Thousands of Israeli soldiers were called up in surprise notices in the early hours on Wednesday. Summoned from their homes after the end of the Jewish New Year holiday, they were sent north to the Golan Heights to participate in live-fire exercises simulating a surprise Syrian border attack.
The speed of the call-up gave an indication of the military’s interest in testing the preparedness of its troops, should hostilities with neighbors flare up. In recent weeks, concerns that the civil war in Syria would escalate and spill across the border into Israel and Lebanon may have prompted growing attention in Israeli leadership to the ability of the military to stage a swift response or even a preemptive strike.
Statements from Israeli officers leading the exercise highlighted attention to artillery, air force, and helicopter transportation.
The Israeli Defense Forces said that the exercise had been ordered by the chief of the general staff, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, "to examine the competence and preparedness of several units in the Israel Defense Forces."
The exercises could also serve to test Israeli responses to a larger regional conflict with Syria and Iran, should a potential Israeli strike against Iranian facilities draw in Tehran’s allies in Damascus.
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Two weeks prior, Israel held even larger exercises along the Lebanese border, staging a response to a possible confrontation with Islamist political-militant organization Hezbollah, which is largely supported by training and arms from Iran.
The Israel military, however, dismissed Wednesday’s exercises as “planned in advance and not connected to nor the result of any change in the alert level. The exercise is in fact part of a routine series of reviews and surprise exercises conducted throughout the year by the IDF Comptroller.”
Israeli defense officials have warned in past weeks that the deterioration of conditions within Syria could lead to war. The instigator of such a conflict may not even be the Syrian government itself, but Islamic groups or non-government militias that may strike out at Israeli positions on the Golan. A more serious concern may be the status of Syria’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons. There is deep worry that should regime forces become desperate enough, they may hand them over to groups like Hezbollah; or should they become weak enough, simply lose control of them to terrorist groups though to be infiltrating the country. Israel may feel compelled to destroy or secure the chemical arsenal through cross border strikes it is feels there is danger of being targeted by the weapons or of them falling into the wrong hands.
Israel and Syria have not fought openly on their border since 1973 (though they did fight a limited conflict in 1982 in Lebanon) during the Yom Kippur War. The two have never signed a formal peace treaty.
Israel did conduct an air strike against what is often considered a nuclear reactor site in Syria during 2007, something it may now consider replicating against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran says its facilities are civilian and that it would retaliate broadly, including against U.S. forces, if attacked by Israel.
Tel Aviv has called on the U.S. to offer its own red lines for using military force against Iran’s nuclear program -- something Washington has remained unwilling to do, arguing for further time to allow the full weight to diplomatic and economic sanctions to affect Iran.
That is leading to further speculation among defense and foreign policy experts, citing aggressive statements from Israeli leaders, that the country could take unilateral action against Iran before the end of the year.
On Wednesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem welcomed Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in Damascus. Iran is offering the regime of Bashar al-Assad broad support in its struggle against opposition groups, including advisors from its elite paramilitary Quds force.