“Clearly, the aim of Israel in terms of these raids was to intercept an Iranian arms supply on its way to Hezbollah, and the role of Syria is only as a conduit to the supply of these arms. It has nothing to do with Syria itself,” said Jonathan Spyer, an expert on Lebanon and Syria at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel.
Uncertainty along frontier
In recent months, Israel has moved elite fighting and intelligence units to its frontier with Syria. Merkava tanks that were once miles from the boundary are now hidden in the trees, in position to charge up ramps in seconds and fire.
A barbed-wire fence, soon to be covered with cameras and sensors, will be completed within months along the 42-mile boundary that Israel shares with Syria.
On Thursday, a day before the first airstrike, an Israeli military commander was touring the frontier with reporters, pointing out the fence, the tanks and the hilltops bristling with surveillance equipment.
But when he looked across the fence, Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, the deputy commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ long-range special forces directorate, said he didn’t see the embattled farm towns of Syria or an impending invasion by Syrian troops, but rather “the largest arms depot on Earth.”
Many Israelis are not sure what to conclude about the civil war in Syria. Although the two countries remain antagonists, their disputed border has been quiet — until now — for 40 years.
Israel is anxious about who will control a new Syria if Assad is ousted — Islamists, who may be hostile to Israel, or a more benign, secular government.
“There is always a debate about which side Israel is supporting in Syria,” said Moshe Maoz, a Syria expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Some say Israel is siding with Bashar al-Assad, and some say Israel is siding with the rebels. But, really, it is a matter of Israeli priorities, and that is to avoid any transfer of missiles and weapons to Hezbollah.”
At a conference of defense experts last month, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, chief of general staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said that since the 2006 war, “Hezbollah has become stronger, its abilities are quite great. As a sub-state, it has unprecedented abilities.”
But Gantz, who said the group’s weapons originated in Iran, added that he did not envision Hezbollah divisions trying to cross into Israel in direct confrontation.
“I can see rockets,” he said.
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.