Commenting on last week’s Hizbullah missile attack on an Israeli post in the Shebaa Farms area in south Lebanon, Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer reiterated his government’s stand: that it would retaliate against Syrian targets for resistance operations against Israeli troops. He alleged that Syria, which maintains a force of 30,000 troops in Lebanon, is “responsible for all that happens” in the country. And he threatened that any Hizbullah escalation would be at Syria’s “expense.” In spite of the heated rhetoric, Israel did not make good on its threat on that occasion. Instead, it confined itself to firing mortar shells into a hillside on the Lebanese side of the border.
Nevertheless, Damascus took Ben Eliezer’s threats seriously. President Bashar Al-Assad, in Egypt for a summit with President Hosni Mubarak, cut short the visit and hurried home where, according to press reports, Syrian defences were put on a state of alert and the army conducted live-fire exercises. The situation has been tense since Israel’s mid-April helicopter gunship raid on a Syrian radar station near the Lebanese mountain town of Dahr Al-Baidar. That strike, the first on a Syrian target since 1996, was allegedly in retaliation for a Hizbullah attack on an Israeli tank in Shebaa Farms, during which one soldier from each side died.
Israel’s air raid amounted to a calculated escalation in the spasmodic violence along the “Blue Line” which has gone on ever since Israel’s retreat from south Lebanon a year ago. Commenting on the operation, Israeli spokesman Ra’anan Gissin stated that the Sharon government had abandoned its predecessor’s “policy of restraint.” He said the “rules of the game are changing” but claimed that there would be “no escalation.” Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Shar’a retorted that Damascus would “respond at the appropriate time.”
Reacting to Ben Eliezer’s reiteration of the threat to hit Syrian targets, Al-Shar’a, in Beirut on an official visit, warned Israel against trying to “change the rules of the game” and made it clear that if Israel does so, Syria will play the game by its own rules. “We will not succumb to Israel’s will.”
Hizbullah Secretary-General El-Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah followed up that warning with a predictably defiant statement: “If they [the Israelis] are betting on scaring President Bashar Al-Assad, then they are gambling and playing with fire because neither Syria nor its armed forces will accept insult or humiliation.”
“The resistance will decide the timing and the venue of the battle. It will continue to enjoy the initiative,” effectively imposing its own “rules” in the “game” of liberating the Shebaa farms, Nasrallah said.
The next day, Israel’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Moshe Ya’alon, delivering a lecture at the Jaffee Strategic Studies Centre in Tel Aviv, said that Israel risked slipping into war with Syria. “Although Syria recognises Israel’s military superiority and is not interested in going to war, Syrian support for Hizbullah and the Intifada could lead to comprehensive war,” he stated.
The objective of Israel’s campaign of strong verbal threats and carefully calculated military strikes is to compel Damascus to curb Hizbullah, halt its support for the Intifada and end its opposition to the deployment of the Lebanese army along the border with Israel. In exchange, Israel proposes to recognise Syria’s political role in Lebanon and return to negotiations over the Golan. Damascus rejects the trade-off.
Having failed to strike a deal, Israel is loudly protesting against the flow of arms to Hizbullah and Syrian moral and political support for the Palestinian resistance.
In the case of Hizbullah, Israel claims a signal success. On its behalf, the US pressured Ankara to deny Iranian planes the right to fly across Turkey, halting aerial shipments from Tehran to Hizbullah via Damascus.
But Israel is clearly in a quandary about how to react to the involvement of Ahmed Jibril’s Damascus-based Popular Front-General Command (PFLP-GC) in smuggling arms to the Palestinian resistance. Earlier this month, Israel announced that it had intercepted a ship laden with a large consignment of weaponry en route to Gaza. The cargo, valued at $1 million, included 50 107mm Katyusha rockets, four shoulder-launched SA-7 “Strella” anti-aircraft missiles, 20 rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs), 120 anti-tank grenades, two 60mm mortars and shells, 70 mines, 30 Kalashnikov assault rifles and 13,000 rounds of ammunition. The arms, packed in waterproof barrels, were to be thrown into the sea off Gaza where they would be collected by militants on shore. Jibril promptly claimed ownership. He said this was the fourth shipment his group had sent to Gaza and claimed it would not be the last.
Although Jibril insisted that his organisation had no “help from any neighbouring state or regime,” the fact that the PFLP-GC is based in Damascus and has close ties with the Syrian regime implies the latter’s tolerance of the smuggling enterprise, if not active collusion.
Turning a blind eye to weapons smuggling by dissident groups could be Damascus’s way of retaliating against Israel for its refusal to resume negotiations on Syria’s terms over the occupied Golan as well as to pay Israel back for the raid on the Syrian radar station. So far, Israel has not blamed Syria for Jibril’s activities but the accusations could be levelled at any time, heating up the overall regional situation and, possibly, providing Israel with a pretext for mounting military strikes on other Syrian targets.
Israel’s “blame game” over the flow of arms to resistance groups is no more than a political ploy intended to maintain tension. Interdicting the Tehran-Damascus air link and PFLP-GC smuggling operations will not halt the flow of arms to Israel’s antagonists. International arms dealers are prepared to sell their goods to all buyers as long as there is ready cash.