Showdown Looming with Syria, Hizbullah and Iran
By David Dolan
Israel stepped several paces closer to becoming involved in a major new Middle East conflict during July after officials named Syria's ally Iran and its surrogate Lebanese Hizbullah militia as being behind the worst terrorist atrocity against Israeli civilians traveling abroad in many years. The suicide bomb blast on a chartered bus at a coastal airport in Bulgaria took the lives of five Israelis tourists, including and expectant mother and her unborn baby. Dozens of others were wounded, several seriously, including a number of children. A Bulgarian bus driver was also killed. Several severely wounded victims were flown to the capital city, Sofia, for emergency surgery. The remaining wounded tourists were quickly flown back to Israel on IAF transporters for medical treatment at home, along with the remains of the fatalities. Two pregnant women were among those injured in the assault. One week before, Israeli and Cypriot security agents apprehended a suspected Hizbullah terrorist plotting to attack Israeli tourists in Limassol Cyprus.
Israeli leaders wasted no time in pledging a "firm response" to the outrageous terrorist atrocity. They cancelled all flights to several popular tourist destinations, including Greece and Thailand, where intelligence officials believe similar Iranian-linked atrocities might be in the offing. Some analysts warned the foreign bus bombing could soon be matched by a new wave of similar attacks inside of Israel, where dozens of buses were targeted by Palestinian suicide bombers between September 2000 and February 2004, leaving hundreds of Israelis dead and many more seriously wounded.
The latest terrorist assault came on the eve of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when violent attacks often escalate in the region. Ramadan coincides this year with the Jewish month of Av, marked by the fast on the ninth of the month (July 28th this year) which marks the destruction of the first and second Jerusalem temples and other disasters that have marred Jewish history over the centuries.
The horrendous homicide bombing also came just hours after the crumbling Syrian Assad regime suffered a massive setback in the escalating armed conflict engulfing the Arab country. Anti-government forces, believed to have been Muslim Brotherhood agents, audaciously planted a powerful bomb inside the national security headquarters building in the capital city, Damascus, killing the Syrian Defense Minister and his deputy, the brother-in-law of besieged Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Other senior government and military officials were killed or wounded in the bomb blast. With fighting raging all over Damascus and much of the rest of the country and senior military defections continuing, rumors abounded that Assad himself had either been wounded or slain, or had fled the Syrian capital for the Mediterranean coast where his Muslim Alawite sect, related to Shiite Islam, has its stronghold.
Ominously, the embattled regime quickly put out a statement blaming Israel and the United States for being behind the deadly bombing, implying it might have either been carried out by Israeli agents or Saudis backed by America. The jarring accusation of possible Israeli involvement prompted Israeli security leaders to hold emergency discussions about the possibility of imminent aggression being launched against Israel by the disintegrating Assad regime. Weekend army leave was cancelled for many IDF soldiers,a clear message to the public that a major conflict is possibly at hand.
After the Bulgaria attack, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak quickly toured the northern Golan Heights border with Syria, warning that the government will not allow the heavily-armed Hizbullah militia to transfer weapons from Syria into Lebanon. He later told reporters he has ordered preparations for possible IDF action to prevent such transfers from taking place,seen by many as another warning of possibly pending war. This came soon after major defense drills were carried out in Haifa and the Tel Aviv area simulating enemy chemical attacks.
Barak also stated that the Russian-backed Syrian regime is nearing its end. Israeli leaders worry that Assad may seek to take Israel down with him, or at least engulf the Jewish State in a serious conflict that might act to deter an IDF strike against Assad's main regional ally, Iran. How the Kremlin,which angered Sunni Arab and Western leader by vetoing yet another UN resolution against the Assad regime last week while rapidly reinforcing Russia's naval presence in the area,might react to a Syrian and/or Hizbullah attack upon Israel, or an Israeli strike against Hizbullah and/or Syria, is anyone's guess.
The deadly bomb blasts in Bulgaria and Syria came two days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Israel to meet with senior officials. After holding discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, she stated that the Obama administration is fully committed to Israel's security and remains strongly opposed to Iran's threatening nuclear production program. This came as news reports said additional American military forces and equipment are being rushed to the Gulf region, including crew-less mine-destroying mini submarines.
Before arriving at Ben Gurion airport, the senior US diplomat met with new Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi,the first-ever top level American contact with a leader of the militant Muslim Brotherhood group that parented the radical Palestinian Hamas movement in 1988. However Clinton also expressed continuing support for the Egyptian military, closely allied with the United States since 1978. Mursi has been trying to legally reinstate the Islamist-controlled parliament suspended in June by the military's ruling council while resisting the council's attempts to prevent his movement from overseeing the writing of a new Egyptian constitution. In Israel, intelligence officers said the IDF has thwarted over ten terror attacks in recent months from the Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula.
