Archive for February 11, 2018

CYPRUS SAYS TURKISH SHIPS OBSTRUCTING GAS DRILL SHIP IN EAST MED

February 11, 2018

BY REUTERS FEBRUARY 11, 2018 13:43 Via Jerusalem Post

Source:
CYPRUS SAYS TURKISH SHIPS OBSTRUCTING GAS DRILL SHIP IN EAST MED

{Turkey continues to gobble up more territory. – LS}

In addition to Cyprus and Turkey, Israel and Lebanon are also at odds over offshore gas exploration and marine boundaries.

COSIA – Cyprus said on Sunday the Turkish military was obstructing a drill rig contracted by Italy’s Eni from approaching an area to explore for natural gas, highlighting tensions over offshore resources in the east Mediterranean.

The Saipem 12000 drill ship had been heading from a location south-southwest of Cyprus towards an area southeast of the island when it was stopped by Turkish warships on Friday, Cyprus said.

There was no immediate comment from Turkey.

Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades said Cyprus was taking the “necessary” steps over the matter, but seemed keen to play down any escalation.
“From our side, our actions reflect the necessity of avoiding anything which could escalate (the situation), without of course overlooking the violation of international law perpetrated by Turkey,” Anastasiades told journalists in Nicosia.

In Italy, a spokesperson for state-controlled Eni confirmed the drill ship was stopped on Friday by Turkish military ships.

Using the Saipem 1200, Eni had previously reported a promising gas discovery south-southwest of the island in another location on Feb. 8, inside Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone.

Blocking the ship is the latest twist in decades-old feuds and overlapping claims in the eastern Mediterrananean, brought into sharper focus by the discovery of some of the world’s largest gas finds in the past decade lurking in the watery deep.

Cyprus is ethnically divided, and Turkey, which supports a breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in north Cyprus, says Greek Cypriots have no jurisdiction to explore for natural gas. Greek Cypriots say it is their sovereign right.

Greek Cypriots run Cyprus’s internationally recognised government. It has no diplomatic relations with Turkey.

In addition to Cyprus and Turkey, Israel and Lebanon are also at odds over offshore gas exploration and marine boundaries.

The Saipem 12000 had previously been commissioned to drill the Calypso, which lies less than 100 km away from the mammoth Zohr field off Egypt. It had been heading to a maritime block, known as Block 3, where it was to start work on another prospect, dubbed Cuttlefish.

Block 3, which lies far below Cyprus’s Karpasia peninsula, the pointed ‘panhandle’ of the island, lies closer to Syria or Lebanon than Turkey.

In Italy, a spokesperson for Eni said the Saipem 12000 was stopped by Turkish military ships with the notice not to continue because of military activities in the destination area.

“The vessel has prudently executed the orders and will remain in position pending an evolution of the situation,” the spokesperson said.

 

Minister: Iran will need ‘time to digest’ how Israel hit covert military sites

February 11, 2018

Source: Minister: Iran will need ‘time to digest’ how Israel hit covert military sites | The Times of Israel

Israel Katz says Jewish state not seeking fight on northern border, indicates raids likely caught Tehran by surprise

A picture taken in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel on February 10, 2018, shows bomb experts inspecting debris. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

A picture taken in the Jezreel Valley in northern Israel on February 10, 2018, shows bomb experts inspecting debris. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

Intelligence Minister Israel Katz on Sunday said Israeli strikes on key Iranian sites in Syria over the weekend sent a clear message to the Islamic Republic that Jerusalem won’t tolerate an Iranian military foothold on its doorstep.

Katz told Army Radio it would take the Iranians time to “digest” the Israeli airstrikes.

“They, and we, know what we hit and it will take them some time to digest, understand, and ask how Israel knew how to hit those sites,” he said. “These were concealed sites and we have intelligence agencies and the ability to know everything that is going on there and yesterday we proved that.”

Katz, who is also a member of the high-level security cabinet, told the radio station that Israel was doing everything possible to avoid an escalation of violence along its northern borders.

“If Israel would have proactively struck at the targets that were hit yesterday, regardless of the UAV, the ground would have shook,” he said.

After shooting down an Iranian drone that infiltrated its airspace, Israel launched a widespread retaliatory offensive on Saturday in Syria. The IDF said it hit four Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites, causing significant damage.

