In recent weeks Israel has increased efforts to convey messages to the Assad regime via Russia detailing its vital security interests, including an outline of its ‘red lines.’
These efforts are taking place against the backdrop of military defeats of the Islamic State in the killing fields of Iraq and Syria.
Most military experts are well aware that concerted international efforts will soon bear fruit, despite the contradictory interests of various warring parties.
Israeli decision-makers at both the military and government echelons know very well that a new era – in which the shape of a future Syria will be determined – is imminent. It is also clear that Syria will not return to be a “normal” state, as it was before civil war broke out six years ago.
Bashar al-Assad: still in power, though diminished
Israel fears that when Assad again consolidates his grip on power it will lead to the deployment of Iranian, Hezbollah or other Shi’ite militias along the Golan Heights border. That possibility is now the most serious concern on the minds of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and his General Staff, even more than the transfer – from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon – of long-range, precise missiles, which has occasionally triggered Israeli air strikes inside Syria.
As a result, Israel is trying to advance its agenda and influence the various parties and processes within the international community, in order to reach a post-war agreement that will regulate the situation in Syria.
The main actors in efforts to reach an agreement are Russia, the USA, Turkey and even some Arab nations such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – all of which Israel hopes to successfully reach with its concerns and red lines.
Various ideas have been raised in recent consultations among the military, the prime minister and the defense minister. One, is a promise to reduce involvement in Syria – with actions such as the recent air strikes and many others, some of which have been officially admitted – in return for a Syrian commitment to keep its Shi’ite-Iranian allies from the border.
If Israel manages to reach a tacit understanding along these lines there is reason that the Syrian army will be welcome.
King-maker, dictator-saver: Vladimir Putin
It’s worth mentioning that the Syrian Army has the right to deploy along the border, according to the Agreement on Disengagement reached in 1974, the year after the Yom Kippur War. However, most of those positions have now been taken over by rebels forces in the course of the current war. Today, most of the border is controlled by al-Qaida, ISIS and so-called “moderate” rebels. The only place where remnants of the Assad army are currently found is near Mount Hermon in the North.
It is no secret that the major force exerting the biggest influence on Damascus is Russia, which practically saved the regime from collapse by deploying its military – mainly its air force – 18 months ago.
The keys to an agreement are in Moscow, which explains why Netanyahu has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin five times in the last a year-and-a-half and spoken by phone with him at least two dozen times.
In one conversation between the two leaders and their teams, Netanyahu and Israeli military officials raised the idea of some sort of non-aggression pact with Assad.
Putin showed interest in the idea, according to some sources, saying that he understood the concerns and vital security interests of Israel. He also reportedly was clear in reiterating that all foreign armies, including Iran and Hezbollah, will leave Syria once the war is over. But, he said, his No. 1 priority at that moment was to defeat ISIS and end the war with an agreement.
April 5, 2017
[Six years after the beginning of the bloody, horrendous civil war in Syria, some analysts feel we are seeing the “end game” unfold. Russia’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime is part of the picture, but so are the concerns of Syria’s southwestern neighbor, Israel. Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israel’s intelligence community, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars wrote this analysis for The Jerusalem Post.]
Contradictory reports, most of them unconfirmed and unofficial, have emerged in recent days regarding Israeli-Russian understandings over the war in Syria. The reports follow Jerusalem’s admission that its warplanes last Friday attacked missiles being transfered via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Putin and Netanyahu Meet Often, but Does Fear Reign?
The rare admission, which was contrary to the traditional Israeli policy of ambiguity, of neither confirming nor denying past strikes, triggered a chain of events in which, just hours after the attack, Israel’s ambassador in Moscow was urgently summoned to Russia’s Foreign Ministry and asked to provide explanations.
Media reports suggested that President Vladimir Putin, who is the sponsor and savior of the Syrian regime, expressed anger, while Syria’s ruler, Bashar Assad, boasted to Russian lawmakers that Putin had promised to rein in Israel. Israeli commentators wrote that the operational freedom hitherto enjoyed by the Israel Air Force is over.
Judging from statements by Israeli leaders and military commanders over the past two days, it seems they are not seriously worried.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a state visit to China, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot remained undeterred, delivering, more or less, the same message to the effect that Israel will continue pursuing its national security interests and defend its red lines in Syria.
Israeli policy is non-interventionist, with three exceptions. One is that the IDF retaliates from air and land whenever shells and rockets hit on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, regardless of whether it was targeted intentionally.
Another is the establishment of terrorist networks near the Israeli border; attempts to do so have resulted in the assassination of Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah commanders.
The third and most important exception is the occasional bombing, without admission, of convoys carrying and warehouses storing long-range, accurate missiles sent from Iran via Syria that are destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Since 2013, some 20 such incidents have been recorded by the media based on Syria’s official statements and rare Israeli claims of responsibility.
Since Moscow deployed its forces in Syria 18 months ago, Israel added another factor to the equation; it reached understandings with Russia in order to know each other’s interests and avoid mistakes and even dog fights between their two air forces. These understandings are formulated in the creation of direct lines of communication between intelligence and air forces of the two countries, and are known as a “deconflicting mechanism.”
The unrattled reaction by top political and military brass indicate that they know better, especially Liberman, who is considered to be close to and have a good understanding of the Putin administration. It is very likely that Putin is playing a two-sided game – he understands the Israeli concerns and interests, but when Israel confirms that it has attacked Syria, he has no choice but to publicly denounce it.
However, on top of the understandings with Russia and the red lines, there is now one more important Israeli interest – to prevent the deployment of Hezbollah or Iraqi-Shi’ite militias sponsored and guided by Iranian officers near the Israel-Syria border on the Golan Heights.
The recent success of the Assad regime and expected defeat of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria make this scenario more and more possible. Iran and Hezbollah hope to be positioned on the border and thus threaten to open a second front alongside Lebanon against Israel in case of a future war.
Israel is committed to stop this, either by reaching another understanding with Putin, and through him influencing Assad, Iran and Hezbollah in that direction, or, as a last resort, by force.
March 22, 2017
[This is based on an article for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of the history of Israel’s intelligence and security agencies — Spies Against Armageddon.]
We should not ignore — or underestimate — the warnings of the Syrian Government and its army’s capability to respond to Thursday night’s attack, which Syria attributed to Israel. The spokesperson for the Syrian Army claimed that Israeli planes flying near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) in northern Israel fired missiles that hit the Mezzah military airport, located near Damascus. The airport is approximately five kilometers from Basher Assad’s presidential palace. Opposition leaders claim that there were more targets, in addition to the airport.
This is not the first time that the Syrian Army and Assad’s government have blamed Israel for attacks in Syrian territory, threatening retaliation. Until now, the threats have been empty threats.
It is clear that Assad does not want to open a new front with Israel. Just recently, with the help of Russian fighter jets, Hezbollah forces alongside Iranian Shi’ite ground forces and the Syrian army were able to defeat rebel forces and regain territory. These successes raised the Syrian army’s morale, upping their confidence. In their next conflict or the one after, Syrian leadership may develop “Crying Wolf” syndrome. Strike after strike and in the end, Assad may decide to respond.
public CIA map of Syria
Another possibility is for Assad to use a proxy to attack, using Palestinians or Hezbollah on the Golan Heights border in order to rattle Israel. This is something that already happened two years ago when Iranian forces, together with Hezbollah, Palestinians and pro-Syrian Druze created cells which attacked Israeli posts in the Golan Heights.
According to foreign reports, Israel managed to squash the cells by assassination, which included Jihad Mughniyah, whose father, Imad Mughniyah (Hezbollah’s “defense minister”), was assassinated in a joint Mossad and CIA operation in 2008. Druze terrorist Samir Kontar was also killed.
The Israeli security establishment does not belittle threats from Syria, taking into account a reaction from Damascus, though the probability of an attack is currently low.
According to foreign reports, Israel has attacked Syria ten to fifteen times in recent years, eliminating sophisticated weaponry such as air defense systems, navigation and guided systems as well as long-distance missiles — all of which were supplied from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah.
However, what is especially interesting is Russia’s silence. A spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry has in the past warned the United States and coalition forces not to attack the Syrian regime. Yet Russia has remained silent on the alleged Israeli attack.
If Russia, Assad’s biggest supporter, was against Israeli attacks and warned against them, it would have limited Israel’s freedom of action.
This leads us to believe that there is probably a quiet understanding between Jerusalem and Moscow. Beyond “de-conflicting,” or preventing the two militaries from shooting at each other, the full nature of the agreement remains unknown.
The deal was reached in meetings involving Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel — with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military chiefs. It seems as though Israel enjoys freedom of movement in firing missiles into Syria.
It is possible to conclude that Russia understands that Israel’s interests are solely to prevent arms transfers of sophisticated weapons from reaching Hezbollah. They also know Israel’s red line. Israel has no interest in entering Syria’s civil war, not by supporting the rebels or by acting against the regime.
It seems that so long as Russia continues to accept these principles, Israel will continue to act from time to time with accurate intelligence.
January 15, 2017
[This post is based on an article written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, for the website Middle East Eye, after an attack on a military airfield near Syria’s capital, Damascus. As usual, Israel did not confirm that its forces carried out the attack. It was believed to be aimed at preventing transfer of advanced arms to Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Muslim militia in Lebanon that is controlled by Iran and closely allied with Syria’s Assad regime.]
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told a meeting of European Union envoys that his country was “trying to prevent the smuggling of sophisticated weapons, military equipment and weapons of mass destruction from Syria to Hezbollah.”
public CIA map of Syria
A strike against President Bashar Assad’s military can be indirectly perceived as an assault or humiliation of Russia, which is behind the regime. Indeed, it was reported that after the attack Russia asked Israel for a clarification of what it was up to.
Soon after Russia deployed its forces in Syria in spring-summer 2015, Israel was nervous and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to Moscow to appease Putin.
In the meeting and, in subsequent ones, the two sides established a special red line link for “deconflicting”, to avoid unintended clashes between the two sides.
Since then, Netanyahu has travelled three more times in the past year to Moscow for further talks with Putin. Subsequently, senior IDF and IAF officers met with their Russian counterparts to define the rules of the game over Syrian airspace.
Despite these arrangements, it is very unlikely that Israel informed Russia ahead of attacks on November 28 and December 7. Nations don’t do that, even with their friends, because it may very well jeopardise an operation and risk lives.
Bearing these circumstances and complications in mind, one has to reach the conclusion that the targets attacked inside Syria were very important to Israel and worth risking the ramifications.
One can also assume that the intelligence was excellent and that there was operational feasibility. Another conclusion which can be drawn from the incidents is that maybe Israel developed such sophisticated measures that its planes were not detected or even “blinded” by the Russian radars.
