A senior officer in the Lebanese Interior Ministry’s intelligence wing, Lt. Col. Samir Shehadeh, was targeted in a roadside bomb attack Tuesday in the southern Lebanese village of Rmeileh near the city of Sidon. Shehadeh was wounded and four of his bodyguards were killed in the bombing. His car was following another that was carrying his decoy, Sgt. Wissam Harb. That Shehadeh had employed a decoy in the first place indicates that he had received threats and was expecting an imminent attack.
The bombing was likely orchestrated by the Syrian regime, in coordination with its allies in the Lebanese security apparatus, to thwart the ongoing investigation into the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Such bombings — which target vehicles of Lebanese officials or journalists suspected of leaking sensitive information that would implicate senior members of the Syrian regime — have become a fact of life in Lebanon since the assassination. Shehadeh’s heavy involvement in the investigation made him vulnerable to such an attack.
These bombings are usually timed around the release of the investigation reports, with the newest one to be released by Serge Brammertz later this month. The regime is not facing any substantial pressure over the investigation, which it has successfully manipulated over the past year, but it is sending a clear message throughout the region that Syria still has a strong hand in Lebanon.
While maintaining its hold over its western neighbor, it appears that Syria, under the influence of its allies in Iran, is also considering other means of enhancing its clout in Levant. Iran’s decision to activate Hezbollah and trigger an Israeli military offensive in Lebanon provided Syria with a diplomatic opening to offer itself as the only mediator able to manage the conflict through its potent alliances with Hezbollah and Tehran.
The Israeli government, already suffering from deep internal divisions in the wake of the conflict with Hezbollah, still does not see the need to talk to Syria. Israeli officials are more preoccupied with restoring their faith in the country’s political and military establishments. Moreover, Syria has been denied involvement in the cease-fire agreement, and has been conspicuously excluded from the current talks to exchange prisoners of war between Hezbollah and Hamas on the one hand, and Israel on the other. As a result, the Syrians appear to be turning to their traditional method of handling foreign relations: explosives.
The chatter among pro-Syrian forces in Lebanon has included talk of a Syrian plan to activate a low-intensity conflict with Israel in the Golan Heights. Already there have been indications that Syria is preparing for such a confrontation. Sources in Lebanon report that a group of Iranian military experts belonging to the central training unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps recently arrived in Syria and is training Syrian army officers in operating advanced anti-armor missiles. In addition, the Iranians are providing long-range missiles and are aiding Syria in constructing large numbers of bunkers and tunnels.
With Israel paralyzed and the United States entrenched in Iraq, Syrian President Bashar al Assad may see this as a prime opportunity to engage in a bit of adventurism. And it comes as no surprise that Iran is pushing Syria hard to ignite a conflict in the Golan Heights. After demonstrating Hezbollah’s strength and driving home the fact that the United States faces dismal options in pulling itself out of the Iraq project, Iran is using this window of opportunity to cement its position as the regional kingmaker. Though Iran will avoid becoming directly involved in the conflict, it will be more than willing to support Syria.
Syria is fully aware of its military impotence relative to Israel Defense Forces, but its plans are surprisingly ambitious. Sources claim that Syria intends to attack all of Israel’s airfields in order to render its runways inoperable and neutralize the Israeli air force when things heat up in the Golan Heights. The Syrians may be gravely miscalculating that Israel’s internal preoccupations and lack of an alternative to the al Assad regime will hold back Israel’s military response. Israel has already been proclaimed the loser in the war against Hezbollah and has a pressing need to reassert itself militarily in the region. The Israelis continually count on Syrian miscalculations for opportunities to demonstrate their military prowess, and the Syrians could end up doing Israel a favor by inviting an Israeli military reprisal in the Golan Heights. Israel is not likely to allow Syria to dictate the level of intensity in the region.
Assuming that Syria has learned from its past miscalculations and understands the extreme unlikelihood that any neighboring Arab regimes would come to its aid in such a scenario, al Assad and his colleagues could downgrade their action plan in the Golan Heights to supporting a low-level insurgency. Indeed, this plan appears to be in motion already. Last week a new group based in the Golan Heights calling itself the Men of the National Syrian Resistance faxed a letter to foreign news agencies in Damascus threatening to abduct Israeli soldiers to exchange them for Syrian prisoners in Israel. The group said in the letter that "The Lebanese model, the model of Hezbollah, is not so far from us concerning implementation and preparations to release our detainees."
This shadowy group is likely a Syrian creation acting on behalf of the regime to get the ball rolling in the Golan Heights. The last thing the Israelis want right now is another major headache on their border, but Iran appears more than ready to give them one while the opportunity lasts.