Israel also says it destroyed the Syrian military’s main command and control bunker in its most devastating assault there in decades.

Transportation Minister Israel Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting at PM Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on September 4, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Also Sunday, fellow security cabinet member and Education Minister Naftali Bennett reiterated stern Israeli warnings against the increased Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

“We won’t show restraint when our sovereignty is violated. We insist on our right to act wherever when we need to protect ourselves,” he told Army Radio.

Bennett said the retaliatory strikes were “a small example of what we know how to do.”

The wave of airstrikes came after Israel intercepted an Iranian drone that had infiltrated its airspace, and an Israeli F-16 was downed upon its return from Syria on Saturday. It was Israel’s most serious engagement in neighboring Syria since fighting there began in 2011 — and the most devastating air assault on the country in decades.

The military said it destroyed the drone’s Iranian launching site along with four additional Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites, including the Syrian military’s main command and control bunker.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria through a network of activists on the ground, said Sunday that at least six Syrian troops and allied militiamen were killed in the airstrikes. The six included Syrian troops as well as Syrian and non-Syrian allied troops, the Britain-based monitor said.

A picture taken in the northern Israeli Kibbutz of Harduf on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses during attacks against “Iranian targets” in the war-torn country. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

In Saturday’s attacks, the Israeli jets came under heavy Syrian anti-aircraft fire and the pilots of one of the F-16s had to eject. The plane crashed in northern Israel. One pilot was seriously wounded and the other one lightly.

Israel would not confirm whether its aircraft was actually shot down by enemy fire, which would mark the first such instance for Israel since 1982 during the first Lebanon war.

Israel has recently issued several stern warnings about the increased Iranian involvement along its borders with Syria and Lebanon, which it attributes to Iran’s growing confidence following Syrian President Bashar Assad’s successes in the Syrian civil war, thanks to support by main allies Russia and Iran.

Israel fears Iran could use Syrian territory to stage attacks or create a land corridor from Iran to Lebanon that could allow it to transfer weapons more easily to the Lebanese Hezbollah — an Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist group sworn to Israel’s destruction. Hezbollah’s fighters are also fighting on Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war.

Though Israel has largely stayed out of the Syrian conflict, it has reportedly struck weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah dozens of times since 2012.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held several consultations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who backs Assad’s government and maintains a large military presence in Syria. Following the Israeli strikes they spoke again on Saturday, with Netanyahu conveying Israel’s determination to counter Iran’s intentions.

Still, Russia’s foreign ministry appeared to criticize Israel’s actions by calling for restraint and respecting Syria’s sovereignty.

“It is absolutely unacceptable to create threats to the lives and security of Russian servicemen who are in Syria at the invitation of its legitimate government,” it said.

The United States, on the other hand, strongly backed Israel.

“Iran’s calculated escalation of threat and its ambition to project its power and dominance places all the people of the region — from Yemen to Lebanon — at risk,” said Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman. “The US continues to push back on the totality of Iran’s malign activities in the region and calls for an end to Iranian behavior that threatens peace and stability.”

Flush with pallets of cash from Obama, Iran is taking aim at Israel

February 11, 2018

Source: Flush with pallets of cash from Obama, Iran is taking aim at Israel

Lee Kuan Yew, the great statesman of Singapore, once warned the U.S. that if Iran gets a nuclear bomb, “It will travel.”

Something like that is happening.

It’s not very visible in the news, but based on Saturday’s deliberate Iranian drone attack on Israel, and the subsequent Israeli retaliation, it’s obvious that Iran is gearing up to start a war with Israel.

The New York Times reports:

JERUSALEM — Israel clashed with Syrian and Iranian military forces on Saturday in a series of audacious cross-border strikes that could mark a dangerous new phase in Syria’s long civil war.

The confrontations, which threaten to draw Israel more directly into the conflict, began before dawn when Israel intercepted what it said was an Iranian drone that had penetrated its airspace from Syria. The Israeli military then attacked what it called the command-and-control center from which Iran had launched the drone, at a Syrian air base near Palmyra.

On its way back from the mission, one of Israel’s F-16 fighter jets crashed in northern Israel after coming under heavy Syrian antiaircraft fire. It is believed to be the first Israeli plane lost under enemy fire in decades.