In the past, Netanyahu, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and his successor Avigdor Lieberman have repeatedly said that Israel has no intentions of getting involved in the civil war, but would religiously defend its national interests.
They include retaliation for, intentional or not, every violation of Israeli sovereignty and prevention of shipments of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel is mainly concerned about the Yakhont land-sea cruise missiles, anti-aircraft batteries and radars and components which will increase the accuracy of Hezbollah ground-to-ground missiles, capable of hitting almost every strategic or military site in Israel including the nuclear reactor in Dimona, IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, power stations and air fields.
Most probably these were the targets in the last Israeli strike in Syria, with the additional fine tuning by Lieberman that Israel is also concerned about transfers of weapons of mass destruction to Hezbollah.
It is, however, important to stress that Israel is also very careful to keep from violating Lebanese sovereignty. In the past – after an IAF strike on Lebanese soil – Hezbollah has threatened to retaliate. For the Shia Lebanese movement, Israeli strikes on Syrian soil are tolerable, but not in Lebanon.
The Assad regime promised in the past to retaliate for the violation by Israel of its airspace and sovereignty. But IDF strategists and planners know that these are empty threats. Assad can’t allow himself – and is actually incapable – of opening another front, especially one with the mighty Israeli military.
But they also know that there is a limit to what they can inflict upon Damascus. Not because of Assad but because of his patron – Putin.
There are two possibilities to explain the increased number of Israeli attacks in the last two weeks. One is that Israel is brazenly challenging Russia and playing a game of chicken with Putin.
But given Lieberman’s comments about WMD, it is more likely that Russia is playing a double game. It defends the Assad regime, but also understands the vital Israeli national interests and turns a blind eye when Israel takes action to defends these interests.
The operational military freedom which Israel has enjoyed to do whatever it likes in Syria since the civil war broke out nearly six years ago is narrowing. Israeli military and government know very well that Putin’s patience is running out.
December 17, 2016
[This blog is written by Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv, whose current book is Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. In 1989, they revealed decades of Israeli-Jordanian contacts and cooperation in their book, Behind the Uprising.]
Jordan’s King Abdullah gave private briefings to members of America’s Congress in January. That is rather routine. But apparently detailed notes leaked out, recently, and among other things the depth of Jordan-Israeli military cooperation — and strategic alignment — is revealed.
David Hearst, longtime journalist for The Guardian in Britain, published excerpts at his Middle East Eye site. (Click here for one of Hearst’s articles on the revelations.)
He writes that the king told about a midair confrontation between Russian planes — which intentionally were straying southwest of Syria’s border to test Israel’s air defenses — and Israeli and Jordanian F-16 jets which operated together. Abdullah said: “The Russians were shocked and understood they cannot mess with us.”
Israel and Jordan have had diplomatic relations ever since signing their peace treaty in 1994.
Abdullah told the members of Congress that he has spoken about Syria with Russia’s government and feels that he is speaking “on behalf of Israel.” He coordinates his positions with the director of Israel’s espionage agency, the Mossad.
That fits in with the Mossad’s traditional role as an alternative foreign ministry, when there are missions that don’t easily fit the daily duties of Israel’s official diplomats.
Abdullah did mention a significant disagreement he has with Israel. He wants the Al-Nusra Front, considered an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Syria, to be bombed by the Russians. Israel, however, sees some positive value in Al-Nusra as an enemy of Hezbollah (the Lebanon-based Shi’ite organization directed by Iran and involved in fighting in Syria).
The king said Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has genuine reasons to want to destroy Islamic terrorists — such as the bomb that blew up a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai last year — adding that Putin listens to Jordan’s advice 90 percent of the time.
April 3, 2016
Meir Dagan, the head of Israel’s espionage service Mossad from 2002 through the end of 2010, has died at age 71. He had been battling cancer — the one enemy that he could not outwit and outrun.
Yossi Melman, co-author of Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israeli intelligence, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, looks back at Dagan’s career — and his role as the key architect of secret sabotage aimed at Iran’s nuclear program.
On Thursday morning, after learning that retired General Meir Dagan had died, the current Mossad chief Yossi Cohen expressed — on behalf of the organization’s employees and its past chiefs — deep sorrow at the news of his death and sent condolences to the Dagan family.
Meir Dagan appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes (with Lesley Stahl) after his retirement
Dagan, the tenth “Ramsad” (Rosh ha-Mossad, meaning Head of the Institution), was appointed by his close friend Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and served atop the organization from 2002 until December 2010.
He is most identified with clandestine operations to prevent and thwart Iran’s nuclear program and its intentions to produce an atomic bomb.
During Dagan’s tenure, he implemented far-reaching structural changes in the Mossad with the aim of making it a more operations-based organization.
While Dagan headed the Mossad, a number of operations were attributed to the organization, including the assassination of five Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotage of equipment in Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the implanting of viruses into the computers that operated the centrifuges to enrich uranium at the Natanz facility in Iran. Some of these projects — though not the assassinations — were conducted in cooperation with America’s CIA and NSA.
Another important intelligence feat that is attributed to the Mossad under Dagan was a huge amount of information obtained from a laptop computer used by the chairman of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission. That intelligence was the smoking gun which shaped the decision by then-Prime Minster Ehud Olmert, with the tacit approval of President George W. Bush, to bomb the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. Israel has never publicly confirmed destroying that reactor.
Dagan enjoyed the privilege — which was very rare among Mossad chiefs, and other heads of world intelligence agencies — of befriending President Bush, who liked him and his creative mind very much.
Showing the Mossad’s impressive ability to operate in the capital city of the most hostile Arab country, Hezbollah’s military chief — Imad Mugniyeh — was assassinated in Damascus in 2008. Well placed sources described the operation as a joint effort by Mossad agents on the scene, with the CIA playing a role.
Dagan was born in the Soviet Union in 1945 to parents who were Holocaust survivors who moved to Israel after the founding of the Jewish state. He lived in Bat Yam and enlisted into the Paratroopers Brigade, becoming the commander of the Rimon reconnaissance unit which operated in the Gaza Strip during the height of a Palestinian terror wave in the early 1970s. Afterward, he was promoted to fill a number of roles in the IDF command, reaching the rank of Major General.
Among other things, Dagan is considered one of the developers of guerrilla warfare doctrine in the IDF, based on fighting — often ambushing — Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and later in south Lebanon. These operations cemented his image as a daring combatant who was ready to sanction any means to achieve his aim or target, including the assassination of terrorists.
During his time in the IDF, and especially during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Dagan was considered a confidant of General Ariel Sharon. After Sharon became prime minister, he appointed Dagan to head the Mossad, despite some discontent expressed among the rank and file of the organization.
Dagan was known to have, at least in his early days, hawkish political views. He even joined the Likud Party.
However, during the course of his work for the Mossad, and after he left the organization, his world view became more moderate. He urged that a peace agreement be reached with the Palestinians. He argued with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minster Ehud Barak about various security and diplomatic issues.
While in the Mossad, and even more so afterward, Dagan expressed his opposition to a military strike on Iran.
Dagan last year addressed a political rally of opposition parties that called on the public not to vote for Netanyahu.
In January of last year, Dagan expressed his fears about the future of Israel. “I don’t trust the leadership. I think that the prime minister and [Jewish Home party leader Naftali] Bennett are leading Israel to be a bi-national state, which in my eyes is a disaster and the loss of the Zionist dream.”
Dagan warned that Netanyahu was damaging Israel’s relations with the United States and bringing the ties to the brink of disaster. That, the ex-Mossad chief insisted, could be extremely costly for Israel.
Living in the shadow of the Holocaust — even showing visitors a photograph of his grandfather being humiliated by German Nazi soldiers — he was a strong advocate that Israel must have a strong military. Yet he also insisted that Israel needed to nurture its friendship with the United States and make peace with its Arab neighbors.
“I want to live in a Jewish state. I don’t want to be a slave master and have second class citizens,” Dagan said.
“Unfortunately, between the Jordan River and the sea, there are more than six million Palestinians, some of whom are Israeli citizens, and more than six million Jews. The policy that we are employing is very problematic on the Palestinian issue. And on the matter of our behavior toward our greatest ally, the United States. I am very worried,” Dagan added.
“After [the] Yom Kippur [War], I feared for the existence of the state of Israel. If we survived that and managed to make it, I was sure that we could deal with anything. I admit today that I have difficult questions about the directionin which the Israeli leadership is leading us,” the former Mossad chief said.
March 17, 2016
by Yossi Melman
[adapted from an article to appear in early October in The Jerusalem Report magazine by Yossi Melman — co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of the Mossad and Israeli security, Spies Against Armageddon]
The late-September meeting near Moscow between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin was prompted by the increased Russian military presence in Syria — and America’s stalled policy toward Syria.
By the end of September, Russia deployed in military bases near Latakia in Syria’s northern coastal strip 28 combat jets (12 Suchoi Su-24 bombers, 12 Su-25 ground attack aircraft and four Su-30 multi-role fighters); two types of drones, and 20 helicopters (a mix of gunships and troop carriers). There are indications, still difficult to verify, that Russia already has, or soon will need, more bases to house an expeditionary force.
While Israel, along with the Western intelligence services, tries to decipher Putin’s endgame, the Syria policy of President Barack Obama is in disarray. Congress has heard testimony indicating that the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has done little to weaken those Sunni Muslim radicals.
General Lloyd Austin, commander of US Central Command (in charge of the Middle East), astonished a Senate hearing recently when he admitted that a $500 million effort to create a “New Syrian Force” to tackle ISIS has so far resulted in only “four or five” fighters actively battling the jihadi army.
Following the recent tete-a-tete with the Russian leader, Netanyahu painted the encounter in bright colors and described it as “successful.” Putin made a point of saying that Russia’s relations with Israel are “friendly.”
However, past encounters between Israeli prime ministers and Putin have presented a more complicated picture. Amicability and protocol aside, such meetings neither changed Russian policy in the region nor moved Putin one centimeter closer to Israeli positions.
Netanyahu visited Russia’s Putin (RT Television)
In these meetings since Putin came to power in 2000, a recurring ritual has been established. Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Netanyahu stressed their concerns about sales of sophisticated Russian military hardware (missiles, air defense systems, aircraft) to Syria and Iran. The Israeli leaders presented intelligence reports showing that some of the hardware found its way to the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah movement, which is an Iranian proxy and practically an extension of Tehran’s military force in the region.
Putin and his aides listened politely, expressed their understanding, denied that they armed Hezbollah, claimed that arming Hezbollah was against their policy and promised to investigate the reports.
