Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu included in his speech to the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) policy conference in Washington on Tuesday March 4 an anecdote he considered relevant to the latest turn of events in the Middle East:
He described his conversation with two wounded Syrians at an Israeli hospital, one of whom was “a father who came in carrying his son in his arms” for Israeli doctors to save his life. ‘All these years, Assad lied to us,’ said the father. ‘He said that Iran was our friend and Israel was our enemy, but now it's Iran that's killing us and Israel that's saving us.’
“These Syrians discovered what we’ve known all along,” Netanyahu said: “In a Middle East beset by bloodshed and slaughter, Israel is the compassionate one.
“Have you ever heard about a humanitarian mission sent from Iran? Did you miss that somehow? You know why you've never heard of that? Because the only thing that Iran sends outside its borders are rockets and terrorists to kill and hurt innocents.
"In the past year the radical Iranian regime has been trying to blur this moral line by means of a president who smiles and a foreign minister who talks nicely. But if you listen to their slippery words, they don't match Iran's actions," the prime minister concluded.
Syria accuses Israel of military intervention in its war
Twelve hours earlier, on March 3, President Assad’s policy and media adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, accused Israel of deploying army officers and undercover agents in Syria alongside foreign-sponsored militants battling the Damascus government. She told Lebanon’s Hizballah mouthpiece, the Arabic-language al-Mayadeen news network, in an interview that according to information reaching Damascus, Israeli officers were present in Syria and monitoring the fighting.
In her view, Israel’s air strike on the Lebanese of Feb. 24 showed how it was using weapons shipments as a pretext for attacking Syria and Lebanon.
According to Shaaban, Israel undercover agents were mixed in with the Syrian rebels treated in Israeli hospitals.
Her remarks tied in with a report in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National on March 2, which alleged that “the Israeli regime” is paying large sums of money to foreign-backed militants operating inside Syria in exchange for information on their fellow al-Qaeda-linked militants.
The National claimed that at least three different Syrian rebel groups have been in regular contact with Israeli intelligence agents.
In his remarks to AIPAC, the Israeli prime minister unwittingly confirmed Bouthaina Shaaban’s accusations in part.
Assad saw Israeli-Jordanian presence as a bulwark against al Qaeda
For the past year, Israel has done its best to cover up its increasingly direct involvement in southern Syria by portraying it as limited to humanitarian and medical assistance for rebels and civilians. The figures released of hundreds of wounded Syrian rebels and civilians brought over to Israel for medical treatment are accurate. But there is nothing random about this.
It must be evident to any experienced observer that Syrian casualties don’t turn up at the border on the off- chance of being found. An organized Israeli network is running a corridor from southern Syria to the border in collaboration with certain rebel groups in quiet coordination with Washington.
That network is also obviously used to gather intelligence as well as providing those rebels with arms and operational guidelines and advice – as Shaaban said.
Until recently, Syria and Hizballah kept mum about Israel’s clandestine activities, partly because neither Tehran nor Assad considered the control of southern Syria essential for winning the war. Assad has always regarded that part of the country as of secondary or even tertiary strategic importance, and not worth an investment of large-scale military strength at the expense of other fronts.
But also because paradoxically, the presence of the Israeli military in the south – and the larger Jordanian involvement with US backing and financing – kept al Qaeda affiliates off the backs of the Syrian army and its allies. They found it prudent to leave it to the Israelis and Jordanians to hold the jihadis back from overrunning Damascus from the southeast.
Symptoms of a new warfront in the making
This situation changed in the second half of February.
On February 18, Netanyahu visited the special military field hospital the IDF had set up on the Golan, north of Tel Hazeka, accompanied by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and several other senior officers.
He used the occasion to voice the same sentiments he repeated this week at the AIPAC conference, that the Syrian war showed the true face of Iran, rather than the smiles of Iran President Hassan Rouhani and the smooth style of his foreign minister Javad Mohammed Zarif.
As Netanyahu and party left the Golan area, two mortar shells fired from Syria exploded nearby.
That near-miss was a hands-off warning.
Five days later, on February 23, Gen. Gantz conducted a comprehensive inspection of IDF positions on the Golan, during which he too aimed barbed remarks at Tehran’s role – not just in the Syrian war but across the Middle East.
“There is not a single sector in which Iran is not involved,” he said, likening Tehran’s handout of rockets, ammo and combat assistance to “giving torches to pyromaniacs.” Israel, he said, was monitoring the movements of all these weapons.
This wasn’t idle talk.
Tehran decides Israel deserves payback
A few hours later, on Monday, Feb. 23, Israeli Air Force planes bombed a Hizballah arms convoy and missile battery deployed at the Lebanon-Syria border in the northeast Lebanese Beqaa Valley. After previous Israeli operations against advanced weapons routes from Syria to Hizballah, when Washington gave the game away, this time, the Obama administration kept silent.
A red light flashed in Tehran and a sense that some hidden change was afoot in Washington:
According to our intelligence and Iranian sources, an urgent conference of Revolutionary Guards chiefs, including the Al Qods Brigades chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani – the newly appointed supreme commander of Iran’s military operations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian sector – decided it was time for Israel to start tasting some payback from Iran and its allies.
Israel was ready with some of its own medicine, having placed IDF combat units, the air force and the navy on war alert for a major escalation on its northern borders.
On March 1, two Katyusha rockets were fired from Syria at an IDF Golan outpost. The explosions resounded across the Golan and Upper Galilee but caused no harm.
Five days later, three furtive figures were sighted planting a roadside bomb at the Syrian-Israeli border fence near Merom Hagolan. The Israeli opened fire and hit the trio, who later turned out to have come from the Syrian village of Hamadiye.
Although both attacks came from Syrian territory, the IDF attributed them to Hizballah.
Putin may use Syria’s war expansion to vent his Ukraine anger
That day was not over. The news broke Wednesday afternoon of an Israeli naval commando raid 1,500 km south of Israel on an Iranian missile boat. Shayetet 13 (Flotilla 13) commandos seized the Panama-registered cargo vessel KLOS C on the Red Sea. They found concealed in its hold dozens of 302mm rockets with a range of 150 km, manufactured in Syria. The cargo shipped from Iran was reported by the IDF to be on its way to the Gaza Strip via Sudan.
Israel leaders played up Iran’s exposure as top arms supplier for terrorists to the hilt.
But Israel’s biggest breakthrough was yet to come.
That night, White House spokesman Jay Carney revealed that US intelligence services and military had worked with Israel to track the Iranian KLOS C and decided to give the IDF the lead role in its interception. Both are now braced for swift and stinging Iranian punishment.
(See separate article on the unexpected turnabout in US-Israeli strategic ties)
In its last issue of Feb. 28, DEBKA Weekly (Russia’s Ukraine-Syria Package) raised the possibility of a US-Russian row over Ukraine spilling over into the expansion of the Syrian war. This had the potential in turn of blowing down the Obama administrations diplomatic house of cards, including its partnership with the Kremlin in the international negotiations for an accord on Iran's nuclear program.
An Iranian-Syrian military attack on Israel, America’s friend and ally – with or without Hizballah’s direct involvement – may have a dual purpose, one of which would be to vent Moscow’s deep resentment for the torrent of Western abuse heaped on Vladimir Putin over his grab for Crimea.