That prompted a broad wave of Israeli strikes against a dozen Syrian and Iranian targets in Syrian territory. The Israeli military said it hit eight Syrian targets, including three aerial defense batteries, and four Iranian positions that it described as “part of Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.”

The events, including Israel’s direct engagement with Iranian forces, threatened to intensify the crisis in Syria and showed the extent to which the country has become a battlefield between Israel and Iran, bitter foes in the region.

So Israel beat the crap out of the hostile invaders and the Times seems to be surprised at this.

What’s really surprising is the lack of scrutiny of what started this incident in the first place: That Iran launched a deliberate military strike with an attack droneinside Israel and nobody seems to be alarmed about it? Mullahs will be mullahs, is that it?

Here is the sequence of events, according to astute Iran/Israel observer, Omri Ceren, on Twitter:

Took the Israelis less than 3 hours to assess that an F-16 had been downed, pluck out a dozen Iranian and Syrian targets from their target bank, & dispatch warplanes to wipe out the targets. https://twitter.com/LTCJonathan/status/962435411862802432 

What we’re seeing is an act of war. Imagine the reaction if Mexico deliberately did this to us. (Mexico does do this sort of of thing, but it’s by accident, and leads to nothing). A drone strike is a prelude to much bigger strikes, much the same way a mini-stroke is a warning of a much larger stroke coming ahead. It can’t be ignored.

And that demands scrutiny as to why in this era of low oil prices, angry mass protests over the economy, and global sanctions, Iran’s mullahs seem to have so much money to throw around for starting new wars.

Scroll back to 2016. President Obama touted his Iran Deal, Ben Rhodes defended it, and cash from the U.S., previously locked in from sanctions since the 1970s. rolled off the pallets into the happy hands of the mullahs: first a $400 million shovel-out and then $1.3 billion more. Money in that amount can easily be invested to multiply it, and if nothing else, can be spent to upgrade military capabilities.

As Ceren observes:

The Israelis say the military drone used by Iran in last night’s attack was highly sophisticated and emulated Western technology. Somehow in the last few years the Iranians got the breathing room, resources, and knowledge to build and deploy these things. https://twitter.com/LTCJonathan/status/962305194615853057 

 

Already we know the Obama-approved cash went to Iran’s acts of war against Saudi Arabia, through its financing of the Houthi rebels on its southern flank in Yemen. That drove Saudi Arabia to seek help from its militarily competent northern neighbor, Israel.

Now we are seeing Iran get itself into a two-front war, initiating it with these fresh, and direct, attacks on Israel, which it knows will be answered. Out in Syria, there actually was Israeli contact with the mullah troops as the retaliation began. Incredibly, the media seems to be reporting this as Israel’s fault, rather than Iran’s, and ignoring that Israel’s retaliation is the act of a nation defending itself.

Ceren observes:

To read global headlines – including the headlines from America’s top dailies – the Israelis attacked Iranian assets in Syria for no reason & then got shot down. https://twitter.com/LTCPeterLerner/status/962261640761806848 

What we are seeing here is the Iran Deal in action. The Obama cash gave Iran’s mullahs a new battery for launching attacks abroad, well beyond terror and into warfare as it seeks to expand its global reach, and it didn’t take long to “travel.”

As Ceren observes: 

Only took 2 years after Iran deal implementation for Iran to start openly staging attacks on Israeli territory. Entirely predictable – and potentially catastrophic – result of flooding Iran with billions in resources and incentivizing powers to turn blind eye to its aggression. https://twitter.com/omriceren/status/962198214542684160 

Even the Russians in the region are spooked, calling for some kind of calm, which suggests they think the status quo is shifting.

Iran’s cash from the Obama-brokered Iran deal is now bringing Israel a war. Incredibly, the Obamatons and the foreign policy establishment continue to defend the bad deal. The rest of us look on in horror at the idiocy of giving billions to the mullahs.

Military strategist: ‘Great strategic clash between Israel and Iran on horizon’ 

February 11, 2018

Source: Military strategist: ‘Great strategic clash between Israel and Iran on horizon’ – Israel National News

‘First time Israel attacked Iranian targets in Syria, no other air force in world capable of reaching such achievement within two hours.’