Upon their return home, each of the prime ministers, in a self-congratulatory manner, declared that they managed to persuade Putin – in sharp contrast to what eventually emerged.
This is more or less what happened with the latest Netanyahu meeting.
The Prime Minister, who was accompanied by Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Commander of Military Intelligence Herzl Halevi and National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen (soon to be announced as the next head of the Mossad) announced that the two countries decided to set up a joint committee to coordinate “deconfliction” — a military term used to describe reducing the risk of collision and inadvertent engagement between two forces operating in the same arena.
It was decided in a parallel meeting between Eisenkot and his counterpart General Valery Gerasimov that their deputies would head a joint committee tasked with dealing with airborne, seaborne, and “electromagnetic” (i.e. missiles, radars, and air defense systems) matters.
However, judging from past encounters, one should expect little or no genuine progress.
For example, for years, Israel tried to stop the sale to Iran of the advanced Russia S-300 air defense system, but Israeli and US pressure on Putin was in vain. In any event, the deal was eventually suspended by the Kremlin itself when it suited its interests and was recently reinstated with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal.
Briefing Putin on how Israel perceives the Syrian imbroglio, Netanyahu and his aides presented a very gloomy picture. They said Israel is once again worried about the “leakage” (transfer) of Syrian and Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. Israeli intelligence has evidence that even Russian-made Yakhonts ‒ long-range, advanced ground-to-sea missiles ‒ have found their way to the Shi’ite militia.
Israel is also bothered by the repeated attempts by Iran’s elite al-Quds Force, commanded by the charismatic and influential General Qassem Suleimani, to set up a “forward command” on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Suleimani’s plan has been, and still is, to use the area as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israeli troops and civilians by hiring “mercenaries” ‒ be they members of radical Palestinian terror groups or Druze fighters who have chosen to be loyal to Assad.
Taking advantage of accurate, real-time intelligence, Israel has often — without claiming responsibility — thwarted such efforts by deploying the air force to bomb the terrorist sites or vehicles. Israel has even killed Iranian generals and senior Hezbollah operatives involved in the operations.
But Netanyahu’s and Eisenkot’s most serious concern about the Russian presence in Syria is the fear that it will restrict the freedom of action that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in general — and the Israel Air Force (IAF) in particular — have enjoyed so far.
Israel is not interested in intervening in the Syrian civil war and has tried to stay away from it. Cynical as it may sound, Israel’s national security interests benefit from the bloody war that has greatly weakened President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
At the same time, Israelis are dismayed that the civil war has claimed the lives of a quarter million people and made nearly half of Syria’s population homeless or refugees.
Still, the civil war strengthens Israeli military superiority in the region and weakens its sworn enemies: Hezbollah and Iran.
On occasion, Israel has gotten involved to protect its own security interests. These interests have been defined by Eisenkot and his predecessor, as well as by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. They include the desire to stop the flow of advanced weapons to Hezbollah; to prevent terror attacks against Israelis on the Golan Heights, and to ensure, if possible, the safety of 700,000 Druze people in Syria, who are a major concern for their Israeli Druze brethren.
For more than a decade, even before the breakout of the civil war, IAF pilots flew freely over Syria. They attacked terrorist bases; broke the sound barrier flying over Assad’s palace in Damascus just to make a point, and, in 2007, destroyed a nuclear reactor built with the help of North Korea in eastern Syria.
In the 55 months of the civil war, at least 10 air strikes against weapons convoys between Syria and Hezbollah have been attributed to the IAF. They were carried out whenever good intelligence and operational feasibility warranted it, without the need to consult with anyone else.
Now, Israel may well need to coordinate its plans beforehand or in real time with Russia’s military.
The main purpose of Netanyahu’s snap visit was to try to create the mechanism to prevent undesired consequences vis-a-vis Russian forces and Syria and still preserve Israeli freedom of maneuver. The technicalities of deconfliction are of lesser importance ‒ they can be set by using “hotlines” set between the military commands of the two countries, or via identifying signals sent by warplanes to differentiate between friend or foe.
But what Netanyahu really wants is more than that. He hoped to reach a tacit understanding with Putin about the division of Syria into operational spheres of influence. Israel hopes Russian forces will not get close to the Israeli border — and that they will not hinder operations against anti-Israeli terrorists or interfere with IAF strikes on weapon transfers to Hezbollah.
Israel, for its part, promised Russia not to side with any player in Syria and not to get close to the northern part of the country where Russia forces are stationed.
It is doubtful, however, whether such high-level coordination is possible. Putin acknowledged in his conversation with Netanyahu that he is fully aware of Israeli security concerns.
But if he accepts Israel’s interpretation of self-defense beyond its territory, Putin will practically admit that Israel or any other country has the right, with Russia’s blessing, to violate Syria’s sovereignty.
As the major power supporting the Assad regime and its legitimacy, this is something Putin can’t afford.
Even by deciding to go to Moscow, Netanyahu’s freedom of action already has been restricted. Once again – as in the case of the nuclear deal with Iran – Israel is learning the hard way the limitations of its power when it is facing a superpower with important interests in the Middle East.
However, this is preferable to being exposed to the risk of military confrontation with Russia. Moreover, Israel is better off with Russia’s deeper involvement in Syria – rather than stronger meddling by Iran.
Putin’s endgame remains unclear – probably to ensure the existence of at least a “Small Syria” from Damascus to the Mediterranean coastal strip (where the Russian bases are).
However, one thing is certain: Putin decided to send his forces to save the Assad regime, or whatever is left of it, because he realized that neither Iran nor Hezbollah can get that job done.
September 27, 2015
[This report was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, for The Jerusalem Post.]
A notorious name from the past is surprisingly linked, now, with the unexpected violence in northern Israel and the Golan Heights.
Samir Kuntar — the Lebanese Druze terrorist who was incarcerated for 29 years in Israel for murdering in cold blood a baby — and then released in a prisoner swap with Hezbollah in 2008 — is responsible for whipping up violence among Druze on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. That’s what some Druze community leaders charged on Tuesday.
The comments came less than a day after Golan Druze carried out what Israeli authorities have termed “a lynching” of a wounded Syrian who was being transported by an IDF ambulance across the frontier late Monday. Some Druze activists have charged that the Israel Defense Force is helping the Nusra Front rebels in Syria (a branch of al-Qaeda, according to the United States) — clearly considered enemies of the Druze.
The attack on the ambulance (the second in two days) shocked Israel’s defense and political establishments, who have called for calm while taking pains to remind the Druze of the state’s historic commitment to their well-being. The Druze, a sect that are neither Muslim nor Jewish, neither Arab nor Jew, number around 140,000 in Israel (where their men serve in the Israeli military, often with distinction and making good advantage of their Arabic language) and 700,000 in Syria.
CIA’s public map of Israel: see Golan Heights in upper right
“The man who is behind the incident that is fueling the violent events here is Samir Kuntar,” said Jabber Hamud, the head of the Sagur regional council who also serves as the chairman of the Druze and Circassian local councils. “We’ve known this for some time, and I call on the heads of the defense establishment to do all that is necessary.”
After his release from an Israeli prison Kuntar became a senior official in Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite movement. He was put in charge of the Syrian part of the Golan Heights, with a special emphasis on the Druze community there.
According to Israeli military sources Kuntar commanded in the past months a few terrorist attacks aimed at Israeli soldiers in the area.
Hamud was speaking at a meeting of Druze community leaders in the village of Nabi Shu’ayb, a holy shrine of the Druze community. The meeting was also attended by prominent Druze from the Golan Heights, including the Druze border village of Majdal Shams, where the attack on the Israeli ambulance — the “lynching” — occurred.
The Druze leadership called the meeting to convey the message that they do not share the view that Israel is aiding Nusra Front jihadists in Syria.
Deputy Minister Ayoob Kara, he of Druze descent, sought to communicate the Netanyahu government’s position that Israel’s treatment of Syrians is a purely humanitarian matter.
A military source told The Jerusalem Post late Tuesday that the wounded Syrians who were attacked on the Golan Heights were not members of Nusra Front.
“As an Israeli Druze, I am spurred to answer the call to assist our Druze brothers in Syria,” said Salman Amar, the head of the Julis regional council. “We will do everything in our power to help them defend themselves against any attempt to butcher them solely because of their Druze background.”
“Thus far, almost 1,500 Druze have been killed in fighting in Syria, and we here did not say a word about it because the dead were soldiers and officers and fighters,” he said. “But once the community became a target for liquidation solely because of their Druze ethnicity, we cannot sit idly by. We will do what we can to protect them.”
Despite the emotionally charged atmosphere, Amar called on his fellow Druze to obey the law.
“The State of Israel is a country of laws, and everyone who breaks the law must be put on trial,” he said. “I call on the Israel Police not to hesitate in bringing the criminals to justice.
“Whoever attacks an IDF vehicle is a terrorist, and the attack was a terrorist act,” he added. “Whoever raises a hand to an IDF soldier must have that hand cut off, whether it is an extremist Druze, a Jewish fanatic, or a nationalist Arab. I will be a bitter enemy of whoever attacks the IDF, and it doesn’t matter what the excuse is.”
Kara told The Jerusalem Post that those responsible for the violence are “just a tiny minority” of the 15,000 Druze residents of Majdal Shams “who for a while now have been incited by the Assad regime in Syria as well as by Hezbollah, who have been disseminating deceitful propaganda about Israel’s supposed cooperation with Nusra Front.”
The goal of the campaign, according to Kara, is “to drag Israel into the civil war in Syria and to further divide the Druze community.”
Sources well-versed in the subject say that residents of the Syrian Druze town of Khader on the Syrian side of the Golan, 2 kilometers from Majdal Shams, have been told that no harm will come to them so long as they remain neutral in the civil war.
Nonetheless, there remain pockets of Khader that are solidly supportive of the Bashar Assad regime and even serve in its army. It is known that Syrian intelligence officers maintain a presence in the village, and there are quite a number of residents who enjoy either direct or indirect financial support from Damascus. That gives the Druze monetary incentive to back Assad.
The rebels fighting Assad have no desire to occupy the village. Instead, their goal is to gain control over the entire swath of area stretching from Khader to Damascus. In recent weeks, fierce gun battles have been reported on the main highway connecting Khader to Khan Arnabeh.
Israel’s strategy, however, remains the same as it has been manifested in the 50-months-long bloody civil war – to stay out and not intervene as long as peace, calm, and tranquility can be maintained along the Israeli-Syrian border.
June 23, 2015
[This post is adapted from an article originally written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon (a history of Israel’s security and espionage agencies), for The Jerusalem Report — and in recent days, Druze citizens of Israel have taken part in demonstrations demanding action by the Israeli military to rescue and protect their Druze brethren in Syria.]
