just how destructive such rockets can be, an Israeli web site revealed in April some very disturbing news that had been classified until then. As this reporter and others learned last July, a Hizbullah missile landed inside the grounds of Haifa's main oil refinery during the war, located along Haifa Bay. Had it struck only several dozen feet away, it would have landed upon a chemical storage facility located in the compound, probably releasing tons of poisonous gasses into the air over Israel's third largest urban area.
That exact chilling scenario was described to me by Haifa's mayor, Yonah Yahav, when I interviewed him at a funeral for an American teenage girl, killed in a terrorist attack upon a Haifa city bus in March 2003. With the US-British assault upon the Baathist regime in Iraq about to begin, Yahav revealed that Israeli officials were far more concerned over a potential Hizbullah strike upon the oil refinery-which he said could release toxic fumes upon the city and kill thousands of people-than they were with Saddam's reported non-conventional weapons arsenal, which he pointed out had probably already been transported anyway from Iraq into Syria.
Soon after PM Olmert announced his willingness during April to accept major portions of the Saudi peace initiative, he felt compelled to denounce the Palestinian leadership for putting forth "unreasonable demands" during negotiations for a widely anticipated prisoner swap designed to free Gilad Shalit. Media reports said the PA wants hundreds of Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for the captured IDF soldier, taken by Hamas infiltrators near the Gaza Strip last June. Controversy especially surrounded the PA's declared intention to secure freedom for Marwan Barghouti, sentenced to life for orchestrating a series of terror assaults that left dozens of Israeli civilians dead or wounded earlier this decade. All of this came as the whereabouts and condition of kidnapped BBC reporter Alan Johnston, stationed in the Gaza Strip for over three years before his March 12 abduction, remained unknown, and as Muslim groups bombed several more internet cafes and a Christian book shop and school in Gaza City.
The Israeli public was shocked to learn that one of its own had been slaughtered during April's horrendous Virginia Tech massacre in America. Still, the fact that Professor Liviu Librescu, a 76 year old holocaust survivor, was shot dead on Israel's annual Holocaust Memorial Day while bravely protecting his young students from the lone gunman, was a source of bittersweet pride. It also acted as a reminder that life is not only dangerous for Jews living in Israel. Indeed, the God of Israel has promised to watch over and deliver His people living in their biblical homeland, even in times of conflict. "And the Lord their God will save them in that day, as the flock of His people. For they are as the stones of a crown, sparkling in His land" (Zechariah 9:16