Tensions have been rising between Israel and Syria in recent weeks, particularly following Israeli airstrikes at the beginning of May on the Syrian capital. Israel, however, has been building up its forces toward a confrontation on its northern border long before these airstrikes.
Over the last year the Israeli army increased training of its troops in the north of the country, moving battalions from southern training fields in the Negev into the Galilee and occupied Syrian Golan Heights. In addition, last April the army’s northern command trained for immediate mobilisation of large masses of soldiers, and the home front command is poised to carry out a major civil defence drill.
The Syrian government fears such actions signal the readiness of Tel Aviv to assist rebel forces in the country to topple the regime.
This context provides the framework to evaluate the risks inherent in Tuesday’s fire exchange between Israeli and Syrian troops across the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights, as well as subsequent Israeli threats that Syria’s leader will ‘‘bear the consequences’’ for further escalation.
"If Assad destabilizes the Golan Heights, he will pay a heavy price," said Israeli chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies at Haifa University.
Gantz’s comments came hours after Syrian troops shot an Israeli military jeep and two weeks after the Israeli air force carried out two strikes on the outskirts of Damascus.
The Syrian General Command of the Army and the Armed Forces said in a communiqué published Tuesday that the Israeli jeep crossed the cease-fire line. The Israeli chief of staff denied this, claiming the jeep was on the Israeli side of the line.
Israel retaliated by firing two rockets on a Syrian military position. According to the Syrian army, there were no casualties.
The Syrian army believes these incidents aim to support armed opposition groups battling the Syrian regime. The Syrian army also contends that Israeli air force attacks on Syrian military facilities on May 3 and May 5 had an identical objective: aiding rebel forces battling government troops in the region.
Moreover, after Israeli attacks on Damascus, the Syrian government claimed these actions amounted to a declaration of war and threatened retaliation. Back then, Israeli analysts assumed that the Syrian regime was too weak to actually carry through on this threat.
“Israel is taking a calculated risk that Assad, Iran and Hezbollah are right now fighting a war against the Syrian rebels and probably don’t want to open up a second front against a far more formidable enemy,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, in an interview with Bloomberg.
Two weeks later, however, Israeli perceptions may be changing.
Israeli analysts, such as Moshe Maoz from Hebrew University and Dan Schueftan, head of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University, recognised in interviews with the Israeli press that Damascus has a motivation to respond. A Syrian response to Israeli provocations will present the rebels, and their Arab allies, as collaborators with Israel and will posit Syria’s Baath regime in a leadership position within Arab politics as a final front of resistance.
The Israeli government has apparently started to believe that a major Syrian retaliation to Israeli actions is a real possibility.
"There is no longer a question whether missiles will be launched at Israel’s major population centers, only when it would happen", Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan said Tuesday ahead of a nationwide drill.
The drill, conducted jointly by the Israeli Army Home Front Command and emergency services, aims to prepare the Israeli population for the event of thousands of missiles and rockets hitting population centers and strategic installations across the country.
The drill will start on Sunday morning with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing a week of national emergency.
From Monday until Wednesday the drill will focus on the civilian population, in particular practicing a speedy retreat to protected spaces. This will be a high-tech drill as participation will be checked online with the assistance of the Education Ministry, which devised a form asking students whether they and their parents have indeed entered sheltered areas.
Additionally, this will be first time that Israel’s entire early warning system will be put to a test as, besides sirens, civilians will receive alerts via different media, including mobile devices, social networks and television broadcasts.
Head of the Home Front Command, Major-General Eyal Eisenberg, also spoke of war as a near certainty, saying "We’ll be required to deal with a large volume of rocket fire. Our opponents hold long-range missiles with large warheads and carrying capacity of hundreds of pounds”.
This drill is the last in a series of military exercises carried out during the last year by the Israeli army.
According to the Israeli press, military training in the north of the country was tripled during the past year. Army battalions and brigades were moved from training areas in the south to the north, allowing troops to optimally train manoeuvre potential there or in similar topographic conditions.
At the end of April, on the eve of the air force attack on Damascus, the Israeli army launched an extensive surprise exercise in northern Israel. During the exercise 2,000 reserve soldiers were called up – a move of a volume that has not been seen for years. Military sources said the exercise, which tested force flexibility, practiced battle procedures in the event of an escalation in the northern arena from a new operational plan.
Local and international analysts believe the rising military tensions along the Israel-Syria cease-fire line are an outcome of the ongoing war in Syria and Israeli attempts to block delivery of Syrian weapons to Hezbollah. However, latest developments may indicate that Israel is preparing for a war it believes will entrench its regional interests.