by Yochanan Visser
Netanyahu has always said that deployment of the Iranian-backed pro-Assad coalition near the Israeli border, constituted a red line.
Flags of Syria and Russia
With all eyes on Israel’s southern front where Hamas is desperately trying to conceal the fact it has run out of military options in its never ending war against the Jewish State, Hezbollah and the pro-Assad axis seem to be gearing up for the long anticipated confrontation with the IDF.
Iranian and Israeli media reported last week that the pro-Assad coalition is preparing for an offensive against Islamist rebel groups in the Kuneitra and Daraa provinces in southern Syria.
The pro-Assad axis, which includes Hezbollah and other Shiite militias, has reportedly deployed tanks and heavy artillery on the Syrian Golan Heights.
Some of the weaponry is placed within the demilitarized buffer zone along the Israeli border, a clear violation of the 1974 armistice agreement between Syria and Israel which officially ended the Yom Kippur War.
Israel is expected to file a complaint against the Syrian regime at UNDOF, the now defunct international peace keeping force which left Syria for Israel after Islamist rebel groups conquered the Syrian side of the Golan Heights in 2013 and 2014.
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has always said that the deployment of the Iranian axis, meaning the Iranian-backed pro-Assad coalition, in the vicinity of the Israeli border, constituted a red line.
Iranian and Arab media last week reported Russian is delivering new tanks, BMP’s and other heavy weaponry to Assad’s forces ahead of the Golan offensive.
Russia's dangerous double game
Russia is clearly playing a double game in Syria as became clear from a Reuters investigation which was published last Friday.
A team of Reuters reporters found out that Russia is using civilian airplanes of the sanctioned Syrian airliner Cham Wings to transfer Russian mercenaries from Rostov airport in southern Russia to Syria.
There they are spearheading the battle against rebel groups in the devastated country and are often the first ones to enter captured towns and villages.
The Russian military contractors refused to talk about their mission but Reuters spoke with other sources who said there could be up to 3,000 Russian mercenaries fighting for Assad.
The mercenaries are working for Wagner, a Russian company owned by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who maintains ties with the Russian Defense Ministry and is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In December 2017, Putin announced he would withdraw Russian troops from Syria.
"I order the defense minister and the chief of the general staff to start withdrawing the Russian group of troops to their permanent bases,” the Russian leader said at the time.
Another indication Russia is trying to expand its influence in the Levant and is playing a double role in the conflict between the Iranian axis and Israel came from an Hezbollah official who spoke to The Nation reporter Sulome Anderson.
Sophisticated Russian weaponry gets to Hezbollah
The Hezbollah official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, revealed that Russia has delivered sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah.
“Russia gave the maximum they could for Hezbollah. Hezbollah has T-90 light tanks in Qusayr. In addition, Hezbollah owns S-200 (surface-to-air) missiles,” the Hezbollah official said referring to a town in the Qalamoun Mountains near the Lebanese border where the Iranians are suspected of having built an underground nuclear facility.
The Hezbollah man also confirmed that Iran, together with the Shiite terrorist organization, has built missiles factories in Lebanon, but said the facilities only “upgrade” existing missile types. Israel is concerned that Iran is helping Hezbollah convert crude rockets into guided missiles which can reach sensitive facilities and population centers in the country.
Other Hezbollah representatives told Anderson that Hezbollah is now in the possession of “anti-aircraft, anti-ship, and long-range missiles.”
The US and Russia vie over Lebanon
The Russians have also tried to drive a wedge between the United States and the government of Saad Hariri in Lebanon by closing a multi-billion dollar deal which would have included the delivery of modern Russian weaponry to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), intelligence sharing and training of LAF soldiers.
The U.S. is the main supplier of military aid to the official Lebanese army, which is today controlled by Hezbollah according to Israeli military experts and politicians.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri reportedly scuttled the deal with Russia claiming he’s under pressure from the U.S. and donors who have just pledged more than $11 billion to save the ailing Lebanese economy.
Hariri recently announced he intends to increase LAF presence along the Israeli border, citing Israel’s ‘hostile intentions’ and claiming the Jewish State remains “the primary threat to Lebanon.”
The LAF has indeed increased its presence in southern Lebanon after the IDF started to build a new security fence on the Israeli side of the so-called Blue Line, the UN recognized international border between Israel and Lebanon.
LAF soldiers have furthermore confiscated armored vehicles of UNIFIL, the United Nations peace keeping force which has proven to be useless in preventing Hezbollah from rebuilding itself south of the Litani River after the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Hezbollah has now built a new defense line against an IDF invasion of southern Lebanon by turning hills into long terraces with huge boulders which are meant to serve as traps for Israel’s Merkava tank in the next war.
The Iranian Axis
The Lebanese news site Naharnet, meanwhile, reported that Hezbollah will wage any future war with Israel as part of “an axis.”
“Eisenkot and others know well that a choice of war is not a picnic. The next time we fight, we will fight as an axis, we will not fight alone,” the unnamed Hezbollah official claimed referring to recent statements by Gaby Eisenkot , the Chief of Staff of the IDF, who predicted war with the Iranian axis recently.
The Lebanese president Michael Aoun has branded Eisenkot’s remarks and other rhetoric used by Israeli officials in response to Iranian and Hezbollah threats against the Jewish state “an act of war”.
“The regular Israeli officials’ threats are unacceptable and we consider them to be an act of war against Lebanon,” Aoun told UN envoy Pernille Dahler Kardel in Beirut on Friday.
It wasn’t the first time Aoun talked about war with Israel. He did so on numerous occasions over the past few months.
Aoun’s war rhetoric coincided with a new Iranian threat to raze the Israeli cities Haifa and Tel Aviv to the ground.
“If you want Haifa and Tel Aviv to be razed to the ground, you can try your chance once again,” Ayatollah Sayyid Ahmad Khatami a member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts told worshipers during Friday prayers in Tehran.
He too was responding to remarks made by Israeli officials and Eisenkot.
Israel speaks to Trump
All the above explains why Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided to discuss “recent developments in the Middle East” with US President Donald Trump in a telephone call which took place last week.
Trump last week raised eyebrows in CENTCOM, the US Central Command in the Middle East, by vowing he would soon pull back the US Army from Syria and alarmed the Israeli PM.
According to Associated Press the discussion between the two leaders “grew tense” when Netanyahu expressed his concerns about a possible premature US withdrawal from Syria.
The American President also drew the ire of his own military brass when he reportedly refused to listen to their advice not to undermine the new US policy on Syria which focuses on stopping Iran from taking over the country.
CNN reported US military commanders left the White House meeting “beside themselves” about the President’s plan to leave Syria soon.
Trump has since then somewhat retracted his statements over a hasty withdrawal from Syria and media reports suggest the U.S. military in Syria is now setting up new frontline positions in the eastern and northern part of the country.
Israel, meanwhile, is closely monitoring the situation in Syria and Lebanon by using drones and other sophisticated intelligence gathering equipment.
Yochanan Visser is an independent journalist/analyst who worked for many years as Middle East correspondent for Western Journalism.com in Arizona and was a frequent publicist for the main Dutch paper De Volkskrant. He authored a book in the Dutch language about the cognitive war against Israel and now lives in Gush Etzion. He writes a twice weekly analysis of current issues for Arutz Sheva
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