A “Druze State” existed in Syria from 1921 to 1936 located in the Jebel Druze – which means Druze Mountain ‒ region: part of the volcanic heights in southwest Syria, around 40 miles from the Jordanian border and a similar distance from the Israeli 1973 ceasefire line with Syria along the Golan Heights.
Today, as pressure grows from the advancing forces of the Islamic State (ISIS), the Syrian Druze community is preparing to establish and defend its own autonomous zone.
For the first time since Syria’s civil war began over four years ago, it can be said that Israel may be sucked deeply into the bloody Syrian quagmire — because of pressure by Israel’s 130,000 Druze citizens.
The Druze State was an autonomous district during the days when the French ruled Syria and Lebanon between the two world wars. Its capital and central city was and still is As-Suwayda. During the state’s brief period of “independence,” the Druze led by Sultan al-Atrash rebelled in 1925 against the French.
The revolt spread to engulf the whole of Syria, but it was quashed within two years by the French. Still, the revolt did ensure that autonomy lasted until 1936, when the area’s special status was cancelled, and it was incorporated into Syria as part of the Franco-Syrian treaty signed the same year.
The Druze dream of independence vanished.
Yigal Allon, the late Israeli strategist
Thirty years after that autonomy ended, Yigal Allon — an Israeli cabinet minister and former general considered a hero of the 1948 War of Independence, entertained the notion of helping the Druze in Syria reclaim their independence.
Allon revealed that he had maintained contacts with the Atrash family, considered to be the main leaders of the Druze in Syria, and even had made a secret visit to Suwayda.
Allon’s idea was part of a larger geo-strategic concept, known as the Peripheral Alliance, which dominated Israel’s foreign and security policy from the 1950s to the ’70s. It was based on the old dictum of “my enemy’s enemies are my friends.”
Carried out covertly by the Mossad (as a kind of alternative foreign ministry) the Peripheral concept succeeded in forming secret ties with non-Arab states in the Middle East and its periphery – Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia – as well as non-Arab ethnic and religious minorities in the hostile Arab states. The secret relationships included mutually beneficial contacts with the Kurds in Iraq, Christians in Lebanon and Sudan, and the Druse in Syria.
During the Six-Day War in June 1967 ‒ before Israel captured the Golan Heights on the sixth and last day of the war‒ Allon lobbied then-prime minister Levi Eshkol, defense minister Moshe Dayan, his cabinet colleagues, and the chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin for an extended campaign that would intrude more deeply into Syria.
Allon urged an effort to conquer not only the Golan Heights, but also the Suwayda region.
“I dreamed the dream of the Druze republic” Allon recorded in his memoirs, “which would spread in southern Syria including the Golan Heights and would serve as a buffer state between us, Syria and Jordan.”
His proposal was rejected.
Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s Defense Minister
Today, the Druze question is again being discussed in closed-door meetings of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and senior cabinet ministers and officials. They have all taken note of the fact that the regime of Bashar Assad and his army loses more and more territory, and the forces of the Islamic State advance in the direction of Suwayda and its nearby villages.
Israeli policy has so far been consistent and reiterated on numerous occasions by retired military chief of staff Minister Moshe Ya’alon — who has kept his job as defense minister despite major cabinet changes after Israel’s election this year.
The policy Ya’alon voices is non-intervention, though with clear “red lines” that no party in Syria should ever cross.
The aim is to maintain quiet and tranquility along the 100-kilometer (62-mile) border in the Golan Heights, stretching from Mount Hermon in the North to the Jordanian border in the Southeast — and to defend Israel’s broder security interests, such as not allowing the Lebanon-based Hezbollah (funded and basically commanded by Iran) to acquire advanced weapons such as ground-to-air missiles.
Reports that are not officially confirmed by Israel credit the nation’s air force with bombing — on at least 10 occasions in the past two-and-a-half yars — convoys and storage depots meant to be used to transport Iranian and Syrian missiles to Hezbollah.
To achieve its goals, Israel has even allowed, without any interference, the radical Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) — which is practically a Syrian branch of al-Qaeda — to take over almost the entire border area from the Syrian army.
According to foreign reports (with full discussion within Israel discouraged by officials including the military censor), Israel has maintained secret ties with the Nusra Front to coordinate the successful execution of this policy. In return, Israel is said to supply some humanitarian aid; and Israel accepts and treats — in a field hospital near the border — wounded civilians and combatants from Syria (reportedly from villages and families associated mostly with the Nusra Front).
The secret ties led also to an understanding that Nusra Front guerrilla fighters would avoid clashing with Druze living in several villages – the biggest being Hader ‒ on the Syrian side of Mount Hermon.
When Hezbollah tried to gain a presence in the area by transferring in 500 militiamen from Lebanon and other parts of Syria, the local Druze communities — with Nusra and Israeli forces looming in the background — expelled Hezbollah from the neighborhood.
Not so incidentally, the militia that tried to take hold was commanded by Samir Kuntar — a Hezbollah terrorist of Druze origin who in 1979 murdered four Israelis (including a 4-year-old girl whose skull he crushed wit a rifle butt) on the beach at Nahariya after landing there with three other members of a Palestinian guerrilla group.
Kuntar was sentenced by an Israeli court to life imprisonment, and he served 29 years in an Israeli prison until he was exchanged in 2008 — with other Arab convicts — for the bodies of Israeli reservist soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser (whose kidnap on the Lebanon border sparked the 2006 war with Hezbollah).
Israel’s reasonable, though perhaps not highly moral policyof cooperation with Islamist groups on the Syrian side of the border, may soon change, however.
Ayub Kara, a Druze member of Israel’s cabinet
“The situation of our Druze brothers is rapidly deteriorating,” said Israel’s Deputy Minister for Regional Cooperation Ayub Kara, the only Druze member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. “I am very worried.”
Kara, who is one of the leaders of the Druze community in Israel and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, says he is in constant communication with Druze leaders in Syria.
In early June, political and religious leaders of the Israeli Druze community met to discuss the situation. It is clear that they will not be able to stand still and ignore events on the other side of the border in the event of atrocities against their Syrian brethren.
“I am a bit more relaxed about the situation in the Mount Hermon area, but much more worried about what happens in Jebel Druze,” says Kara.
On the Syrian side of Mount Hermon, there are approximately 25,000 Druze; but in the mountainous Suwayda region there are around 800,000.
“Until recently,” the deputy minister stressed, “ISIS didn’t dare to approach the Druze concentration in the Suwayda district, but now they are advancing with tanks and armored cars and are threatening our community.”
According to reports that have reached Israel, Islamic State terrorists in early June were still 30-40 kilometers away from Suwayda, but they already started to activate their brutal tactics. Dozens of Druze men and women were ambushed and abducted ‒ most of them burned alive or beheaded.
Suwayda prepared for battle: declaring a nighttime curfew, accumulating food, and organizing a militia to hold key defensive positions. The Assad government showed no willingness to send its army to defend the Druze.
Druze, wherever they live, usually do rely on local governments for safety and prosperity. This has been evident in Israel, where they serve in the IDF and police, and also in Lebanon and Syria (in normal times). In return the Druze show their loyalty to the government protects them.
However, this reality is changing in Syria. The Assad army legitimately feels overstretched and perhaps cannot do much to protect the Druze. But the other reason is political: The Assad regime recently demanded that the Druze community send 27,000 young men to serve in its army — as though to replace the dead, the wounded, and those who have deserted.
The Druze have refused to comply with the demand.
Feeling less secure than ever, the Druze are using Syrian army veterans in their community to organize a determined militia.
“But they lack proper equipment and expertise,” says Kara the Israeli politician, “and they are eager to receive support from anyone.”
Gen. Amir Eshel, commander of Israel’s air force
Including from Israel, he was asked?
“I am in a very sensitive position to answer that question, because I am a member of the Israeli government and whatever I say will be echoed and repeated. So I have to be cautious. However, I can say that they need help from any source.
“I can also add that we are their brothers and cannot be complacent and stand aside when their fate is at stake. We will work hard with all measures available to us to help our brothers if their lives are in peril. We will not let them be annihilated.”
Kara points to a declaration last September by the commander of the Israel Air Force, Gen. Amir Eshel. While meeting the spiritual leader of the Israeli Druze, Sheik Muafaq Tarif, Gen. Eshel assured him: “Our alliance with the Druze doesn’t end at the border.”
One can assume that if worse comes to worst and indeed the Syrian Druze community finds itself facing an existential threat, Israel will have to act in its defense — probably using its air force. And if it hesitates to do so, Israeli Druze will force the government to do so and fulfill Eshel’s promise.
June 16, 2015
[The original version of this article was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, for The Jerusalem Post.]
Deputy IDF Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan said Monday that Israel’s security situation on the northern border has improved as a result of the Syrian civil war, which has served to drain the blood of Hezbollah.
This notion was strengthened, afterward, by a very senior security official. Both spoke about the situations in Syria and Lebanon. Regarding Lebanon, despite inflammatory remarks made recently by Hassan Nasrallah warning Israel that if another war broke out it would suffer a major blow, the Israeli intelligence estimate is that Hezbollah has weakened and would not dare initiating hostilities with Israel.
On the surface, these appear to be trivial remarks, which have been repeated by military experts and analysts over the past several years. But to hear them from such senior military authorities is refreshingly new.
As far as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon are concerned, these comments verge on heresy. If our security situation has improved, does the IDF really need additions to its budget? And what about the approach taken by Netanyahu, who continues to warn, on every possible occasion, of the threat of Iran, Hezbollah and Islamic State?
In fact, Israel’s strategic situation has never been better.
Arab states that were once armed to the teeth, such as Libya and Iraq, have fallen apart. Egypt is a military and intelligence ally of Israel in its fight against Hamas, the Sinai terrorist threat.
Syria, prior to the civil war’s start in early 2011, was the greatest threat to Israel (although, to those who knew the truth, the Assad regime was not that much of a serious threat).
Today, Syria no longer actually exists as one sovereign, political entity, but rather is broken up into territories.
CIA map of Syria: Everyone’s Against Everyone
A small region in the Northeast is the Kurdish enclave.
Half of the country’s land, most of which is desert, mainly in the East, is controlled by Islamic State (known as ISIS, ISIL, or Da’esh).
In northern Syria and in the South on the border with Israel, on the Golan Heights, control is largely in the hands of the Nusra Front (the al-Qaeda affiliate that has been made more moderate by funding from Qatar).
The rest — which includes Damascus, the center of Aleppo, Homs and the coastal strip with the ports of Latakia and Tartus, in which President Bashar Assad’s Alawite minority resides — remains in the control of the regime. Soon, a new Druze enclave is also likely to be formed in the area of Jabal al-Druze in southeast Syria, near the approach to the Jordan border.
