It’s been more than two weeks since the Israeli airstrike in Syria against the arms convoy headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Bits of information, coupled with ominous warnings, are coming out from Jerusalem regarding the purpose of the strike. Since 2006, Israel has waged a major campaign against Iran’s supply network, transferring strategic weapons to its assets in the Levant. Looking at the operation in historical context, the strike in Syria can be seen as the latest installment in an integrated campaign against Iran’s forward positions on Israel’s northern and southern borders.
At a conference in Jerusalem on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear that Israel would not allow “chemical and strategic” weapons from Syria to reach Hezbollah. Netanyahu’s concern over strategic weapons in the hands of Israel's enemies is well-founded. Since the 2006 war, Iran has aggressively moved to bolster the capabilities of Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as those of its allies in Gaza. This effort has centered primarily, though by no means exclusively, around supplying Tehran’s assets with long-range rockets and ballistic missiles. The deployment of these weapons in Lebanon and Gaza would enable Iran, through Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to strike at any city in Israel, not to mention its infrastructure and sensitive facilities, including offshore gas platforms.
“The chemical weapons issue is important,” notes former Mossad operations officer Michael Ross. However, he adds, “it is tangential to the overall issue of Israel's enemies possessing long range missile capability and other advanced technological weapons systems. Stemming the flow and technological upgrade of these rockets and missiles is a top priority for Israel’s military and intelligence community.” This is what Israel has been doing for the last six and a half years.
According to Hezbollah lore, senior Iranian, Syrian, and Hezbollah leaders made a decision following the 2006 war to focus on developing their missile and long-range rocket capabilities. They also decided to implement these measures in Gaza. As Qassem Qassir chronicled in a story last year, Hezbollah’s military commander, Imad Mughniyeh was at the heart of this effort, in partnership with Syrian and Palestinian military officials. Behind it all, of course, stood Iran.
Once this strategy became apparent to Israeli intelligence, it began targeting this Iranian network of strategic weapons transfers, assembly and distribution centers, and the top people running the operation. The spate of assassinated Iranian, Syrian, Hezbollah, and Hamas commanders since 2008 were directly involved in the Iranian network supplying strategic weapons to Tehran's assets in the Levant.
The first target was Mughniyeh himself. He was assassinated five years ago this past Tuesday, in a car bomb in the heart of Damascus. A few months later, in August of 2008, it was Syrian General Muhammad Suleiman’s turn. Suleiman was President Bashar Assad’s Special Advisor for Arms Procurement and Strategic Weapons. Suleiman was also involved in the Syrian covert nuclear plant at al-Kibar, but was also reportedly in charge of arms transfers from Syria to Hezbollah.
Indeed, Suleiman’s name pops up in several accounts of Iran’s strategic weapons supply network. For instance, according to Qassir’s account, Suleiman was responsible, along with Mughniyeh, for overseeing the development of this new system of ballistic missiles and long-range rockets.
In January 2010, a year after the end of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, a senior Hamas military commander in the group’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was assassinated in Dubai. Mabhouh’s role was in developing ties with the Revolutionary Guards’ (IRGC) Quds Force. Mabhouh was also in charge of logistics and was responsible for procuring rockets from Iran to Gaza through Sudan and Egypt.
When Israel struck a Gaza-bound convoy in Sudan during the 2009 war with Hamas, one report claimed that Mabhouh was behind the convoy, which was believed to be carrying Iranian rockets that could reach Tel Aviv. According to Ross, when Mabhouh was assassinated, his seized briefcase proved a “treasure trove of information detailing what items Hamas procured from the Iranians and the logistics of getting them to Gaza.”
Then in November 2011, a mysterious explosion at a military base outside Tehran killed General Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, a top IRGC commander. At the time, the general’s brother revealed that Moghaddam had “visited Lebanon and created Hezbollah’s missile unit there.” Similarly, a senior Guards officer, Mostafa Izadi, wrote in a eulogy how Moghaddam’s ideas “undoubtedly… assisted in the victories of Hezbollah in the 33-day war and Hamas in the 22-day war.” Others noted that Moghaddam had also worked closely with both General Suleiman and Hamas’s Mabhouh.
One year after Moghaddam’s death, Israel assassinated Mabhouh’s replacement, Ahmad Jabari. The Jabari hit came after yet another Israeli airstrike in the Sudan, this time against the Yarmouk military complex, from where Hamas was transferring Iranian Fajr-5 rockets to Gaza. Jabari had built on his predecessor’s close relationship with the IRGC, and, in keeping with the Iran-inspired doctrine, had worked on developing “military technology focusing on long-range missiles.”
To be sure, the strategic weapons that Hezbollah has procured include more than just ballistic missiles and long-range rockets such as Scud-D’s. Although Israel is looking closely at Fajr-5 and Fateh-110/M-600’s, as the Israeli former head of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin recently noted, the strategic weapons that worry Israel also include “advanced air defense systems and sophisticated shore-to-sea missiles.”
In March 2011, Israel intercepted a vessel, which had sailed from the Syrian port of Latakia, carrying, among other things, Iranian anti-ship missiles intended for Hamas. In addition, as I wrote over two years ago, the Assad regime had indicated it would supply Hezbollah with the Russian-made Yakhont (P-800) anti-ship cruise missile. However, much of these systems were kept safely on the Syrian side of the border. With the situation in Syria deteriorating, the Shiite group is forced to move these assets to Lebanon, despite the risk. The assassination on the Beirut-Damascus highway of IRGC commander Hassan Shateri – whose importance one mourner compared to Mughniyeh’s – underscores the risks Hezbollah and the IRGC now face in Syria.
Months before the airstrike, there were reports in the Israeli media about Hezbollah seeking to move Scud-D’s and similar type rockets, as well as advanced anti-aircraft systems, from Syria to Lebanon. At the time, Defense Minister Ehud Barak explained that the IDF was “following... the possible transfer of advanced munitions systems, mainly anti-aircraft missiles or heavy ground-to-ground missiles.” He added that he “instructed the military to increase its intelligence preparations so that... we will be able to consider carrying out an operation.”
The strike two weeks ago was precisely such an operation. As sensitive as it is, given the situation in Syria, it is but the latest in a campaign that dates back to 2008, targeting Iran’s supply network of strategic weapons. As some Lebanese officials are starting to realize, the next operation may very well be in Lebanon – and not just south Lebanon, for Hezbollah has placed these strategic weapons in population centers throughout the country. As Israel is warning, this could be a high-casualty war.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets at @AcrossTheBay