Western military and intelligence sources report that Israeli Air Force strikes in Lebanon and Syria overnight Monday, Feb. 24 came on the heels of the first use in the three-year Syrian war of a Russian-made nuclear-capable Tochka (Point) surface missile – NATO-coded SS-21 Scarab – which carries a 480-kilo warhead with a range of 70 km. These missiles were fired earlier Monday in the Syrian-Hizballah battle for Yabroud. There was no information about the effect of the Israeli strikes.
According to Lebanese sources, however, the target was a cluster of five Hizballah bases or command posts in the Lebanese Beqaa Valley. Hizballah casualties were reported.
That was one Lebanese version of the incident. In the absence of independent confirmation or official information, different sources offered a variety of alternative targets.
Some sources named them as missile-launchers fired from Lebanon in support of the Hizballah-Syrian army battle for the strategic town of Yabroud, the last Syrian rebel stronghold in the Qalamoun Mts just across the Syrian border. This town, 80 kilometers north of Damascus, has held out against two months of vicious combat.
A fourth version claims that the air strikes hit a convoy ferrying weapons from Hizballah’s Lebanese stores into Syria or, alternatively, convoys transporting missiles in the opposite direction, from Syria to Hizballah bases in Lebanon.
The Air Force went into action the day after Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz commented during a visit to the Golan that a close watch is being kept on the movements of Iranian weapons and ammo present in all the troubled sectors of the region. This is of extreme concern to Israel, he said.
As he spoke, Syrian intelligence detonated a large car bomb at a military hospital near the Iraqi border treating Syrian rebel casualties. The attack cost 14 lives, including several wounded men.
debkafile’s military and intelligence sources estimate that Israel’s action has left two big question marks:
1. Was it a one-off, or the start of a series?
2. Will Hizballah or Syria hit back?
Up until now, any military actions Israel undertook in Syria and Lebanon were cloaked in secrecy and never admitted by the IDF, even when images emerged of the damage caused. This time, there are no images and even Lebanese security sources can’t agree on the targets that were hit.
That is because the shoe is now on the other foot. The Iranian Al Qods Brigades chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani has ordered the Israeli air strikes to be kept under tight wraps.
Earlier this month, Soleimani was placed officially in charge of Iran’s military interventions in the battlefields of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian “resistance.”
This was part of the distribution of tasks ordered by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to hold Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) chiefs back from sabotaging Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the six powers. Diplomacy was left in the province of President Hassan Rouhani, but his government was barred from interfering in Iran’s external military operations.
Khamenei’s solution for separating the two rival camps in Tehran has placed Israel and its armed forces face to face for the first time with the Iranian command center directly orchestrating its Arab adversaries.
It is one of the ruthless Gen. Soleimani’s principles never to let any assault on Iran or its interests go unanswered. Israel may therefore expect retaliation for its air strikes – though not necessarily from Syria or Lebanon.