The Syrian Army is crumbling.
Iran is providing reinforcements to save what remains of the Assad regime, with the understanding that there is a limit to how many Lebanon-based Hezbollah fighters can serve as cannon fodder in a war to save Assad.
The situation in Syria has fallen into chaos. The US Embassy in Syria [which continues to be active, in effect in exile, with the building in Damascus closed for security reasons] tweeted on its official account Tuesday that the Syrian Air Force was striking rebel positions in the Aleppo area, helping Islamic State. ISIS is also fighting against the regime, but is mainly focusing its efforts against its adversaries among the opposition to Assad.
It is difficult to explain logically what is happening in Syria, and who is against whom. There is a feeling that everyone is against everyone.
With this being the case, any speculative report or rumor spreads its wings and takes flight with immediate headlines. That is why it was reported Tuesday in the Lebanese media that the Israeli Air Force again struck targets in Lebanon.
The Hezbollah-affiliated al-Manar television station was quick to deny the reports, and Israel, as is its custom, neither confirmed nor denied them.
Anything is possible. It could be an Israeli attack or a false report.
June 6, 2015
[This article was written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books.]
A revolution has taken place. The US has signaled that it is changing its policy toward Syrian President Bashar Assad.
It began with the Director of the CIA, John Brennan, who said that the collapse of the Assad regime could cause a more serious problem in Syria because it would pave the way for jihadist groups like ISIS to enter the power vacuum that would be created in Damascus.
The sign of the changing policy continued on Sunday when US Secretary of State John Kerry said that he was prepared to include Assad in negotiations aimed at ending the war in Syria. This is the same Kerry who just at the beginning of the month said Assad must be removed from power even if military pressure was required for the purpose. Now it seems that for the administration of US President Barack Obama, Assad is no longer the problem, he is part of the solution.
After the Kerry remarks, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said he was not specifically referring to Assad. She said Washington would never negotiate with the Syrian leader.
But the comments had already caused ripples among countries opposed to Assad. Commentators close to Gulf Arab governments opposed to his rule voiced alarm and dismay.
France, a major US ally, said its position was unchanged and that Assad could not be part of a negotiated solution in Syria.
The Kerry comments may demonstrate more than anything else the failure of the United States’ Syria policy. A change in the US approach to Assad now would be a victory for the Syrian leader and for its ally Iran who proved that the uncompromising military fight that they waged using all available military means, including chemical weapons, paid off.
It didn’t have to be this way. At the beginning of the Syrian tragedy in 2011 Obama should have been firmer and more aggressive. If he would have threatened Assad with military force then, in the first months of the popular uprising against the regime, and imposed a no fly zone over the country and provided more serious military support to the opposition, then composed mainly of secular forces, Assad may have fallen.
Instead of taking this approach, Obama preferred to sit back and do almost nothing. When he woke and threatened Assad militarily after he used chemical weapons against civilians, Obama retreated at the last minute opting to support the Russian engineered diplomatic compromise. This compromise indeed led to the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons capability – no small achievement, and an important one for Israel- but it kept the Syrian president in power.
The Obama administration is not only deserving of criticism for its wavering policy. It should be praised for having the wisdom to realize that there is a greater threat to the stability of the Middle East and to the West: The Islamic State.
Brennan and Kerry’s remarks are expressions of a new reality that is unfolding in the Middle East. Old understandings are dissolving and new alliances are forming. This is a complex reality. Enemies like Iran and the US are finding themselves on the same side of the fence even if indirectly in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
The Israeli View
Israel for its part, the United States’ veteran ally in the region, finds itself in turns clashing in the Syrian theater with Assad’s forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Also, according to foreign media reports, Israel is cooperating with jihadist organizations such as the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian arm.
Israel’s aim is certainly appropriate. The Israeli interest is to maintain neighborly relations with anyone who is present on its borders, whether it is Assad’s army or Nusra Front. In any event, the reality is mind boggling.
March 18, 2015
A few weeks after The Washington Post and Newsweek scored scoops by revealing that the CIA worked jointly with Israel’s Mossad to assassinate Imad Mughniyeh – the notorious Lebanese Hezbollah military commander blown to bits by a bomb in Damascus, this week 7 years ago – there’s now a second phase of revelations. Israelis who are close to the intelligence community apparently were concerned that the American side was taking too much credit. This report (summarized first at CBSnews.com) is based on the version the Israelis are telling to Western officials and diplomats.
By DAN RAVIV (CBS News correspondent and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon)
“Pe’al!” ordered the senior Mossad commander in charge of this extraordinary mission. Translated from Hebrew, this meant Go. Act. Push the button. The expert sitting beside the commander obeyed the order. He pushed the button. One hundred and thirty-five miles (215 km.) away in Syria’s capital, Damascus, an explosion tore a notorious terrorist to bits.
Imad Mughniyeh had been one of the most wanted terrorists on earth, second only to Osama Bin Laden at the time. Mughniyeh was the military and operations chief of Hezbollah: in effect the number-2 man in the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim faction that is heavily armed and financed by Iran.
The violent man’s life met its violent end, late at night on Tuesday, February 12, 2008: seven years ago this month.
A manhunt lasting a quarter of a century had come to an end. At Mossad headquarters at the Glilot Junction north of Tel Aviv there was great relief and even celebration.
In a most unusual example of operational cooperation, a CIA liaison officer was also in the Mossad HQ – part of the logistics and decision-making process for the assassination. The Israelis understood that officials at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, were also very pleased.
The leaks published in America last month – in one case, reportedly delayed for a year or more at the request of the CIA – highlighted the CIA’s leading role.
Yet Israelis close to their country’s intelligence agencies are telling Western officials something different: that the operation was almost entirely “blue and white” – referring to the colors of Israel’s flag – with hardly any “red, white, and blue.”
Some Israelis, it seems, object to seeing the Americans taking too much credit.
What follows is based on what knowledgeable Israelis have been telling Western officials and diplomats. They say the U.S. participated in the deliberations, the intelligence gathering, the surveillance, and some logistics of the assassination – but they call the assassination itself an Israeli operation: lock, stock, and barrel.
Imad Mughniyeh was born in 1962 in the Lebanese Shi’ite village of Tayr Dibba to a poor family of olive and lemon harvesters. He moved to Beirut as a child and despite his religious affiliation, he became active in the predominantly Sunni Palestinian al-Fatah movement.
In Lebanese Palestinian reports, Mughniyeh was even described as participating in the unit of bodyguards protecting then-PLO chief Yasser Arafat. But after the PLO chairman and his fighters were forced to leave Lebanon following the Israeli invasion in 1982 – just three years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran – Mughniyeh returned to his own religious cohort and joined Hezbollah, “The Party of God,” a heavily armed Lebanese faction established and nurtured by Iran.
He quickly involved himself in some of the most outrageous Hezbollah attacks, proving his loyalty and his skills. He was trained by the chillingly skilled Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In a bloody two-year period – between November 1982 and September 1984 – he was a key player in several car bombing attacks against Israeli, American, and French targets in Lebanon. Among his trademarks: videotapes made by the suicide bombers and their accomplices nearby. The terrifying impact was thus magnified.
The attacks of those years included two assaults on Israeli military headquarters in the southern city of Tyre, which killed 150 Israelis and Lebanese.
He orchestrated the suicide bombings of the U.S. Marines barracks and a French military building in Beirut, killing 241 American servicemen, 58 French paratroopers, and six Lebanese civilians.
He was also a major actor in the bombing of the 1984 U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which killed 63 people. And this was just the beginning. His career would mushroom over the next two and a half decades.
In 1985, Mughniyeh personally participated in the hijacking of a TWA airliner. After it was forced to land in Beirut, a U.S. Navy diver among the passengers – Robert Stethem – was tortured and killed.
The first image of Mughniyeh, then just 22 years old, was first seen in the pages of the Western press when photographed waving his pistol near the TWA pilot’s head in the cockpit. That photo was the key evidence used by U.S. law enforcement officials to indict Mughniyeh for murder in that incident. But for Israel, it would take another seven years to realize his significance.
The Hezbollah man was the architect of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which killed 29 people – including seven Israelis, among them one Mossad agent. This was Mughniyeh’s revenge for the Israeli helicopter attack that had killed Hezbollah’s top leader, Abbas Moussawi.
The Buenos Aires attack led Israel to acknowledge two important facts: One, that Mughniyeh would avenge every Israeli attack on his organization; and two, that Mughniyeh had to be wiped out
These realizations were further strengthened by an attack two years later, when along with his Iranian patrons, Mughniyeh masterminded the bombing of the Jewish community center in the Argentinian capital, which devastated the building and left 85 people dead.
From that point on, Israel used every opportunity it could to try to get rid of Mughniyeh. Numerous tentative plans were drawn up, but only three came into fruition.
In 1994, the Mossad conspired a devious plan to obliterate Mughniyeh: Lebanese agents working for the Mossad planted a car bomb aimed at Mughniyeh’s brother Fuad. Anticipating that Mughniyeh would attend his brother’s funeral, Israel planned to carry out their assassination of the Hezbollah military chief then: But Imad Mughniyeh, probably paranoid about possible attempts on his life, did not show up at the funeral.
A few months after Fuad’s death, Israeli intelligence managed to obtain precise information that Imad Mughniyeh was scheduled to board a flight from Damascus to Tehran using a false name.
The Mossad informed the CIA of Mughniyeh’s whereabouts, and the Americans orchestrated a redirection of the flight to Kuwait and dispatched a military plane from Saudi Arabia to bring Mughniyeh to justice in the U.S. courts.
But the CIA made a cardinal error: It disclosed to the Kuwaitis the identity of the wanted terrorist. Fearing retribution from Hezbollah should they accede to the U.S. demand, the Kuwaitis declined to order the passengers of the plane to disembark. Kuwait permitted the flight to take off to Tehran.
The next missed opportunity was completely the Israelis’ fault. After the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the senior echelon of Hezbollah – known as the top five – paraded along the Israeli border on a victorious patrol tour. Mughniyeh was among them.
Israeli reconnaissance photographed the five and transmitted the images to Aman (military intelligence) headquarters in Tel Aviv. They were identified; and an attack plan was put into motion. Drone aircraft that could fire missiles were launched.
Western intelligence sources say they were told by Israelis later that this was a “rare opportunity to disrupt Hezbollah’s leadership.” But the order to kill never came. Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was proud of ordering the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon after 18 years of occupation, feared that the relative calm would be disrupted if he had Hebzollah’s top leaders eliminated.
