IDF launches surprise exercise in Golan Heights amid lingering Iran tensions

DRILL PLANNED FAR IN ADVANCE, MILITARY SAYS Army says explosions, large troop movements should be expected in northern Israel over next few days; reservists called up

An Israeli soldier next to Merkava Mark IV tanks in the Golan Heights during a military drill on May 7, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JALAA MAREY)

Source: Times of Israel, By JUDAH ARI GROSS, June 10, 2018

The military kicked off a surprise exercise in the Golan Heights on Sunday, calling up reservists amid ongoing tensions over Iran’s presence in nearby Syria.

“A short while ago, a large-scale surprise military exercise began in the Golan Heights area,” the army said in a statement.

The military stressed that the exercise was not tied to current events but was “planned in advance as part of the 2018 training schedule.”

Participating units were kept in the dark in order to test their reaction and conduct in the case of an actual outbreak of violence.

The Israel Defense Forces said residents and visitors to the area could expect to hear explosions and see “increased traffic of vehicles.”

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iranian-backed forces stationed on the Golan border, including from the Hezbollah terror group, had begun posing as Syrian military units, in a ploy to try to reduce pressure from Israel.

Multiple Syrian rebel commanders told the American newspaper that Lebanese Hezbollah troops and other Iranian-backed militias withdrew from the Daraa and Quneitra provinces in Syria’s southwest near Israel, but later returned dressed in Syrian military uniforms and under the regime flag.

One commander told the paper that the convoys were returning equipped with rockets and missiles.

“It’s a camouflage,” Ahmad Azam, a commander with the rebel Salvation Army, a rebel group based in Quneitra told the Wall Street Journal. “They are leaving… in their Hezbollah uniform and they are returning in regime vehicles and dressed in regular [Syrian] army uniforms.”

Israel fears that as the Syrian civil war winds down, Iran, whose forces and Shiite proxies have backed President Bashar Assad, will entrench militarily in the neighboring country and turn its focus on Israel.

Israel has vowed not to tolerate any Iranian forces in Syria, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to German, France and the UK this week to try to get support for this position.

Israel has waged a quiet campaign against Iran’s military presence in Syria for several years. This campaign came to light and was stepped up considerably in February, after an Iranian drone carrying explosives briefly entered Israeli airspace before it was shot down, and Israel immediately launched a counterattack on the T-4 air base in central Syria from which the drone had been piloted.

A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)

Israel attacked the T-4 air base again in April after Iran brought in an advanced anti-aircraft system, killing at least seven members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

After weeks of threats and Israeli preventative strikes, on May 10, the IRGC’s al-Quds Force launched 32 rockets at Israel’s forward defensive line on the Golan Heights border, Israel said. Four of them were shot down; the rest fell short of Israeli territory. In response, over the next two hours Israeli jets fired dozens of missiles at Iranian targets in Syria and destroyed a number of Syrian air defense systems.

Diplomatically, in recent weeks, Israel has stepped up its negotiations with Russia, and to a lesser extent the United States, in order to secure an Iranian withdrawal from Syria as the civil war there starts winding down.

According to reports, Moscow is prepared to force Iran to pull its forces from the area closest to the border. Israel has rebuffed the offer, calling for Iran to pull out of Syria entirely.