Call-up of army divisions a warning to Syria

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 July, 2006, 12:00am

Israel's dramatic decision to mobilise three army divisions - as many as 30,000 troops - is both a signal of preparations for a push northwards in Lebanon and a warning for Syria not to intervene.

Both aspects were played down by the cabinet, which said ground operations would continue for now under the limited scope it already approved, and that Israel had no intention of attacking Syria.

However, Israeli sources said the cabinet was likely to approve a major new ground operation in the coming days.

As for Syria, the Israeli government has sought to avoid a confrontation to focus on the battle against Hezbollah. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was reportedly reluctant to approve the army's request for the mobilisation on the grounds that Damascus might interpret this as an intention to attack Syria and could try a pre-emptive strike.

According to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Mr Olmert was persuaded to approve the mobilisation after intelligence pointed out that the Syrian military had gone onto alert and an attack ordered by Syria's impulsive young president, Bashar al-Assad, could not be excluded.

In a related development, the army yesterday announced that batteries of Patriot anti-missile missiles were being deployed in the Tel Aviv area. These missiles are ineffective against the short-range rockets being fired by Hezbollah from Lebanon, but are said to be effective against the longer range Scud missiles in Syria's possession.

There is increasing unhappiness over Damascus' continuing attempts to smuggle missiles and other weaponry from Iran to Hezbollah rebels. The Israeli Air Force has bombed several trucks said to be carrying such armaments after they crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon on secondary roads.

If Syria's involvement is deemed significant, Israel could lash out at Damascus.

The Israeli ground presence in Lebanon has substantially increased since the opening days of the war when it was limited to brief forays against Hezbollah positions overlooking the border.

While operations continue to have the character of pinpoint raids rather than a coherent advance, they are taking place 3km north of the border.

Defence Minister Amir Peretz this week announced that Israel would establish a security zone north of the border and that it would hold it until it could be handed over to an international force.

In the early days, the call-up order affects only senior officers of divisions, but within 10 days the reservist troops are expected to have been mustered.

The cabinet announcement said the mobilisation's objective was 'to prepare the force for possible developments'.

Even if the divisions are thrown into battle, Israel will probably not attempt a sweep towards Beirut, as it did in the Lebanese war of 1982, but use the force to apply pressure on Hezbollah. The Shi'ite militia has shown formidable resilience but it has been taking heavy losses.