Senior officers in the Mossad were furious. Years of painstaking information-gathering efforts were wasted. But they had no choice but to accept their political leader’s decision and to wait for the next opportunity.
Mughniyeh, as the years went by, became more cautious. Israeli intelligence learned that he went to a plastic surgeon in Beirut to alter his appearance.
He also moved to the safe haven of Tehran, where he enhanced his professional and personal ties with the Revolutionary Guards commanders – particularly with the charismatic General Qassem Soleimani, who was head of the elite Al-Quds force.
After returning to his Beirut headquarters, Mughniyeh continued to travel frequently among the triangle of the capitals of Lebanon, Syria and Iran.
The Mossad hunters, experts in human weaknesses and knowing that nobody is immune to error, waited patiently – but desperately.
Mughniyeh did indeed make mistakes, basically feeling too safe in the Syrian capital. He went to Damascus for both business and pleasure.
For his bloody business, he would meet with his master and friend, Iranian General Soleimani, to coordinate and plot strategy. Often joining them was General Muhammad Suleiman, top security adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad and the man in charge of the regime’s nuclear reactor and its special military ties with Iran and Hezbollah.
After working hours, Mughniyeh would enjoy the pleasures that Damascus had to offer: good food, alcohol and women – most of which he would not risk indulging in back home in the religious Shi’ite neighborhoods of Beirut.
Mughniyeh had an apartment in the posh neighborhood of Kafr Sousa, home to Syria’s most wealthy businessmen and the military and intelligence cronies of the Assad regime. Feeling safe and secure due to his altered appearance and years of evading assassination attempts, Mughniyeh would travel in his SUV from Beirut to Damascus without bodyguards, often with his personal driver but sometimes alone.
Mughniyeh’s ease and confidence in the Syrian capital turned out to be hubris. The experts and spies in the Mossad and Israel’s military intelligence agency (Aman) slowly closed in on him.
The Israelis were surprised to learn, during strategic talks with their counterparts in Washington, that the Americans were just as eager to get rid of him.
Since 1975, the CIA had been forbidden by Congress to carry out assassinations – even of America’s worst enemies. But that policy changed after 9/11, when President George W. Bush ordered targeted killings using drone aircraft.
Nevertheless, in the eyes of the Bush administration – though not always understood by the Israelis – there was a huge difference between sending assassins and killing targets from the sky.
At a certain point during consultations with the Americans, then-Mossad director Meir Dagan proposed to his CIA counterpart, Gen. Michael Hayden, a joint operation to eliminate Mughniyeh.
Gen. Michael Hayden (as CIA director under President George W. Bush)
Hayden agreed, but he set two conditions: First, that no innocent people would be hurt: The Americans were very concerned by the proximity of Mughniyeh’s apartment to a girls’ school; second, that only Mughniyeh would be targeted – and that none of his Syrian or Iranian acquaintances could be touched. The United States was reluctant to stir up violent conflicts with sovereign states.
At least according to what Israelis have been telling Western officials, the Mossad did not need the CIA for active management of the operation. They had already gleaned all the details necessary about Mughniyeh’s daily routine and his hideout in Damascus.
The CIA was there, as they put it, to fill in any missing intelligence information and provide extra eyes in Damascus.
The Mossad certainly had its own excellent expertise, in its Kidon (Bayonet) special operations unit, when it came to killing terrorists. Still, the Israelis felt more comfortable having the CIA take part – even if the American role was seen as minor.
Ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan (Dagan on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” 2012)
As agreed by Dagan and Hayden, a senior CIA official from its operations directorate was assigned to the Mossad team working on the project. The command center was in Tel Aviv.
Kidon operatives, along with Aman signals intelligence Unit 8200, monitored Mughniyeh almost around the clock, zooming in on his safe-house and the parking lot nearby. Based on previous operations, it can be assumed that the team had some physical presence in the area. It was decided that the weapon of choice would be a bomb planted in or on a car parked near Mughniyeh’s apartment.
The CIA-Mossad relations hit a bump, for a while, when the Americans got cold feet and pulled out of the operation. The CIA began to reiterate its fears of the collateral damage that such an assassination would cause – concerned, despite Israel’s assurances, about the girls’ school nearby.
The Mossad was sorry to see the CIA pull out, but the preparations continued. Nevertheless, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered the Mossad to make sure that the “killing zone” of the bomb be very narrow, so that only Mughniyeh would be touched.
The “toy factory” of the Mossad and the Aman agency – their technological units – began designing, assembling and testing the bomb. It was a laborious procedure, requiring dozens of tests, until the results were satisfactory and matched the guidelines stipulated by Olmert. The process was filmed, time and again, for analysis and dissection.
Ehud Olmert, when prime minister
Contrary to the recent reports in the American media, the process of developing the bomb was carried out in Israel. Not in the U.S.
Once Olmert was confident that the bomb would be highly accurate, officials say they have learned from Israel that Olmert brought the video clips to Washington. He showed them to President Bush and asked him to bring the CIA back into the operation. The video clearly showed that the diameter of the “killing zone” was no more than 10 meters. Bush was impressed.
The next day, while he was still in the U.S., Olmert received a call from Dagan informing him that the CIA was back in.
The bomb was smuggled to Syria via Jordan, whose intelligence ties with the CIA and the Mossad had been tight and intimate for decades. The involvement of the CIA gave the Jordanians a sense of security in cooperating, in case of Hezbollah retribution.
There were two main obstacles to executing the operation. Mughniyeh’s visits to his Damascus apartment were random and could not be predetermined by the surveillance teams. Secondly, it was difficult for the teams to ensure that they would be able to secure a spot for their rigged car to be parked near Mughniyeh or his vehicle.
Eventually, the conspirators found an undisclosed operational solution which would give them enough warning time ahead of Mughniyeh’s arrival to prepare the trap.
The day of the assassination arrived: On the evening of February 12, Mughniyeh’s car was spotted pulling into the parking lot. The Mossad planners breathed a sigh of relief. The school nearby was closed for the night. Even if the bomb was unexpectedly flawed, the innocent school girls were not at risk.
But to the agony of the project managers, when the car doors opened, Mughniyeh was not alone: Iranian commander Soleimani and the Syrian nuclear coordinator Suleiman exited the vehicle with him. At the command center in Tel Aviv, the order was given: Hold.
The three buddies went up to the apartment. In Tel Aviv, the Mossad project managers and their CIA liaison waited, nervously biting their nails, on the verge of losing hope. A few hours later, the information arrived that Soleimani and Suleiman had left the apartment and been picked up by a car. The planners could now only pray that Mughniyeh would not remain in the apartment overnight.
About half an hour later, the surveillance team reported that Mughniyeh had entered the parking lot and approached his car.
In Tel Aviv, the order rang out: “Pe’al!”
The master terrorist, the Hezbollah commander whose trademark was car bombing, fell victim to his own craft in a blast of poetic justice.
Neither the United States nor America claimed responsibility for the attack, but Hezbollah guessed who was behind it and vowed revenge on Israeli and Jewish targets.
Mughniyeh’s successor, Mustafa Badr Adin, ordered attacks on Israeli embassies and tried to assassinate Olmert and senior Israeli military officers and officials.
But Badr Adin repeatedly failed. His only success was in 2012 at Burgas airport in Bulgaria, when a Hezbollah suicide bomber killed five Israeli tourists and their Bulgarian driver.
Olmert, who is now facing additional corruption charges after being indicted in an Israeli court, is loathed by the majority of Israelis. But analysts who watch the country’s security and defense policies believe that in those areas he was far-sighted, showed determination, and was willing to take risks.
In September 2007, just five months before ordering the assassination of Mughniyeh, Olmert unleashed Israel’s covert operatives and then the air force to destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor that North Korea had helped build in a remote area.
One can only imagine what the world would look like had the reactor been built and operated in an area now controlled by the brutal Islamic State (ISIS).
Six months after Mughniyeh’s assassination, Olmert approved a covert operation in which Israeli long-range snipers – apparently firing from a ship – assassinated Syria’s nuclear coordinator, Gen. Suleiman, while he dined with guests on the balcony of his villa overlooking the Mediterranean.
Days after Mughniyeh was killed, then Vice President Dick Cheney called Olmert and they exchanged congratulations for the successful operation. President Bush, too, held Olmert in high respect – reportedly telling someone he liked the Israeli leaders because “he has balls.”
Hezbollah has still not fully recovered from the loss of Mughniyeh. He played vital roles for the Shi’ite movement. He was Hezbollah’s military chief, mastermind of its most vicious terror attacks, liaison to its patron Iran for its “special operations” abroad, and responsible for the protection of his boss, Hassan Nasrallah. In short, for both Hezbollah and Iran, Mughniyeh was priceless.
Ironically, his son Jihad was killed by an Israeli airstrike on a Hezbollah convoy in January 2015. The Israelis, who have not officially acknowledged the attack in Syrian territory near the Golan Heights, were apparently not aiming specifically at young Mughniyeh – nor at the senior Iranian officer, Abu Ali al-Tabtabai, who was also killed.
Diplomatic sources said Israel was able to tell Iran, through channels, that it did not intend to kill Iranian soldiers in that strike. In addition, when Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel as retaliation for the death of Jihad Mughniyeh, Israel did respond emphatically.
The Israeli message was that – at this time, at least – war on the northern border was best to be avoided.
Some Israelis close to senior political and intelligence circles were not, however, willing to let the Washington Post and Newsweek versions of the assassination in 2008 stand uncorrected.
February 15, 2015
An unnamed Israeli source told the Reuters news agency that Israel did not intend to kill high-level Iranians or Lebanese Hezbollah, when an Israeli airstrike destroyed a convoy on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
But that doesn’t ring true. Keep in mind that disinformation is a major part of the shadow wars — the spy-versus-spy, bomber-versus-bomber, assassin-versus-assassin battles that have gone on for years.
Iran’s official media have confirmed — with the man’s picture — that a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was killed in the Israeli airstrike in Syria.
A news agency run by IRGC said Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was in Syria advising that country’s government on how to combat Sunni Muslim rebels; adding that Allahdadi died “defending the people and holy sites of Syria.”
The IRGC’s role isn’t even being hidden anymore. Lebanese reports said in addition to the general, several Iranian IRGC soldiers were killed by the Israeli airstrike.
Also killed were half a dozen Hezbollah fighters — including the 25-year-old son of Imad Mughniyeh, the notorious military chief of the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist movement who was blown up by an Israeli Mossad car bomb in Syria’s capital in 2008.
Why would Israel’s military now hint — through a leak — that killing those senior men was just a coincidence?