While the turbulent tremors shook the tense region, the new Israeli "national unity" government fell apart after the centrist Kadima party withdrew from the broad coalition in mid-July, just ten weeks after its formation. Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz pulled his party, the largest in the Knesset, out of the unity coalition after he failed to come to agreement with Prime Minister Netanyahu over the conscription of Orthodox Hassidic Jews and Arab Israeli citizens into either national military or community service (as if that was the most pressing matter facing Israel at present). However some analysts speculated he may re-join the government if Israel becomes embroiled in a major new war. Several Kadima Knesset members want to split away from the party and join the ruling Likud.
TERROR IN BULGARIA
As diplomatic relations soured with the Islamic nation of Turkey over the past few years, Israeli tourists sought out other relatively close and inexpensive vacation destinations. Several former Soviet-block Eastern European countries and nearby Cyprus and Greece,whose ties have vastly improved with the Jewish state in the same time period,have rapidly replaced Turkey as preferred recreation stops. Among them is Bulgaria, located due north of Turkey and Greece, whose Black Sea resorts have especially become popular with young Israeli tourists. It was there, in the coastal city of Burgas, that a suicide terrorist blew himself up on a chartered bus at the local airport, pretending to be among the Israeli tourists boarding it after arriving on Air Bulgaria flight 392, which had taken off a couple hours before from Israel's Ben Gurion airport.
The attack left five Israelis dead, one of them a 43 year old pregnant woman (so the death toll was actually six). Kochava Shriki, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion, had finally gotten pregnant after years of fertility treatments. She was traveling with her husband Yitzhak after happily learning just that morning that she was with child. Her wounded spouse desperately searched through the destroyed bus rubble for his wife, only to learn one day later that Kochava and their unborn offspring were among the murdered victims. The other four fatalities were all males in their 20s. Itzik Colangi and his best friend Amir Menashe, from the city of Petach Tikva ("Portal of Hope" in Hebrew) near Tel Aviv, had traveled with their spouses to Bulgaria four months after Colangi's wife Gilat gave birth to their first (and now only) child. The widowed mother was severely wounded in the attack. The two male friends were slaughtered while packing their luggage onto the bus. Menashe's widow, who was more lightly wounded, gave birth to the couple's first (and now only) son ten months ago.
The two other fatalities, Elior Price and Maor Harosh, grew up together in the coastal city of Acre (ancient Acco), north of Haifa. Price was a student and Harosh an electrician. The bachelors had gone on vacation with another close friend, Daniel Fahima, who was severely wounded in the vicious terrorist bombing. Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov spoke at a late night army ceremony at Ben Gurion one day after the slain tourists had happily departed from the airport on a chartered vacation airplane. As the coffins were carried off the military plane that fettered them home to their final resting places, he told grieving relatives and close friends that the victim's "only mistake was that they were Israelis. They were not randomly targeted."
American FBI security agents rapidly joined their Israeli and Bulgarian counterparts in investigating the July 18 terrorist atrocity after it emerged that police had found an American drivers license (later said to be forged) from the state of Michigan on the dismembered body of the homicide attacker. Sporting long blond hair under a baseball cap and wearing sunglasses, the terrorist had earlier been recorded by security cameras wandering around the outer areas of the busy airport. He was dressed in summer shorts and sporting a backpack like any typical young Western tourist,apparently waiting for the scheduled flight from Tel Aviv to arrive. Investigators later said the perpetrator possibly had a nearby accomplice who set off the explosion by phoning a rigged mobile phone located inside the terrorist's backpack.
Security officials said the suicide bomber was "Caucasian" in appearance, confirmed by the video recordings. However subsequent examinations of his remains revealed he had been wearing a wig, with his actual hair being short and much darker. However he also had light skin and blue eyes (a British newspaper later reported Iranian agents have recruited a number of Caucasian converts to Islam to carry out such attacks in Europe). Just seconds after boarding the bus, the powerful explosive charge was set off, killing nearby Israelis and the Bulgarian bus driver and wounding over thirty other passengers, several critically. Hours after the heinous assault, American President Barack Obama phoned PM Netanyahu to express his disgust with what he termed "this barbaric attack" upon Israeli civilian tourists, offering both his condolences for the victims and their families and US government assistance "to bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack."
