Israeli special forces units have secretly crossed into Lebanon this week, aiming to strike at primary Hizballah targets, according to an exclusive report from DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources. Those targets are the terrorist group’s command centers, bases, convoys and the routes its units frequent; its missile positions and the three lines of defense the Hizballah set up in south Lebanon (as reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 68, July 12).
Monday, July 29, a large battle erupted between Israeli soldiers and a Hizballah ambush. The sounds of fighting spilled over into northern Israel, arousing some curiosity. But otherwise the Israeli public has no inkling as yet of the engagement in Lebanon.
The only sign from Damascus that something out of the way was going on came in a speech by Syrian president Hafez Assad on Thursday, August 1, at a ceremony marking the 57th anniversary of the Syrian armed forces. Assad said the military must maintain the highest state of alert and total preparedness in the face of coming events.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts link Israel’s military activity in Lebanon directly to developments on the Iraqi front.
A. It is aimed both at neutralizing the threat of Syrian- and Iranian-supplied Hizballah missiles flying against northern and central Israel as well as pre-empting the opening of a Hizballah anti-American missile front to the rear of the US offensive against Iraq once the way is underway.
B. Disarming the Hizballah’s military threat will expose Syria to direct military pressure from Israel. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources and experts stress that the Bush administration is supremely concerned with the situation in Syria and Assad’s posture on the offensive against Saddam Hussein. Assad stands out as the only Arab leader still deeply committed to supporting Saddam’s regime in Baghdad.
Intelligence reports reaching Washington from Damascus reveal that the Syrian economy is almost totally reliant on two sources of revenue: the wholesale smuggling of Iraqi oil to world markets via Syria’s Middle Eastern ports, as well as its commissions for allowing foreign arms destined for Iraq to unload at those ports and transit Syria by rail to Iraq’s arsenals. The more arms Iraq buys, the higher Syria’s earnings. Last month, Assad secretly gave Syrian officers and personnel and favored civil servants a 15 percent pay hike, adding to his popularity.
So far, Washington has refrained from applying direct pressure against the Syrian-Iraqi strategic partnership, out of reluctance to overtax its fragile relations with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Abdullah or even Iranian leaders. Both patronize Assad for their own reasons.
But that could change. With relatively large US military contingents, including special forces and engineers, now operating in northern Iraq in areas near the Iraq-Syria border, the US command has been concerned about the possibility of Iranian commando units turning up to confront them. Now, American commanders worry about Hizballah terrorist bands crossing into northern and western Iraq from Syria, which they can with relative ease.
Assad realizes Hizballah will not be able to hold out for long if Israel piles on the military pressure in Lebanon. He knows the Syrian army, deployed in central Lebanon and the eastern Beqaa Valley, will eventually have to confront the Israeli military. The fighting could spill over into Syrian territory, cut off Syria’s links with Hizballah and put an end to Syria’s lucrative trade with Iraq and its main source of revenue.