Contact Editor

Mordechai Sones, 11/02/18 17:25
Display featuring missiles and portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Display featuring missiles and portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Reuters

Institute for National Security Studies head Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin today reacted Sunday on 103FM to the escalation this weekend between Israel and Iranian forces stationed in Syria, which he argued constituted a major change the change in the Islamic republic’s behavior toward Israel.

“Iran has acted in the past through proxies like Hezbollah, but has never fired directly into Israeli territory. Israel now responded by attacking Iranian targets directly, while it has so far attacked only arms shipments. This is a major escalation, and a great strategic clash is on the horizon.”

When asked why Iran chose to act now, Yadlin replied: “The Iranians are displeased with the freedom of action Israel has on Syrian soil, and therefore wanted to show Israel that it’s capable of hitting Israeli territory. This was an operational trial launching of anti-aircraft missiles and they may have hoped Israel wouldn’t notice it.”

“An Iranian drone was inserted into Israeli territory and shot down. Israel chose to attack the center that operated the drone, and as a result an Israeli F-16 was hit. After the plane was downed, Israel decided to respond extensively, attack Syrian targets, and leave Damascus’ air defense exposed along with about five Iranian targets.”

“This is the first time Israel has attacked Iranian targets on Syrian soil after an Iranian drone entered Israeli territory. There is no air force in the world capable of reaching such an achievement within two hours.”

“Russia and Iran are trying to save Assad’s regime,” Yadlin said, “they understand today that the only one that can undermine Assad’s regime is Israel, which is capable of damaging all his elements of power. This regime has killed half-a-million people, expelled 10 million people from their homes, and therefore I predicted that if Assad wins, he’ll bring us Iran and Russia into Syria. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. I won’t shed a tear if Assad’s regime expires.”

The radio interviewer, Ayala Hasson, commented: “I’m shocked by what Assad is doing in his country, and I expected the world to get up and do something about it.”

Yadlin responded say, “Indeed, the use of chlorine and chemical weapons against civilians is very cruel, but the rocket and missile attacks in his country killed far more; the Syrians fire them at markets, schools, and hospitals indiscriminately.”

On the Russian’s position after Israel’s action, he said: “We have not harmed Russian targets and we will be very careful not to harm them in the future. On the other hand, we can’t allow the Russian presence to give immunity to the Iranians on the ground. The Russians are not our enemies, but their interests are not necessarily in consonance with ours. The Russians are trying to stabilize Syria, and any military action, like the one that took place at the week’s end, is contrary to their interests. The Russians have an impressive ability to maintain good relations with all sides, they play a very smart game diplomatically and try to promote their interests. We must make sure not to clash with those interests, and on the other hand the Russians must not be allowed to limit our activity against our enemies.”

On American support for the Israeli attack, he said: “The Americans have no interest in getting involved in Syria. They came there just to eliminate ISIS. The only reason they remain in the country is to protect their allies who helped them locate the ISIS people in the field from the Shiite militias. The support of the United States is important to us, but we can’t expect anyone else to do the work for us.”

On Israeli policy in Syria he stressed: “Israel faces a difficult dilemma, whether to act preventively or to wait for war. The Israeli cabinet needs to sit down and examine whether the precision missiles in Syria justify preventive actions that could drag us into war. According to statements made by the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister, I understand that this is indeed the cabinet’s policy, and that each case has its own merits.”

In conclusion, the reservist general related to rumors that he intends to enter politics: “I served the State of Israel for 40 years in the IDF. In 2015, I agreed to serve as a professional candidate in order to strengthen Herzog and Livni’s Zionist Union party. I didn’t want to go to the Knesset because I thought my ability to influence as head of the Institute for National Security Studies was greater than being a Knesset Member. Politics is not an obsession for me and I’m not connected to any party, and so far we don’t know when the next elections will be.”

Israel must take action

February 11, 2018

Source: Israel must take action – Israel Hayom

The most notable aspect of Saturday’s events in Syria and Israel’s north is that they were initiated by Iran. Early that morning, Iran sent a drone toward Israeli territory. Israel observed the drone until it reached a point where it could be intercepted, inside Israeli territory.

But there is also the possibility that Israel fell into a premeditated trap. As a result of the drone’s launch, Israeli fighter jets took to the air and something very grave transpired: An F-16 jet was shot down deep inside Israeli territory over the Beit Netofa Valley. Nothing like has ever happened before. Was this an ambush? Aerial warfare experts think this could very well be the case.