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov expressed outrage over the assault on his sovereign soil, calling upon Israeli tourists not to allow the massacre to deter future visits to his friendly country. However Israeli government officials quickly suspended all outgoing flights to the country, along with scheduled flights to Greece, Turkey, Croatia, Serbia, South Africa and Thailand, citing specific intelligence information that further attacks were possible in each of those countries. Some analysts said the unprecedented move was probably also quietly designed to alert vacationing Israeli reserve soldiers to come home, and possibly also to reduce the number of foreign tourists coming to Israel with a major conflict possibly pending. Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev later told reporters that the Israeli Mossad security agency had not issued any advance warnings that a terrorist operation could be imminent in his country.
IRAN AND HIZBULLAH ARE RESPONSIBLE
Noting it was exactly 18 years to the day when Iranian backed Hizbullah agents carried out the deadliest ever terror attack upon Jews in the modern era,slaughtering 85 people when an explosives-laden van crashed into a Jewish community center in the Argentinean city of Buenos Aires,Israeli officials quickly pointed the finger of responsibility at Hizbullah and its main sponsor, Iran. Although both Shiite entities denied they were behind the suicide assault, Israeli officials said they possessed solid evidence to the contrary. They noted that local police in India, Georgia and Thailand had irrefutably linked Iranian and Hizbullah agents to terrorist assaults in those countries last February, while other Iranian-backed terrorist plots against Israeli targets were recently uncovered in Kenya and Cyprus (a Swedish citizen of Lebanese descent is being held in custody in Cyprus after he was arrested mid-month while casing sites frequented by Israeli tourists). The Prime Minister's office later revealed that no less than 20 Iranian-backed plots to attack Israelis abroad had been uncovered over the past year.
Officials also pointed to public pledges by Iranian and Hizbullah leaders to avenge the killings of a senior Hizbullah military leader in Damascus in 2008 and the subsequent deaths of several Iranian nuclear scientists. Of course, Israel might well have been behind those killings, especially in Iran, but if so, agents were targeting men who were openly working to harm, if not destroy, the Jewish State. The victims in Bulgaria were all tourists, including pregnant women and children.
Within hours of the terrorist assault, Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a statement saying "All the signs point to Iran. Only in the past few months, we have seen Iranian attempts to attack Israelis in Thailand, India, Georgia, Kenya, Cyprus and other places." He added the attack in Bulgaria "is an Iranian terror campaign that is spreading throughout the world." More to the point, he vowed that "Israel will react powerfully against Iranian terror." Knesset opposition leader Shelly Yechimovich condemned "the murderous terror attack" in Bulgaria, agreeing with Netanyahu that "There is no doubt the instability in the region is spawned by Iran, aiming especially for Israelis and Jews throughout the world." She also noted that "Israeli security forces have succeeded in preventing several attempted attacks targeted at Israeli travelers in recent months."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak focused more upon the Lebanese Hizbullah militia rather than its patron Iran as the address for a possible military reply to the deadly attack. The morning after the slaughter took place, he pointedly flew by military helicopter to inspect IDF frontline positions along the northern Golan Heights border with Syria, whose embattled regime is closely linked to both Hizbullah and Iran. He warned Israel would not allow Syrian refugees to cross the border, nor the Hizbullah militia to smuggle weapons from Syria into Lebanon. This seemed to confirm an earlier Israeli Channel 10 news report which included video of powerful SCUD missiles being transferred from Damascus to two military bases outside the capital city. The report said the missiles belonged to Hizbullah, which was said to be increasingly concerned the weapons, purchased with Iranian money, might fall under the control of anti-Assad Syrian forces led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The report added that Israeli government officials warned Hizbullah via third parties they would order military aircraft to interdict any attempt to smuggle the missiles, which can carry chemical warheads, into Lebanon.
Israeli President Shimon Peres issued an unusually blunt statement against Iran in the wake of the Bulgarian atrocity. He warned the Shiite clerical regime that Israel "has the means and the will to silence and paralyze terror organizations." The elderly statesman added that, "We were witnesses to a deadly terror attack coming out of Iran. We know there were other attempts, only this time they succeeded." In apparent response to this and similar comments from Israeli government officials, a leading Iranian cleric threatened on July 22 that Tel Aviv will be targeted if any IDF action is directed at Iran or its allies.
