IDF plans for possible Syria operation as jihadist, Hezbollah threats mount

Military drilled last week for advance into Syria, evacuation of northern civilians, in response to Islamist attack; Israel says Iran directing Hezbollah activity in Golan

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon seen with Colonel Asher Ben-Lulu, commander of the IDF's Kfir infantry brigade, during an army exercise in the Golan Heights on April 02, 2015. (Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon seen with Colonel Asher Ben-Lulu, commander of the IDF's Kfir infantry brigade, during an army exercise in the Golan Heights on April 02, 2015. (Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)

The Israeli military is preparing for a possible ground operation on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights in the event of sustained rocket strikes or coordinated terror attacks against Israel either by Sunni jihadists or Hezbollah operatives.

The number of Islamists flooding into the area close to the border with Israel has the IDF on high alert, Channel 2 reported Sunday, adding that the military held a large-scale drill last week simulating a possible advance into Syria and the evacuation of Israeli civilians from border communities.

According to a Channel 10 report Sunday, the drill included preparation for a scenario in which Islamist forces launch a sophisticated, multi-pronged attack on Israeli troops, similar to attacks against Egyptian security forces in Sinai in recent months.

The IDF is also planning for a possible Hezbollah offensive directed by Iran, with an IDF source saying that hundreds of Hezbollah members are present in the Golan, and that Tehran has been behind several recent attacks against Israel. Israeli officials have routinely raised concerns over the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah fighters using positions in the Syrian Golan, partially held by rebel forces, to attack Israel.

“It’s clear that Iran is behind all of the terror attacks here [in the Golan] in the past two years,” the IDF officer said Sunday during a briefing with reporters. “The Iranians are using the border – they establish units – whether it’s [Jihad] Mughniyeh, [Samir] Kuntar, and more – to carry out [the attacks].”

The officer said Iran’s involvement was evident, for example, during April’s attempted attack on Israel when explosive devices were planted on the border fence between Israel and Syria. An IAF aircraft struck the four operatives involved, confirming that three were killed. A video of the operation was released by the military on Sunday.

The IDF believes Kuntar was the mastermind behind that attack, funded and coordinated by Iran, according to Channel 2. Last month, a reported Israeli strike is said to have targeted the notorious terrorist, who spent 29 years in Israeli custody over the brutal slaying of four Israelis in a 1979 terror raid on the northern Israeli town of Nahariya — an attack in which he smashed the head of four-year-old Einat Haran with his rifle butt.

After his release in a 2008 prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, Kuntar was celebrated in Lebanon and Syria. He became the leader of a militia based in Hader and loyal to Assad, and has planned multiple attacks against IDF soldiers on the Golan Heights.

According to Channel 2, Hezbollah has also upped its presence on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel, joining the Lebanese Army on patrols and exercises, despite limitations set on the terror group’s movements in south Lebanon after the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

There have been a number of cross-border incidents on the Israel-Syria front over the past few years as the civil war has raged on, including a number of rocket attacks believed to have been carried out by rebel groups or Assad forces.

Israel is also said to be behind a number of air raids against targets on Syrian soil aimed at preventing Hezbollah from acquiring advanced weaponry. The IDF says Iran routinely tries to deliver weapons to Hezbollah via Syria, suggesting that not all shipments are successfully intercepted.

In January, an airstrike largely attributed to Israel on a convoy in the Syrian Golan Heights killed a top Hezbollah commander, along with an Iranian general and 10 others. Hezbollah retaliated with a cross-border attack that killed two IDF soldiers.

Among those killed in the alleged Israeli airstrike were Hezbollah commander Abu Ali Tabatabai, the head of the group’s offensive operations; Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh, a senior Hezbollah commander killed in Damascus in 2008, Mohammed Issa, responsible for the organization’s operations in Syria and Iraq, and Iranian general Mohammad Ali Allahdadi.

An Israeli report said the strike had targeted a team setting up a missile base to launch strikes against Israel.

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