Beyond the Iranian aggression, this was the first time Israel paid a price for its actions inside Syria, which have been aimed at stopping the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah and thwarting Iran’s military establishment there. We also saw that when the Iranians initiate an operation, and it is more than just a stray mortar shell, it does not have to result in war. Several of the anti-aircraft missiles fired at our aircraft landed inside Israel.

Another thing we saw was the diplomatic activity, the warnings relayed to Russian President Vladmir Putin, the severe threats from Israeli ministers as well as Israel’s successful and prolonged military activity, none of which really served to deter the Iranians. In fact, the opposite might be true. It could be that the Israeli assertions, voiced in the highest of octaves, were the reason they decided to make it clear they are not deterred by Israel’s threats. Russia’s audacious response, which spoke of Syrian sovereignty while ignoring Israeli sovereignty, makes it seem as if Putin is not troubled by the possibility of a nice little war between Israel and Iran.

Although Israel took out anti-aircraft missile systems and a few Iranian targets deep inside Syria, as well as bases where there is a Russian military presence, it did not ultimately touch Hezbollah. Those targets still exist inside Lebanon. If Iran’s conduct over the weekend is any indication, one can safely assume that a solution to the precision missile manufacturing plants on Lebanese soil will not be achieved through diplomatic channels. That is, of course, where things are headed.

Up until Saturday, there was a sense that Israeli activity had entered a type of routine. One could at times forget the significance of the Israeli assessment, which held that Israel could not allow the creation of a new front in Syria. This is the statement that for the past two years could be heard from senior IDF officials and members of the political echelon. On Saturday, the meaning of this decision sunk in. Sometimes it is not the enemy but the Israeli public that needs to internalize Israel’s intentions.

Ultimately, the good relationship and understandings between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladmir Putin only help to alleviate a situation that has worsened considerably on Israel’s northern front. Because it was only after Russia’s military establishment in Syria two years ago that the Iranians were able to gradually consolidate their grip on the country. These developments have fundamentally worsened Israel’s strategic situation. As predicted in September 2015, the Israeli Air Force’s freedom of action was reduced with the entry into Syria of the Russians and their advanced anti-aircraft missiles.

Strikes on anti-aircraft missile batteries have become nothing short of an integrated intelligence operation. In many cases, such actions involve more military components than just the plane and the control tower. The combination of the attempt to create an additional front against Israel on the Golan Heights together with Hezbollah’s precision missile capabilities demand Israel take action to eradicate these threats.

In the past two years, Israel has repeatedly stated it would not allow the creation of a second front against it in Syria. On Saturday, the significance of this decision finally sank in.

Freed from shroud of ‘foreign reports,’ Israel-Iran fight steps out from shadows

February 11, 2018

Today, 3:25 pm

https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-iran-fight-once-waged-according-to-foreign-reports-enters-limelight/

Israeli soldiers survey the border with Syria from a military post in the Golan Heights, following a series of aerial clashes with Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria, on February 10, 2018. (Flash90)

On Thursday, the International Crisis Group think tank and advocacy firm warned in a new comprehensive report that Israel and Iran (plus its proxies) were barreling toward open conflict in Syria.

Those prescient warnings came true — in part, at least — throughout Saturday morning, beginning shortly before 4:30 a.m., with the violation of Israeli airspace by a drone that the Israeli military says was piloted by an Iranian operator from an airfield that Tehran had taken control of months before, with Syrian permission.

Israeli jets conducted reprisal raids in Syria, during which one of the F-16 fighter planes was apparently hit by shrapnel from an exploding anti-aircraft missile and crashed in northern Israel, in what appears to be the first downing of an Israeli plane since 1982.

The aircraft’s pilots bailed out; one of them was seriously injured.

A picture taken in the northern Israeli Jezreel Valley on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses during attacks against ‘Iranian targets’ in the war-torn country. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

Air force jets then completed a second set of retaliatory strikes. In the two rounds, the Israeli military said, its aircraft targeted several Syrian air defense systems as well as four Iranian positions in the country.