First, Israel’s intelligence agencies don’t want their enemies to know precisely how much Israel knows. Do the Israelis listen in to practically all cellphone conversations and intercept text messages?
Does it make sense that Israel — using a rocket-firing helicopter, according to the first leak, but now U.N. observers say they saw Israeli drone aircraft cross into Syrian airspace before the strike — would strike two jeeps, just because they were within a few miles of the Golan Heights armistice line?
Emblem of Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence)
We think it is more likely that Israel struck the convoy, because of information that senior Hezbollah men were in it.
The presence of the Iranians may not have been known, but it was always a real possibility.
The leak to Reuters is probably aimed at making a tense situation a lot less volatile — to soothe some of the anger. The suggestion is made of an intelligence mistake by the Israelis, hinting that they did not intend to kill a senior Iranian — and therefore Iran shouldn’t overreact.
A former Israeli military intelligence chief, retired General Amos Yadlin (who this week became the official pick for Defense Minister by the Labor Party-led coalition called “The Zionist List”), was asked if he would order the airstrike in the knowledge there was an Iranian general in the vehicles.
“We don’t check the identity cards or passports of people who are engaged in terrorism attacks on Israel,” Yadlin replied.
But a smart espionage community like Israel’s does, in fact, try to be entirely aware of whom it is striking — and what the consequences could be.
A lingering question is whether the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, may have ordered the airstrike in the belief that it would boost his reelection campaign. Israelis will be voting in mid-March.
The Israeli government strongly denies that; and there is the reality that the blowback — retaliation by Hezbollah, Iran, or both — could be so disruptive and damaging that Israeli voters will not be happy about the airstrike.
Yadlin predicts that Hezbollah (probably with Iranian assistance) will hit back at Israeli facilities or citizens — but “far away from Israel and Lebanon.”
Indeed there are many indications that Hezbollah and Iran don’t want a hot shooting war with Israel at this time.
Still — just in case — the Israeli military is reinforcing the Northern front: along the frontier with Lebanon and on the Golan Heights. The Israelis permitted publication of the fact that an Iron Dome anti-missile system was moved to the North to protect Israelis. Hezbollah could, after all, rain down with tens of thousands of missiles.
(first published here at IsraelSpy.com on Jan. 20, 2015)
February 14, 2015
Another new detail has emerged about the assassination of Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh — in Damascus, Syria, in 2008.
After the bomb blast that killed Mughniyeh — a “most wanted” terrorist from a U.S. point of view and an active enemy from Israel’s perspective — Vice President Dick Cheney telephoned Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to say, in effect, “job well done.”
This was a rare, extremely high-level joint mission. It wasn’t aimed at gathering intelligence (as other joint missions have been) but at liquidating a joint enemy.
Cheney phoned Olmert to thank him for the cooperation. Leaders in both the U.S. and Israel were satisfied.
The intention, at the time, was to remain eternally silent about the mission.
January 31, 2015
One should ponder why American officials would suddenly leak details of the assassination of Hezbollah’s military chief, Imad Mughniyeh, seven years after the lethal explosion in Damascus.
Why would they decide to tell reporters on the espionage beat that the CIA acted together with Israel’s Mossad? And why would they apparently emphasize that the CIA was on the spot in Damascus, doing the key job of planting the cleverly designed bomb – after the bomb was created and tested at a base in the United States?
The answer seems linked with the current, recently increased tensions between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It is as though Obama wishes to remind Netanyahu that Israel still needs the United States: America’s expertise and long reach.
President Obama, annoyed at Bibi Netanyahu again
White House officials are obviously angry that Israel’s prime minister plans to come to Washington to address a joint session of Congress on March 3. The event designed by Republican leaders in Congress is aimed at adding pressure to their desire for legislation that would threaten tougher sanctions against Iran.
Netanyahu would love for such a bill to pass, but he seems to be ignoring Obama’s strong opposition to the bill.
Obama has explained that if Congress insists on threatening more sanctions now, that might give Iran an excuse to walk away from the nuclear talks – with the U.S. and five other nations – and some in the world may blame America for derailing the process.
Benjamin Netanyahu Plans to Address Congress — Over Obama’s Objections
Obama claims he gives the talks with Iran only a 50-50 chance of success, and he says U.S. military action against Iranian nuclear facilities is a real possibility.
Netanyahu, for years now, hints at the possibility of unilateral military action against Iran by Israel.
He has been criticized by his opponents – in Israel’s election scheduled for March 17, a mere two weeks after the speech to Congress – for ruining relations with Israel’s all-important ally in Washington.
Netanyahu’s critics, both in Israel and in the U.S., say the tiny country of 8 million people seems to forget that it is the junior partner in an alliance with a superpower (of over 300 million people).
When American officials point to a joint mission with Israel to kill a notorious terrorist in 2008 – emphasizing the leading role played by the CIA, while the Mossad was the junior partner – that seems to include a political message that the Israelis should remember their place and their dependence.
January 31, 2015
In Damascus, seven years ago – before the civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people in Syria – the military chief of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia was assassinated.
Israel never admitted responsibility for the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, who was responsible for many attacks on the Jewish State but also lethal bombings and hijackings that took the lives of hundreds of Americans.
Suddenly this weekend, CIA sources have been telling The Washington Post and Newsweek that American intelligence officers – acting surreptitiously and courageously in Syria’s capital – were primarily responsible for assassinating Mughniyeh.
The unofficial but reliably based Israeli version of events confirms that Israel and the U.S. were acting together. Israeli officials refuse to say whether Israeli (Mossad) operatives were on the ground in Damascus, but based on their successful similar operations in Beirut, Lebanon, it would seem logical – if daring – for the Israelis to be there.
The Israeli version confirms the new reports’ assertion that the signal to detonate the bomb that killed MUghniyeh was transmitted from Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv; and that might reflect the CIA’s reluctance to engage in assassinations.
The new accounts say that in Washington the CIA had to make a case – because of U.S. legal concerns – that Mughniyeh continued to pose a potent, deadly threat to Americans. The Post reported that President George W. Bush enthusiastically approved of the killing, after CIA director Michael Hayden felt uncomfortable about the mission.
How this seemed different from the drone strikes that killed dozens of alleged terrorists is not clear.
In our book, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, we wrote of unprecedented cooperation in recent years between the Israeli espionage agency, Mossad, and the CIA – including joint operations which would have seemed unthinkable prior to 9/11.
*THEY COULD’VE GOTTEN A SENIOR IRANIAN
Sources close to the Israeli side of the mission confirm that the Mossad was acting jointly with the Americans – and they confirm that the CIA was very concerned that “collateral damage” be avoided, including the possibility of killing of a senior Iranian operative who was with Mughniyeh in Damascus. That man was identified as Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officer in charge of liaison with Hezbollah.
The Israeli side suggests that its desire to include Soleimani in “the hit” was vetoed by the Americans.
Our sources continue to say that Mughniyeh was not as careful as he should have been, because in Syria’s capital he was “fooling around” with women. In Beirut, especially as a senior officer of the conservative Hezbollah (Shi’ite Muslim) movement, he would not have engaged in such reckless behavior.
In Damascus, Mughniyeh was visiting a girlfriend – and that was his fatal downfall.
January 31, 2015
Amid growing tension in the wake of the death of six Hezbollah operatives and six Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders, killed by a missile while on a reconnaissance mission on the Syrian Golan not far from the Israeli border, contradictory messages are emerging.
On Tuesday, Reuters quoted a “senior security source” in Israel saying the Iranian general killed in the operation – attributed by the foreign media to the Israel Air Force – “was not the target.”
If the citation and source are genuine, the meaning is clear: There is an effort to send appeasing messages to Iran in order to prevent further escalation, which could lead to a general confrontation with Hezbollah.
It can also be interpreted as an Israeli admission that it carried out the operation, and that it was an intelligence and/or operational failure.
But within hours of the Reuters story, an “official security source” issued a statement to the effect of refuting the first one, saying that “the State of Israel neither comments on the event in Syria nor on reports about it, which didn’t come from officials.”
It may well be that the two sources are actually one, using double-speak: Sending a conciliatory message to Iran while at the same time, signaling a different hint to Israeli voters, two months before the election.
Whatever intentions have been concealed, it seems that someone fears an entanglement with Iran – whose senior military commanders promised this week to avenge the killing of their comrade.
Under the official cloud of secrecy and silence, it is difficult to dissect what really happened behind the scenes which led to the attack. But it is known that the Israeli decision-making and approval process for targeted killings and assassinations is thoroughly deliberated; the various agencies of the intelligence community are required to collect data and information on potential targets. This includes every piece of intelligence regarding the target’s daily routine; their importance in the relevant hostile organization or military structure of an enemy country; and the domestic, regional and international ramifications in case an elimination order is given.
The flow chart of the decision-making process goes in both directions – from the political echelon to the security/military apparatus, and vice-versa. It is desirable to reach a unanimous decision but sometimes, disagreements do appear in the deliberations between the two levels or within each of them.
For example, and this has happened in the past, the chief of military intelligence – a key player – can oppose the suggested course of action, while his peers in the IDF General Staff or the Mossad support it. While the final word is in the hands of the defense minister and the prime minister, military and intelligence commanders can greatly influence the process and can practically prevent dangerous or overly adventurous decision from being taken.
Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s Defense Minister
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war nearly four years ago, Israel has adopted a non-interventionist policy. The only deviations have occurred when “Israeli interests are jeopardized,” as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has declared on several occasions.
Israel has responded with measured, low doses of artillery shells or missiles when its territory on the Golan was occasionally bombed by the Syrian army or Hezbollah.
According to foreign sources, convoys carrying Syrian or Iranian weapons via land from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon have been attacked by Israeli forces at least 10 times in the past. For Israel, preventing the transfer of long-range advanced missiles or anti-aircraft weapons is considered “a vital interest.”
The message being clear: It must be stopped.
But all in all, Jerusalem has tried to restrain itself – to the point that even when shots were fired at the Israeli side, which turned out to be erroneous fire, the IDF held its guns.
Israel has long maintained that its ultimate interest is upholding peace and tranquility along its border with Syria. To that end, Israel has taken in injured Syrian fighters and civilians for treatment in its hospitals, and has supplied humanitarian aid.
Lebanese and the Iranian media have even accused Israel of cooperation with the Nusra Front, considered the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda – which now controls the 100-kilometer border strip between Israel and Syria, and is fighting Hezbollah.
Clearly, the attack this week against Hezbollah and the Iranian commanders may endanger the Israeli wish for quiet.
On the other hand, one should not ignore the fact that in recent months Hezbollah has made inroads into the Syrian Golan, close to the Israeli border. It can be assumed that the inspection tour by Hezbollah and the Iranian entourage was part of this expansion effort to establish a “Golan command.”