Although Israeli leaders are certain Iran and its Shiite Lebanese surrogate force were behind the tourist bus bombing, most Israeli security analysts said they do not expect a major IDF military operation in direct response to the attack (the deteriorating situation in Syria is another matter). Instead, they anticipate Mossad and other Israeli security agencies will step up the covert campaign to thwart further assaults upon Israelis traveling or living abroad, and also probably ramp up their undeclared surreptitious efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring or building nuclear weapons. However all note that, with the situation on the edge of a precipice in this roiling region, it would not take much more at present to spark off a fullscale conflict with Hizbullah, Syria and/or Iran. Most say the conflict raging in Syria is the wild card in the equation, enhanced by the jarring fact that the Hamas movement's patron is now in control of the Egyptian government in Cairo,all of this unimaginable just two years ago
POSSIBLE IDF ATTACK LOOMING AGAINST SYRIA
During a July 20 interview on Channel 2, Defense Minister Barak revealed that he has ordered IDF planners to prepare for an attack upon Syria's huge weapons stockpiles. "Syria has advanced anti-aircraft missiles, surface-to-surface missiles and elements of chemical weapons. I directed the IDF to prepare for a situation where we will need to consider the possibility of an attack." Some saw his jarring comments as an indirect warning to the Israeli public to get ready for an increasingly likely war in the coming days or weeks. Subsequent Israeli media reports said Syria recently test-fired chemical-tipped missiles aimed at Israel, Jordan and Turkey.
Earlier, the New York Times reported that Barak had spoken to US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about the possibility of a joint strike against Syria's huge chemical weapons arsenal, but Panetta thought it would only serve to further inflame the region. Israel is deeply concerned that such weapons could either be transferred to Hizbullah or fall under Sunni Muslim fundamentalist control, who could then funnel some of them to Hamas as happened with some of Libya's large weapons arsenal after Col. Gaddafi was violently overthrown, with NATO assistance, last year.
During his previously unscheduled northern tour, Barak said it was imperative for the Israeli public to not allow terror attacks like the one in Bulgaria interrupt their normal daily lives. "In my view, it's of the utmost importance that we do not lose our stamina, nor the ability to understand that we have to live." The veteran politician and former military leader added that it is "important that Israelis continue to travel in the world, continue to travel in Israel, and continue to live their normal lives despite all the pain." Speaking at the following Sunday morning weekly cabinet meeting, PM Netanyahu noted how "heartbreaking" it had been to watch television coverage of the five funerals conducted the previous Friday. This came after he phoned President Obama to express Israel's condolences over the tragic loss of life when a deranged gunman opened fire at a crowed movie theater outside of Denver.
WARFARE SPREADS TO DAMASCUS
Just hours before the atrocious bomb blast in Bulgaria, a massive explosion rocked the military headquarters building in the Syrian capital city of Damascus. The blast left Defense Minister Daoud Rajha dead, along with former Defense Minister and senior military official General Hassan Turkmani. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's brother-in-law and close aid, Assef Shawkat, was also slain in the unprecedented attack. The country's wounded intelligence chief died in hospital two days later. Syria's Interior Minister and several other senior officials were also seriously injured. In summary, the attack was a massive blow to the Assad regime that many said spells its imminent end.
When President Assad failed to appear on television in the hours (and later days) after the deadly bombing, rumors began to swirl that he too was among the dead and wounded. With chaotic warfare now gripping the capital city and the entire country, including for the first time the largest city and financial capital, Allepo, near Turkey, the unsettling reports could not be confirmed. An unnamed senior Israeli Defense official, thought by many to be Ehud Barak, told reporters the deadly bomb attack was a "major regional earthquake" that measured "seven on the Richter scale." Earlier in the month, the son of former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass,a close friend of Bashar Assad,defected to France, dealing a significant blow to the tottering regime. Many other military leaders fled the country as the month wore on. Another defection was Syria's ambassador to Iraq, who like Tlass is a Sunni Muslim.
Slain Syrian Defense Minister Rajha was born into a Syrian Orthodox Christian family, the most senior Christian member of Assad's cabinet. His death enhanced growing alarm in the Arab country's significant Christian community (which comprises about 10% of Syria's 22 million citizens) that the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood-led revolt against the Assad regime will end up harming their security. They fear any new government that replaces the Assad regime will reflect the anti-Christian Muslim fundamentalism now engorged in Egypt. Even before the Damascus attack, many Syrian Christians had been fleeing the intensifying warfare in their country, as hundred of thousands earlier did in neighboring Iraq (with a majority of Christian refugees choosing not to return to the post-war country, now "ruled" by feuding Shiite and Sunni politicians). As was the case under Saddam Hussein, the Assad regime,comprised mainly of members of the minority Alawite Muslim sect,officially allows freedom of religion in Syria, with Christians there saying they have indeed enjoyed such freedom over the past few decades. They reportedly fear their embattled country will soon split up into rival sectarian Muslim components, as earlier occurred in Lebanon and Iraq.