This was the first time Israel publicly acknowledged conducting airstrikes against Iranian-held locations in Syria, though not the first time it had done so, according to foreign reports.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) attends a briefing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (R) in response to the escalation of tensions along the northern border on February 10, 2018. (Ariel Harmoni/Defense Ministry)

In the aftermath of the Saturday morning clash, Israeli, Syrian and Iranian politicians released tough, threatening statements aimed at one another. The United States backed Israel’s right to self-defense. Russia called for calm on all sides, but singled out Israel for violating Syrian sovereignty with its strikes, while conspicuously ignoring the Iranian drone’s airspace violation.

The aerial exchange thrust what had previously been a long-simmering but largely quiet conflict into the international spotlight and raised concerns that this bout will be the first of many clashes — and, in the nightmare scenario, the start of a full-fledged war across Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel.

I don’t think it’s the last time we’ll see such an event, but for the time being both sides will restrain their responses

However, the prevailing belief among Israeli defense analysts is that Saturday’s events were not the prelude to open war, but the beginning of an extended period of increased tension, which is liable to see additional clashes.

“I don’t think it’s the last time we’ll see such an event, but for the time being both sides will restrain their responses,” Sima Shine, a career defense official and current senior researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies think tank, told reporters on Sunday.

She added, during the phone briefing organized by the Media Central group, that escalation is in neither side’s best interest.

Amos Yadlin, a former fighter pilot and Military Intelligence chief, described Saturday as the “most significant day of fighting” in what Israel describes as its “campaign between wars,” often referred to in Hebrew by its acronym, Mabam.

“Despite the containment of the incident, the campaign is expected to continue,” Yadlin said.

In its report, released two days before Saturday’s flareup, the Crisis Group laid out how this campaign between Israel and the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis has developed and how it can be prevented from escalating further.

The organization tracks the current tensions to the Syrian regime’s battlefield victories over the past two and a half years, which it has achieved in large part due to support from the Russian military, which has provided significant air power since September 2015.

These have opened the Iran-led axis to shift toward preparing for a future conflict with Israel.

Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering of the deescalation agreement. Unless it does, the rules of the Syrian game are likely to be worked out through attack and response, with risk of escalation

According to the think tank, Russia is also the only entity able to prevent such a bloody war, having emerged from the Syrian civil war as the region’s sole remaining superpower after the United States dramatically scaled back its involvement in the conflict.

“Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering of the deescalation agreement. Unless it does, the rules of the Syrian game are likely to be worked out through attack and response, with risk of escalation,” according to the report.

In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

The group outlines three main issues that need to be addressed: the presence of Iranian and Shiite forces near the Israeli Golan Heights; the construction of Iranian military infrastructure in Syria; and ensuring any clashes that do take place remain confined to Syria.

The Crisis Group has also been working directly with Russia to try to persuade it to accept the role of mediator between Israel, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.

“And we are seeing some traction with Russian officials,” Ofer Zalzberg, a senior Jerusalem-based analyst for the group and one of the report’s authors, told The Times of Israel last Wednesday ahead of the document’s publication.

The recipe for disaster

As Syrian dictator Bashar Assad vanquishes the remaining pockets of resistance in the country, the Israeli concern is that his allies — Iran, Hezbollah and Iran-backed Shiite militias — will be freed to focus on establishing positions along the Israeli border from which to antagonize the Jewish state, as well as permanent naval and air bases to bring in more advanced weaponry and conduct attacks.

Israel has designated these issues to be “red lines,” which it will not allow to be violated, and has said it will take military action if they are.

In its report, the Crisis Group warned that if the Iranian axis presses on with these efforts and Israel retaliates in kind, there is significant potential for escalation or even a large-scale war that could destabilize the entire region.

Israeli security forces inspect damage to a house after a Katyusha rocket attack by Hezbollah from southern Lebanon in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, July 15, 2006. (Pierre Terdjman / Flash90)

The military assessments of what a war between Israel and Hezbollah would look like are chilling: Hezbollah launching over 1,000 rockets and missiles at Israeli cities and strategic sites each day, along with attempted infiltrations of Israeli communities along the Lebanese border. Israel conducting wave after wave of airstrikes against Hezbollah infrastructure, which the terrorist group has embedded deep inside civilian areas, ensuring significant noncombatant deaths, as well as large-scale IDF ground force maneuvers in southern Lebanon.

Zalzberg said a major part of the problem is that there are no established “rules of the game” between Israel and Iranian proxies in Syria, as there are in Lebanon, where Israel has been fighting Hezbollah off-and-on for decades.