Hezbollah officials, including secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, claim this is a reaction to what they perceive as Israel’s breaking of tacit understandings. They accuse Israel of being behind an attack a few months ago on a convoy probably carrying sophisticated weapons – which, in a first, was attacked not on Syrian soil but inside Lebanese territory.
Monitoring these developments, Israel sees Hezbollah as wanting to create a launch pad to challenge it from a second front, in the event that a third Lebanon war breaks out.
Much speculation was raised in the media about who was the target of the last attack. In all probability, it wasn’t the Iranian general. But it is also very unlikely that it was Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh, who was considered Hezbollah’s “defense minister,” and was Nasrallah’s right-hand man and the darling of IRGC’s top commanders.
(Imad Mughniyeh was killed in 2008 in Damascus by a bomb planted in his car; Hezbollah, Iran and Syria accused the Mossad of the assassination.) Unlike his father, the 25-year-old Jihad was neither a senior nor a daring nor a skillful military commander.
Yet he was an icon for Iran and Hezbollah, the son of the legendary Imad, and thus granted leadership of the so-called Golan Command.
Several experts believe the real target was Abu Ali Tabatabai, a senior Hezbollah commander in charge of “special forces,” currently fighting and dying in the Syrian civil war while defending the Assad regime.
In case a war breaks out in the future, these special forces have also been charged with moving the battles inside Israeli territory in order to capture small, rural communities.
Hezbollah has a military force of some 30,000 soldiers, most of them non-conscripts who are called up for reserve duty – almost exactly like in the IDF. It is a very disciplined and hierarchal force, and its mid- and top-level commanders are adept and professional. Experience has shown that after losing top commanders, either in the Syrian killing fields or due to assassinations, Hezbollah has found it difficult to find adequate replacements – and cultivating them takes time.
Today, seven years after the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, the Shi’ite organization hasn’t recovered from his loss.
Yet the ultimate test of whether the decisions to get rid of Imad Mughniyeh, Tabatabai and the Iranian general were right, or whether the risk was misplaced, will come in the future.
It will depend on whether Hezbollah and/or Iran retaliate as they have promised, and whether that retaliation causes a major, painful blow to Israel.
January 23, 2015
[This analysis was written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of books including “Spies Against Armageddon.”]
In the euphoric years between the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the leaders of Israel — with defense minister Moshe Dayan chief among them — had a tendency to boast that “our situation has never been better.”
Within a relatively short time, reality flipped on them and the illusion died at the painful price of some 2,700 fallen soldiers. Since then, the same turn of phrase has been avoided.
Nonetheless, there is no better phrase to encapsulate Israel’s military situation in 2014.
According to most estimates, evaluations, and analyses by experts and all those correctly viewing reality — without any personal, political, or ideological bias — Israel?s military situation improved in the past year and its qualitative edge over its enemies has grown.
In actuality, Israel is the strongest military power: not only in the Middle East, but in the entire region stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. There is not a single state or coalition of states that has the military ability to threaten Israel’s existence or defeat it on the battlefield.
THE EASTERN FRONT: SYRIA AND IRAQ
In the East, the two large armies that made up this front in the past — those of Syria and Iraq, which in the past were considered major threats by Israel — have completely receded.
Iraq today is a country disintegrating into three or four parts. Despite the tens of billions of dollars invested by the U.S. in Baghdad?s army, it collapsed like a house of cards in the battles of the past half-year against Islamic State (ISIS).
In Syria, the civil war continues and March 2015 will mark four bloody years of conflict with no end in sight.
Armed Hezbollah fighters (courtesy The Israel Project)
Syria is a completely dismantled state. Bashar Assad’s regime controls only around a quarter of the country’s territory, mostly Damascus and its surroundings, the coast, a few other cities, and the roads connecting them. Assad’s army has suffered heavy losses in battles with the various rebel groups, both on the battlefield and through the desertion of tens of thousands of soldiers, including high-ranking officers.
Even without a U.S. attack on Assad — as threatened by Barack Obama after Syria’s army used chemical weapons — the international community has confiscated the regime’s chemical weapons, which had been developed and produced to answer the nuclear capability that Israel is reputed to have.
Even if the Syrian regime retains some residual chemical capability with Sarin gas and certainly chlorine, as is estimated among Israel’s intelligence community, that still does not pose a real threat.
This is evidenced by the fact that Israel stopped distributing gas masks to the public.
THE NORTHERN FRONT: LEBANON
In the North, Hezbollah has been significantly weakened over the past year. The group is up to its neck in the Syrian civil war, in which it serves as an Iranian military wing in defense of the Damascus regime.
However, the price that Hezbollah is paying for becoming more and more of an Iranian proxy and less and less of a Lebanese Shi’ite group is very heavy.
Hezbollah has lost hundreds, if not more than a thousand, of its best fighters in the Syrian war.
Among those lost are senior commanders with abundant battle experience. They are being buried in the dead of night in order to hide the ugly reality from the Hezbollah’s members.
Morale is low. Many in Lebanon, especially within the Shi’ite community on which the group relies, are asking the key question: Why do young Lebanese men need to sacrifice their lives for a foreign regime? In a certain manner, Syria is Hezbollah’s Vietnam.
At the same time, the war in Syria is crossing over into Lebanon itself. ISIS and extremist Sunni organizations such as Jabat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, are transferring the war to Lebanese territory. They are blowing up car bombs in the heart of Shi’ite strongholds, planning ambushes on the Shi’ite group’s fighters, and forcing Hezbollah to take cover and defend its home.
IN THE NEXT POST:
ISRAEL’S SITUATION VIS A VIS EGYPT AND IRAN
January 2, 2015
It’s only an unconfirmed report, but it is starting to get attention in parts of the Middle East: that five nuclear experts were killed in an ambush while riding a bus to their workplace in Syria’s capital, Damascus, a few days ago.
The story immediately fueled conspiratorial theories that Israeli intelligence, namely the Mossad, may have accomplished a daring mass assassination.
This all began with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported that this attack occurred on Sunday near the Barzeh neighborhood of Damascus.
Barzeh is the site of a small nuclear laboratory run by President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Barzeh has a Chinese-built miniature neutron source reactor, a compact research reactor copied from a Canadian design.
This reactor, from its inception, has been under the supervision of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency. IAEA inspectors have visited the site many times.
The CIA’s Reconnaissance Photos of Syria’s Reactor in 2007 — Before and After Israel’s Air Raid
The truth — it turned out — was that the small Barzeh reactor, fueled by highly enriched uranium supplied in miniscule amounts by China and a few other nuclear facilities, served as a decoy. While its presence and work were fully registered with the UN’s IAEA, Barzeh was diverting attention from the secret construction of a much bigger nuclear reactor in eastern Syria being built by North Korea — the one that was bombed by Israel’s air force in 2007, with no announcement or official confirmation by Israel.
The Syrian government has not yet reacted to this week’s reports. The Iranian media also ignored it, until Iran’s Press TV put out a short item about the incident — although it fails to mention that probably one of the five dead experts was an Iranian engineer.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which occurred in an area controlled by forces loyal to President Assad.
As exciting or intriguing as it may be to attribute the attack to Israel, there is no evidence to back up such an assertion. Israeli involvement is, in fact, unlikely.
Israeli analysts believe that after the nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria was destroyed in September 2007, when it was on the verge of being operational and capable of producing plutonium as fissile material for nuclear bombs, the threat of Syria becoming a nuclear power was removed.
According to foreign news reports, Israel has occasionally interfered in the civil war by sending its air force to bomb convoys of Syrian trucks transporting sophisticated weapons bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel perceives any ground, sea and air missiles supplied to Hezbollah as a threat.
But that is not how Syria’s practically non-existent nuclear program is seen.
Thus, there is no incentive for Israel to risk its intelligence-gathering operatives and military forces by launching an assassination mission. Put simply, Syria no longer poses a serious military – not to mention nuclear – threat to Israel. So why bother?
Furthermore, it is not the first time that Syrian nuclear scientists were targeted during the civil war. In a similar incident in July of last year, six people who also worked at Barzeh were killed in a mortar attack carried out by anti-government militants.
It thus seems likely that a murder of five nuclear experts was not the work of Israel — but another act of violence by one of the rival groups fighting the Assad regime.
We shouldn’t even rule out the possibility that it was an act of revenge – an inside job by the regime itself, for reasons unknown in the fog of a civil war that has raged for nearly five years.
November 11, 2014
By noting the stunning story of Gill Rosenberg at IsraelSpy.com we are not suggesting in any way that she is employed by Israel’s espionage agencies.
Gill Rosenberg (right), apparently with a colleague in “YPJ,” a Kurdish women’s militia
Born in Canada, she attended a Jewish high school and learned how to fly aircraft at a technology college in Vancouver. Rosenberg “made aliyah” [immigrated] to Israel and joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). She was an instructor in search-and-rescue techniques.
Rosenberg once told an Israeli interviewer that she tried to join the Mossad — hoping to be involved in covert operations around the world — but was rejected by the spy agency.
Later, according to Israeli officials, she became involved with criminals and took part in a bogus lottery conspiracy that defrauded senior citizens in the United States. American prosecutors had her extradited, and she served around three years in prison in the U.S.
Gill Rosenberg’s photo of Erbil’s airport (from her Facebook page)
As chronicled on her Facebook page — where she Israelized her name to Gila Rosenberg — she returned to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and reconnected with favorite places and friends.
Obviously a daring woman, she made her way this month to Jordan’s capital, Amman, and then flew to the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, Erbil.
She must have found it easy there to make contact with Kurdish factions that have fighters in both Iraq and Syria — doing their best to hold back the vicious and relentless forces of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Rosenberg’s selfie: on Facebook, she indicates this is in Iraqi Kurdistan
In a Facebook post on November 9, she wrote: “In the IDF, we say אחריי [achara’i] – After Me. Let’s show ISIS what that means.”
Rosenberg apparently believes she can bring some of the bold spirit of Israel’s army — including the notion that leaders lead at the front and not from the rear — to the Kurdish battle against ISIS.
In Israel, her lawyer told Reuters that going to Syria to fight “is exactly the sort of thing she would do.”
Israeli legal authorities have prosecuted some Arab citizens of Israel who entered Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Some are believed to have joined affiliates of ISIS. Israeli law bans unauthorized travel to “enemy states” including Syria and Iraq. There were no indications from Israel that Rosenberg might face prosecution — if and when she returns from the Syrian civil war.
Syrian Kurds said Rosenberg is the first foreign woman to fly in to join them in their battle against murderous Islamist radicals.
November 11, 2014