The IAF ‘scalpel’ and the epidemic of weapons transfers

The IAF ‘scalpel’ and the epidemic of weapons transfers

Monday's alleged IAF strike against Hezbollah-bound weapons is yet another stage in the deadly game playing out in the border regions to Israel's north

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

IAF pilots near a plane after training (Illustrative photo: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
IAF pilots near a plane after training (Illustrative photo: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

In January, during his annual address at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, the commander of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, spoke about the current “war between wars.” The IAF, “a sledgehammer,” he said, was being asked to do the “work of a scalpel.”

That appears to be what happened on Monday night. According to Lebanese sources, four “warplanes for the Israeli enemy,” flying southwest off the sea, entered Lebanese airspace at 9:50 p.m., streaking toward the Beqaa Valley. Thirty-five minutes later, the planes exited Lebanon via Nakoura and were back out over the sea.

The strikes took place in the northern Beqaa Valley region, “where recruitment and training of [Hezbollah] fighters are carried out,” and along “a well-known route for arms smuggling between Lebanon and Syria,” according to the Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star.

Al Arabiya suggested that the target was a convoy of long-range surface-to-surface missiles. This was not confirmed. But what is clear, according to Maj. Gen. (res) Eyal Ben-Reuven, the deputy commander of the northern front during the Second Lebanon War, is that the front, ever since Hezbollah and Iran came to the aid of the then-waning Bashar Assad, has changed shape entirely. “Today Lebanon and Syria are one front, under the umbrella of Iran,” Ben-Reuven said in a conference call.

The tens of thousands of rockets and missiles Hezbollah possesses have always come largely from the stores of the Syrian army. Today, though, the balance of power has shifted. Bashar Assad won Qusayr and held the capital thanks to Hezbollah soldiers on the ground and Iranian Quds Force officers at the helm. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, is now “running the war himself,” according to a 2013 New Yorker profile. Iran, which gave the regime a $7 billion loan in 2013, has been sending troops and arms daily to Damascus.

The price for these self-serving heroics, Ben-Reuven said, is the delivery of “game-changing weapons” to Hezbollah.

The transfer of those arms – the cornerstone of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria – is a murky, deadly affair. Hezbollah troops guard an array of arms depots in Syria. They might simply be safeguarding the weapons from rebel troops or they might be watching over the arms until the order is given to move the matériel into Lebanon. Quite possibly both. Further complicating matters, many of these weapons are put into motion and then, according to a January report in The Wall Street Journal, transferred “piece by piece” to Lebanon.

On Monday night, after weeks of clear skies in the region, Hezbollah may have tried to operate under the cover of stormy weather, veteran military affairs analyst Ron Ben-Yishai wrote Monday. If so, the organization’s calculations were off. Brig. Gen. (res) Asaf Agmon, the head of the Fisher Institute, said that while meteorological conditions are a factor “that always influences things,” the IAF has the sort of thermal or radar-guided capacities “to operate in this sort of weather.”

Amir Eshel (left) with Benny Gantz (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Amir Eshel (left) with Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Eshel did not elaborate on the difficulty of tracking weapons through the mountainous and fog-enclosed border regions. He did say, though, that the “bubbling spring” of continuous, low-grade conflict was “a daily problem,” which the IAF, on account of its flexibility and near-immediate readiness, was uniquely equipped to deal with.

Acknowledging, though, that certain actions could, as in 2006, spark a full-scale conflict, he said that the test of each decision made is that “the efficacy will be immediate and will not make things worse or lead to war.”

Thus far, the alleged Israeli considerations have proved correct but the Middle East, as Ben-Reuven noted, has a logic of its own.

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