That means the “rules” will be sorted out through back-and-forth, tit-for-tat clashes like Saturday’s. But this is a perilous path, fraught with opportunities for miscalculation and resulting in unintended casualties on both sides.

For instance, Israeli officials often refer to the “proverbial kindergarten” — the type of target that if hit, even accidentally, would prompt Israeli citizens to demand harsh and swift reprisals. As Iran and Hezbollah lack civilian targets in Syria, their equivalent might be a case of significant casualties from an Israeli airstrike, which would forced them to retaliate.

This is a current concern, following Saturday’s exchange, as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog group, reported that at least six pro-regime fighters — including both Syrians and foreign nationals — were killed in Israel’s strikes and that “the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in critical situation.”

Zalzberg added the potential for escalation in Syria is driven higher by the fact that different sides do not have a clear grasp of one another’s goals and viewpoints, citing a year’s worth of interviews by the Crisis Group with officials in Jerusalem, Tehran, Beirut, Amman, Moscow and Washington.

The report and its authors argue that it is ultimately in Russia’s best interest to avoid an all-out war between Israel and the Lebanon-based, Iran-backed Hezbollah, which would have the potential to completely destabilize the region.

Unlike in the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah when the fighting was primarily limited to northern Israel and southern Lebanon, the view of both Israeli and Hezbollah officials is that the next conflict between the two groups would also include fighting in Syria.

Israeli artillery howitzers fire on Hezbollah targets at the Israeli-Lebanese border on July 18, 2006. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“A massive campaign by Israel will do enormous damage to [Damascus and its backers’] achievements, perhaps even destabilizing the regime itself,” the report noted.

According to Zalzberg, this is not a desirable situation for Russia, as Moscow would like to see Assad regain near-total control over Syria.

The analyst noted that this is at odds with Iran, which wants to see Assad in power, but does not necessarily want to see him becoming too powerful, preferring instead to have Syria controlled by a coalition, similar to Lebanon, so that its Shiite militias could play a more significant role in the country.

Russia and only Russia

Moscow’s active support for Assad and his other main supporters, Iran and Hezbollah, has left Israeli officials decidedly wary of their Russian counterparts.

The Crisis Group report quotes an unnamed Israeli Foreign Ministry official as saying of the Russians, “It’s hard to trust them. They tell us they are not selling weapons to Hezbollah, but we know for a fact that they do. Their policies are cynical. They are not an enticing mediator.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an event marking International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, January 29, 2018. (Vasily MAXIMOV/AFP)

Yet there is an understanding among some in Israel that, while not enticing, Russia is the only mediator that has significant leverage over Iran and Hezbollah.

Israel has already had to maintain a close, if uneasy, relationship with Moscow due to its involvement in the region.

After Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jets that had invaded its airspace, Moscow installed an S-400 missile defense system in Syria. With the system, one of the world’s most advanced anti-aircraft batteries, Russia can monitor the overwhelming majority of Israel’s active airspace, including Israeli military flights.

Or, as one Israeli official told the Crisis Group, “A fly can’t buzz above Syria without Russian consent nowadays.”

This came as a shocking blow to the Israeli Air Force, which had, until then, enjoyed aerial superiority in the region, and required Jerusalem and Moscow to set up a hotline to prevent any potential conflicts between the two militaries.

Israel has also worked diplomatically with Russia to secure a buffer zone around the southwestern Syrian border, in which Hezbollah and other Iran-backed Shiite militias would not be allowed to maintain a presence.

In this photo released on Friday, Dec. 29, 2017 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian government forces stand next to a bus which is waiting to evacuate Syrian rebels and their families from Beit Jinn village, in the southern province of Daraa, Syria. (SANA via AP)

The border area has naturally been of significant concern for Israel, which is loath to see Hezbollah set up military positions along the Golan Heights to join the significant infrastructure it has already put in place in southern Lebanon.

Last month, the Syrian military, with some assistance from Shiite militias, regained control over the area of Beit Jinn, or Beit Jann, which is located just 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Israel’s Mount Hermon ski resort.

Though it is currently focused on retaking the area of Idlib in northwestern Syria, this coalition is likely to soon focus its attention on the Quneitra and Daraa regions, near the Israeli border.