July saw the heaviest fighting so far in the 17-month-old Syrian Sunni Muslim uprising. Hundreds perished every day, with the death tool now nearing 20,000. Just three days before the Damascus bombing, the Red Cross officially declared the conflict a "civil war," meaning both the regime and opposition forces are now subject to the "rules of warfare" spelled out in the Geneva Convention.
The Red Cross statement came as United Nations observers investigated the latest mass killing in the war-torn country, which took place in the village of Tremseh earlier in the month, leaving dozens dead. A subsequent UN report said Syrian troops went door-to-door in the small farming community, checking ID's before shooting dead some of the residents and arresting others. However unlike earlier large-scale slaughters, the UN said the attack,which it said left "pools of blood and brain matter in a number of homes",mainly targeted Syrian army defectors and anti-regime activists, meaning most of the victims were adult males. Syrian officials denied UN claims that government forces employed tanks, artillery and attack helicopters during the July 12 attack, but eyewitnesses said otherwise. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi maintained the attack "was not a massacre" as many media outlets reported, but instead a "military operation targeting armed fighters" who had taken control of the village.
Soon after the seismic bombing in the heart of Damascus, rebel forces took control of all border crossings along the Syrian border with Iraq, which means they can insure a free flow of weapons from Sunni Muslim supporters located there and beyond. Israeli analysts said the dramatic captures indicated the Syrian army is rapidly disintegrating, with remaining loyal regime forces being rushed to Damascus and other major cities now under rebel siege. They worry that the intensifying conflict might spark off major clashes inside Iraq between Shiite militias that support the Assad regime and Sunni Muslims that tend to support it. The conflict could easily also directly involve Shiite Iran, which has Revolutionary Guards already operating inside Syria in support of the regime, and spread to Lebanon, Jordan and/or Turkey, which all received thousands of additional refugees fleeing the growing warfare during the month.
Naturally enough, the greatest concern in Jerusalem is that the crumbling, but massively armed, Assad regime might lash out at Israel before surrendering to Sunni-led Muslim forces backed by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab countries. Israeli analysts note that Hizbullah's current control of much of Lebanon would be seriously jeopardized if the Assad regime is successfully deposed, as seems increasingly likely, if not imminent. Iran would lose its main frontline ally along Israel's borders, and Hamas would lose one of its most important patrons in the region. All that to say, Assad and his allies,ominously including Russia and North Korea,might band together to support the embattled regime by backing or participating in a military strike upon Israel, and possibly NATO member Turkey and Jordan as well. The Kremlin would not be expected to join in any regional attack, but would probably not prevent it either. Some Israeli analysts said while Iran and Hizbullah denied responsibility for the terror attack in Bulgaria, they left enough evidence to make it clear they were in fact the perpetrators. Just as the two world wars began in Europe (the first with an assassination in Austria), some warned that Iran and its allies might be attempting to spark off a worldwide conflict centered this time in the Middle East.
Indeed, in a speech delivered by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to mark the beginning of Ramadan, the overall Iranian clerical leader declared that Muslims everywhere must prepare for war since "we are now living in the end of times." He predicted the imminent return of the Imam Madhi, a medieval religious leader that many Shiites, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, believe will reappear in the last days of this era to convert the world to Shiite Islam. Most portentously, he is expected to emerge in the midst of massive regional conflict and upheaval that leaves a third of earth's population dead. All "infidels" who resist his rule will be slain, especially Christians and Jews. Speaking during Friday Muslim prayer services on July 20, Khamenei proclaimed that "The issue of Imam Mahdi is of utmost importance, and his reappearance has been clearly stated in our holy religion of Islam. We must study and remind ourselves of the end of times and Imam Mahdi's era, and prepare the environment for the coming so that the great leader will come." In other words, Iran must bring the region and wider world to massive warfare in order to fulfill the Shiite "prophecy."
In reality, Israel and its allies and Iran and its surrogates have already been at war for many years. The extremist Iranian theocratic regime, not Israel, initiated the intensifying conflict, now possibly coming to a climax, vowing decades ago to destroy both the "Great Satan" America and the "Little Satan" Israel. With the region now violently quaking and much more apparently just ahead, it is gratifying to recall that Israel's anointed Messiah,not some Shiite Muslim Imam,will ultimately govern the world from Jerusalem, ruling with justice and righteousness and bringing an end to all terror and war: "They will not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain. For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.