Israel Treading Carefully to Avoid War With Syria

IDF cancels part of massive combat training exercise to calm tensions along northern border.

Israel has taken steps in recent weeks to lower tensions with Syria and prevent a misunderstanding that could spark an escalation along the northern border.

A General Staff exercise code-named Firestones 12 last week did not include the scenario of a war with Syria - only a clash with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Although originally considered, the Israel Defense Forces opted not to include an element in the exercise that required the rushing of large numbers of conscript soldiers to the north, so that the Syrians would not mistake this as an offensive. Israel also relayed messages to Syria on both open and secret channels, assuring them that no offensive action was being considered.

Military sources told Haaretz that the desire to avoid escalating tensions was one of the considerations that led to the cancelation of part of the exercise. But they added that the IDF would hold exercises in the future if appropriate.

In recent weeks, senior Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah officials have commented extensively on the likelihood of war with Israel; in some instances they accused Israel of planning an offensive in the north. A week ago, Syrian President Bashar Assad hosted his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and met with the Hamas and Hezbollah leadership. In a speech at the summit, Ahmadinejad claimed that the Zionist regime is close to its demise.

In addition to extensive Hezbollah activity in southern Lebanon, which in the last two years has focused on military preparations in built-up areas of villages and towns, the extremist Shi'ite organization has renewed its activities in what the IDF terms "nature reserves" - open fields with wild vegetation that Hezbollah used during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Hezbollah's activities in the "nature reserves" is carried out by operatives in civilian clothing so as not to be identified by the UN troops patrolling the area and be condemned for violating UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that helped end the war.

In a lecture at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Israel is closely following developments in Lebanon and that "the time has come to discuss this more directly and honestly."

At a conference in memory of Haaretz defense analyst Ze'ev Schiff, Barak said that at its basis, UN Security Council Resolution 1701 seeks "to put an end to the Hezbollah anomaly in Lebanon, but instead of resolving the problem the resolution only made it more complicated." Commenting on the size of Hezbollah's missile and rocket arsenal in Lebanon, Barak mentioned a new number, 45,000, much higher than previous assessments.

"We cannot accept the artificial distinction between the Hezbollah terrorists and the state of Lebanon," Barak added. "We will not lead a confrontation, but if we are attacked we will not chase down Hezbollah's lone terrorists .... The government of Lebanon and other sources of support and funding [of Hezbollah] will be part of the equation."

In an article on the Washington Institute's Web site, two American researchers write that Syria may have delivered to Hezbollah Russian-made shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles - the Igla-S (SA-24 by its NATO code). The authors say these missiles may pose a threat to the air force's F-16 fighters.

In the past, U.S. officials told Arab media that Syria is training Hezbollah fighters in the use of the aging SA-2 anti-aircraft missiles, but others reportedly said that Syria may transfer SA-8 anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah.

According to the article, many attempts by Hezbollah to attack Israeli and Jewish targets abroad as revenge for the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh two years ago were foiled. The authors say that at least six plans to attack Israelis in Turkey were uncovered, and Iranian intelligence agents were involved in the operations.