With eye on Syria, Israel says it's prepared to answer if attacked
Stars and Stripes
GOLAN HEIGHTS, Israel — Along this battle-scarred border, the Israel Defense Force is bulking up as it prepares for any potential retaliation that could result from a U.S. or allied strike on neighboring Syria following the alleged use of chemical weapons.
At the Quneitra Border Crossing — a checkpoint manned by U.N. troops charged with keeping the peace at Israel and Syria’s only official crossing point — signs of Syria’s civil war rub right up against Israeli territory. Blackened earth — from errant Syrian shelling — colors a swath of borderland showing how close the fighting has come to Israel. Now, regular army soldiers have replaced reservists as tensions have escalated.
“It can spill over in any direction,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesman.
While Syria’s chemical weapons are a major concern, so are their more conventional Russian-made guided munitions and anti-aircraft weapons systems, he said. Add to that roughly 5,000 Hezbollah fighters operating in Syria, gaining important fighting experience, and it’s all cause for worry. “We have our eyes on it,” Lerner said. “In Syria, Hezbollah is maneuvering tanks. That’s something we haven’t seen before.”
Although the U.N. has not conclusively determined whether chemical weapons have been used and, if so, by whom, the U.S. and Western allies have cited intelligence pointing to forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
With the U.S. military now poised to launch missile strikes at any moment, Israeli officials have sounded a warning to hostile neighbors, ranging from Syrian forces to Lebanon-based Hezbollah and farther afield, Iran: Any attack on its territory will be met with force, Israeli military and political leaders have said in recent days.
However, Syria, embroiled in a 2½-year civil war, is a wild card, and forecasting its response to a possible Western attack is a guessing game. Will it answer U.S. missile strikes with an attack on Israel as part of an attempt to garner support from the Muslim world? Will the Assad regime launch chemical weapons across its border in a dramatic last gasp attempt to do damage? Many experts consider such action unlikely, although Israelis have been buying up gas masks in droves in recent days. Or will Assad endure a brief bludgeoning by the U.S. and its allies, yet live another day?
All of Israel’s air defenses — the short-range Iron Dome, the mid-range Patriot anti-missile system, and the longer range Arrow II — are active. And its troops on the front lines and air force pilots say they’re prepared should any enemy turn toward Israel.
“We fly all the time, around the clock. Pretty much every second of every day we have someone in the air,” said Lt. H, a pilot with the Israeli air force’s 100th Squadron, an intelligence gathering unit that looks out beyond Israel’s border.
While the pilot, who could not be identified for security reasons, declined to detail all of his unit’s capabilities, it has the capacity to look out far into the Middle East, he said.
The unit spends years gathering intelligence and identifying enemy targets, using that information in operations such as Operation Pillar Defense — a 2012 mission that hit more than 1,500 Hamas sites in Gaza, weakening that group’s ability to launch rockets into Israeli territory. It’s a process that takes years, the pilot said.
To be sure, similar surveillance missions also are conducted along Israel’s border with Syria and Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah has an estimated 60,000 rockets pointed at Israel. Many of those rockets are located alongside the homes of civilians, according to military officials. From Gaza to Hezbollah’s stronghold in Lebanon and Syria, which Israel is still technically at war with, it’s an arresting security environment for a country slightly larger than the state of New Jersey. Virtually surrounded by enemies, many of whom operate in densely populated cities, there is always a risk that noncombatants will be caught in the fray when the IDF acts.
However, during the past six years, the IDF has been making steady improvements aimed at operating in such an environment, making technological leaps that have transformed how troops are operating on the battlefield, military officials said.
“The nature of war hasn’t changed, only the tactics,” said Col. Boaz Kavina, commander of combat technologies for the IDF.
After the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, there was a wake-up call for the IDF, according to Kavina. The conflict exposed gaping holes in how Israel’s forces communicate with each other. Without a single communication system across the service branches, there was a lag in hitting enemy targets on the battlefield. Now, the IDF uses a joint communication network that allows the army and air force to talk in real time.
For example, every platoon leader is fielded with a tablet device that is linked with higher headquarters as well as pilots in the air. On the tablet screen, if a plane moves across the landscape, the soldier can click on it to see exactly what the pilot is seeing. The soldier also can guide a pilot to the enemy. Rather than talking by radio, a platoon leader can tap the tablet screen for the precise spot for the missile strike. The pilot’s camera then can lock onto that exact location.
In 2006, it could take up to 30 minutes to act on a target because of slow communication. “Now it takes no time,” Kavina said.
While the new technology makes it easier to accurately hit an enemy, Kavina said, it also helps avoid cases of friendly fire and civilian casualties.
Along the Gaza border, the commander of the IDF’s elite reconnaissance battalion in the Golani Brigade, says his troops go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.
“We announce it to the terrorists (before we come),” said the commander, who could not be identified for security reasons. “We tell them every way we can. I think some people around the world don’t believe it, but it really happens. From a military point of view, it is insane.”
Before a major offensive, there are leaflets that are dropped and radio messages warning that an operation will soon be under way, he said.
Nonetheless, superior technology gives soldiers an edge against an enemy always testing the tactics of the special forces unit, according to the commander.
Meanwhile, along the Syrian border, there was a calm Thursday as U.N. troops manned the checkpoint, which opens a couple times a year to allow Golan Heights Druze villagers to pass back and forth. The U.N. troops are newly arrived from Fiji, replacing a contingent from Austria that recently gave up its mission after violent clashes between Syrian and rebel forces came dangerously close to the checkpoint.
Along the road to the border, IDF military outposts abound. Armor and infantry bases line the way to the border passing, troops on guard should tensions escalate again.
At an annual ceremony on Wednesday honoring fallen soldiers, Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon said Israel is ready to respond if attacked.
“We are aware of the threats developing before our very eyes in the Middle East and we hear all of the threats being voiced toward the State of Israel, but we are not getting involved in the bloody conflict going on in Syria and other conflicts in the Middle East,” Ya’alon said. “In the face of these threats, we are acting responsibly and considerately, but we are also saying loud and clear: Whoever dares to test us will face the might of the IDF.”