Monday, Nov. 21, the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah released its heaviest blitz ever against northern Israel to cover a failed abduction operation. This became the opportunity for Israel to dust off and put into action a secret plan called Operation Persian Bazaar.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources reveal that decision was taken by prime minister Ariel Sharon, defense minister Shaul Mofaz and chief of staff Lt.-Gen Dan Halutz.
As a result, the end of the Hizballah assault found Syria and Iran left with the ruins of a unique forward line of early warning, detection, electronic warfare and listening posts they had built in southern Lebanon five years ago. It was put in place to protect them both against US or Israeli air attack from the west, sea assault from the Mediterranean or ground incursions from the southwest by Israeli or American troops.
Thirty of these posts had been strung along a line 10-15km from – and parallel to – Lebanon’s border with Israel.
For Iran, the loss of this formidable intelligence system was a military setback of the first order, comparable to the blow inflicted by Saddam Hussein’s 1979 invasion of oil-rich Khuzestan; Syria said goodbye to its electronic intelligence ears and eyes in Lebanon and now finds itself without the means of early warning against attack from the Mediterranean Sea or Israel.
The Hizballah is also left with the 12,000 missiles facing Israel stripped of defenses.
Israel did not act on the spur of the moment. Its intelligence had warned of a Hizballah commando attack in the offing and the northern border stood on alert for three weeks.
The Eyes of Mt. Prophet Obadiah
On the quiet, the Israeli air force placed its F-16 fighter-bombers on the ready at the Ramat David northern air base east of Haifa. Apache gunships were perched ready for takeoff on helipads in the Galilee Panhandle and Western Galilee.
Hizballah launched its attack at 15:00 local time.
Two hours later, the first wave of F-16 planes and assault helicopters flying in groups of five went into action over the Syrian-Iranian posts lined up from Ras Naqura on the Mediterranean coast in the west to the Hermon mountain range in the east.
For 14 hours the bombardment went on non-stop until 7:00 Tuesday, Nov. 22. It pounded the dug in, fortified intelligence installations, destroying electronic warfare posts, radar networks attuned to aerial action, apparatus for detecting military ground movement and radar instruments sweeping the sea. It smashed the listening stations which had picked up military signals from central and northern Israel, as well as communications beamed from US and Israeli warships in the eastern Mediterranean.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources add that the F-16’s also homed in on Mount Nevi Oweida (Mountain of the Prophet Obadiah), a 2,700-ft peak just opposite Israel’s Galilee Panhandle, where the Syrians and Iranians shared an underground early warning station, one of the most sophisticated in the Middle East. It had tracked the slightest Israeli ground or air movement on Golan, the Galilee Panhandle, and the Huleh Valley. A large stretch of northern Israel down to the Sea of Galilee valley was an open book to the Syrian and Iranian intelligence watchers perched on Mount Nevi Oweida.
At first light Tuesday, the targeted installations were photographed from the air and transferred to air force and AMAN headquarters for analysis of the damage. The facilities still standing and functioning were finally demolished in a second wave of air attacks later than morning.
Dilemmas after Syria’s expulsion from Beirut
As DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported at the time, Iran and Syria began building their elaborate early warning system in southern Lebanon in September 2000, shortly after Bashar Assad succeeded to the Syrian presidency. He then signed a secret military collaboration pact with Tehran which is still in force. Iran sank $500m in the project, whose existence was known to very few. It was manned by Syrian intelligence officers until March 2005, shortly after the murder of Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri, when they were pulled out.
Under the original Syrian-Iranian contracts, Iran was permitted to install its own electronic equipment in the installations and man them with Iranian Revolutionary Guards disguised as civilians.
At the end of 2003, Tehran recalled most of the RG officers from Lebanon and came to an agreement with Damascus for the sensitive equipment to be relocated in the Iranian embassies in Beirut and Damascus. Direct lines connected the embassy buildings to intelligence headquarters in Tehran. By and large, Iranian personnel kept their distance from the installations except when technicians went in for periodic maintenance and repairs.
In March, when the Assad regime could no longer withstand international pressure to remove its army from Lebanon, Damascus and Tehran began to fear that their sophisticated intelligence installations would fall into hostile hands. Iran sent agents back to Lebanon to take charge of the thirty intelligence posts. But, three months later, Iran, which had no wish to become embroiled in the hue and cry surrounding the Hariri assassination, pulled its men out of Lebanon.
At the time of Israel’s Operation Persian Bazaar, the installations were manned by Syrian officers in civilian dress who carried Lebanese ID and paid Lebanese technicians.