Though Israel secured its buffer zone for that area this summer, the Crisis Group report notes that it would be relatively easy for these groups to get around the restriction, “for instance by integrating the fighters into the Syrian army or simply having them don its uniforms.”

The advocacy group argues that before the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis moves toward the southwest, Russia should work to negotiate an agreement between it and Israel.

There is still time for Russia to try to broker a set of understandings to prevent a confrontation, protecting both its investment in the regime and Syrian, Israeli and Lebanese lives

The Crisis Group notes that Israel’s insistence that Iranian and Iran-backed troops stay out of southern Syria will be the most difficult to negotiate, as Hezbollah and the Shiite militias would not be inclined to accept it and could easily cheat by disguising themselves as Syrians.

However, the authors say this could be resolved by getting Russia to agree to prevent Iran from setting up the types of infrastructure most concerning to Israel, like a seaport through which the Islamic Republic could carry out attacks against Israeli natural gas fields, an airport to transport weapons to Hezbollah, or a factory for the production of precise missiles.

“There is still time for Russia to try to broker a set of understandings to prevent a confrontation, protecting both its investment in the regime and Syrian, Israeli and Lebanese lives,” the Crisis Group wrote.

Preparing for war in the north, Israel boosts air defenses 

February 11, 2018

Source: Preparing for war in the north, Israel boosts air defenses – Arab-Israeli Conflict – Jerusalem Post

BY ANNA AHRONHEIM
 FEBRUARY 11, 2018 11:41
Some 20 Syrian air defense missiles were fired towards Israeli jets during missions over Syria.
iron dome

 Soldiers stand next to an Iron Dome battery.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

While the Israeli army refused to comment on the reports, witnesses reported seeing a convoy of missile defense batteries heading north near the Israeli-Arab city of Baqa el-Garbiyeh. Other witnesses posted photos of several trucks carrying the batteries on central highways in northern Israel.

Israel’s air defenses currently include the Iron Dome, designed to shoot down short-range rockets; the Arrow system, which intercepts ballistic missiles outside of the Earth’s atmosphere; and the David’s Sling missile defense system, which is designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, medium-to-long-range rockets and cruise missiles fired at ranges between 40 to 300 km.

Israel also has Patriot missile batteries stationed in the north of the country and have used them to intercept drones infiltrating into Israeli airspace from Syria. In September, an Iranian-built unmanned aerial vehicle breached the “Bravo line” that marks the Syrian demilitarized zone and was intercepted by an Israeli Patriot anti-ballistic missile launched from a station near the northern city of Safed.

The first use of Arrow occurred in April, when the system was launched to intercept a three surface-to-air missiles Syrian regime air defense fired toward IAF jets.

On Saturday, an Iranian drone, which took off from Syria’s T4 airbase in northern Homs province, flew through Jordanian territory before it infiltrated into Israel. It flew for about a minute and a half in the northern Jordan Valley before it was shot down by a helicopter flown by Lt. Col. “L.”, commander of the 113 squadron.

“The squadron was sent to protect the country’s skies,” L. said. “We identified the aircraft as an Iranian drone, and when it crossed the border, we shot it down into Israeli territory. The squadron is ready and prepared for any task it is given.”

IAF chief of air staff Brigadier General Tomer Bar, the second in command of Israel’s Air Force, said the drone was an advanced model with a low signature that Israel had never intercepted before. It is currently being studied by the IDF.

In retaliation for the incursion, eight Israeli jets took off to strike the drone’s launch site. During the operation, Syrian regime forces fired around 20 anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli jets. The pilots of one of the planes ejected themselves when they recognized that one of the missiles had locked onto their jet.

According to the IDF, Iran and the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards have been operating at the T4 base “for a long time, backed by Syrian army forces and with the approval of the Syrian regime.”

“Iran has been using the base in recent months for the purpose of transferring weaponry to be used against Israel,” read a statement by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. “These actions by Iran at the base are ostensibly carried out under the guise of supporting the fighting against the global Islamic jihad forces, but the actions carried out in the past 24 hours prove that its real concern is direct violent action against Israel.”

“In the Iranian action, all the Israeli warnings against Iranian consolidation in Syria were realized. The attack was initiated and Israel was forced to respond first to the threat in its territory and then to the hostile elements operating from the Syrian territory opposite it.”