Just one step away from a wider war

BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven () - August 3, 2006 - 12:00am
The incursion by Israeli Special Forces into Northern Lebanon in a lightning strike to attack Hezbollah positions in the Baalbek area rachets up the situation immeasurably.

If you’re acquainted with the geography of Lebanon, you’ll immediately spot the fact that Baalbek – where the ruins of the greatest temple complex established by the Roman Empire in ancient times are located – adjoins the Beqaa Valley, which itself lies at the very doorstep of Syria.

As everyone who has been following the breathless CNN, BBC, Fox News coverage of the "war" in Lebanon by now already recognizes, Syria (aside from Iran) is one of the two sponsors of the Hezbollah ("Party of God") guerrilla army – and the supplier of that militant group’s 12,000 Katusha missiles that the Hezbollah have been launching at Israel’s towns and cities, from Haifa to Afula.

By now, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad must have mobilized much of his armed forces of 319,000. He has reserves of about 354,000 men, drawn from a population of 17 million. If they face off, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) can field 161,500, and still call up reserves of 425,000 – out of a population of only 6.1 million.

What’s notable about the IDF – called in Hebrew Tsva HaHaganah Le Yisrael – in acronym Tzahal – is the fact that in that tiny country as many as 1,226,903 males are "fit for military service" and well-trained, along with 1,192,319 women. Everytime we visited Israel over the years, it was notable that it remains a land where everybody’s ready to fight. Fetching young women would go on dates, armed with compact and lipstick, but inevitably with an Uzi submachinegun dangling from their shoulders part of their military chic.

Israel males serve three years of national service (normally from ages 18 to 21), then join the reservists who must return to service for one month to six weeks every year to keep their hand in, or be assigned to outpost or combat-duty when such are required. This miluim or reservist duty lasts up to the age of 43 to 45.

Women, for their part, serve two years and may apply for combat positions. If they do, their service lasts three years owing to the skills demanded by such a task.
* * *
In sum, Israel, since its inception as a free country in 1948 has been a nation under arms, never relaxing its guard. Everywhere I would travel, soldiers and Border Patrol personnel would be spotted, their galils, uzi’s and other weaponry ever close to hand, even at parties or at play – or when hitch-hiking (a national pastime). Although IDF soldiers, male and female, whether in uniform or attired in teenager t-shirts and jeans, they are entitled to free rides on buses yet they still love to hitch-hike for the amiability of it.

In most countries, hitch-hikers stick out their hand with thumb upraised. In Israel, if I recall, they would stick out the hand pointed to the ground with the forefinger (not the dirty finger) extended.

The Israelis don’t go by spick and span uniforms, and may appear sometimes scruffy in appearance and cheeky in their treatment of superior officers. But in combat they are superbly disciplined and may be the most experienced army in the world, having fought five wars – plus two intifadas – since 1948.

The Syrians, man for man, can’t match the IDF in terms of equipment (although their weapons and defense systems have been upgraded), but are no slouches either. The IDF’s Achilles heel may be over-confidence. Just as they were surprised at the missile-clout of the hated Hezbollah (what happened to those super-spooks of Mossad and the intelligence HUMINT of the Shin Bet?) and their ground fighting expertise, they might be shocked if the Syrians punch into the fight and attack intruding Israeli units. The Israelis have fought the Syrians several times before – and clobbered them decisively.

Will they be able to do this again?

Evidence of IDF prowess in combat is the day the Syrians attacked Israel on October 6, 1973 on the Jewish Day of Atonement (the Yom Kippur War), when most Israeli troops were at home with their families for the holiday). (This would be tantamount to attacking the USA on Thanksgiving Day).

That day, the Syrians managed to occupy almost half of the Golan Heights (which Israel had wrested from them in the 1967 "Six Day War"). On October 8th, in which was to become known as the greatest tank battle in history – rivalling the battle of Kursk in which Soviet armor crushed Hitler’s Panzerwagen – Israel counter-attacked. Within a week of heavy fighting, the Syrians lost 1,200 of their Soviet-built tanks, including newly-arrived T-77s. By October 24, Israeli units were advancing on Damascus – and were frustrated when, at that juncture, the United Nations called for a ceasefire and peace. Today, that Irbid peninsula remains thickly sowed with minefields.

The only other major tank battle I had witnessed there in the Irbid was during the Black September War of 1970. I had flown into the Ben Gurion (Tel Aviv) airport from Rome, intending to cross over to cover the fighting between the Jordanians and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) there.

Since the Allenby Bridge was closed, a friend Gad Ranon who had worked in the Israeli Embassy in Manila (in the IDF he was a tank commander) advised me to enter through the back door. On his urging, I went up from Galilee to the Golan, hoping to use the trench and tunnel network there, but instead arriving in time to see Jordan’s Arab Legion engaging a Syrian tank force just emerging from Damascus in battle.

King Hussein’s superb Arab Legion – trained originally by the British general Glubb-pasha – sent its World War II Centurion tanks against the Syrians. The Legion’s tanks sliced through the Syrian armor like a knife through butter, their cannons’ shells hitting their opponents with uncanny accuracy. The old Centurions had one advantage over the Soviet-made T-34s, whose gun turrets had a limited turn of movement. The Centurion turrets could swing all the way around in an 180-degree turn, and so they were able to blast the Syrian tanks both coming and going.

Within minutes, 22 Syrian tanks were burning furiously. After the Syrians had beat a hasty retreat to the walls of Damascus, a strange phenomenon took place. When darkness fell, bulldozers and other tanks, under a truce flag, pulled or pushed away all the charred tank "remains." When dawn came, there wasn’t a trace of those wrecks – as if a momentous battle had never taken place on that spot.
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Syria again fought Israel when the IDF invaded Lebanon in 1982. Palestinian gunmen had shot down and seriously wounded the Israeli Ambassador Shlomo Argov in front of Dorchester Hotel in London on June 3, 1982. Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin, a Hawk, and his Defense Minister Ariel Sharon seized at this opportunity to go to war.

On a Sunday, June 6, Israeli troops crossed the frontier – with a total of 76,000 men, 1,250 tanks and 1,500 armored personnel carriers, supported by their Air Force and Navy, under the command of Major-Gen. Amir Drori. Opposing their entry into Lebanon were Syrian and PLO forces under Major-Gen. Sa’id Bayraqdar who had 25,000 men, 300 tanks and 300 APCs, with some 15,000 PLO fighters sporting a variety of hardware.

Within 40 hours, the three-pronged Israeli assault had punched its way towards the central mountains and (as they did last Wednesday) northeast towards the Beqaa. Syrian President Hafez Al-Asad (Bashar’s father) had not expected to have to fight a war in Lebanon against Israel. But the Israelis pressed on against him. First, squadrons of IDF F-15s (Eagles) and F-16s (Fighting Falcons) struck his SAM missile sites. Waves of Phantoms, Skyhawks and Kfirs (the latter the now-obsolescent jets the Israelis had tried, some years ago, to dump on our Philippine Air Force), directed by Hawkeye command-and-control aircraft, destroyed 29 SAM missile batteries and damaged four more.

Asad found himself completely outmatched in the air. His Soviet aircraft could not keep up with the F-15s and F-16s (all US-made, mind you) and the resulting battles between some 70 Syrian and 100 Israeli supersonic saw 29 Syrian MIGs shot down per one Israeli plane "lost". The Syrians did not lack courage. One IDF pilot was described in the book, "ASAD" by Patrick Seale as saying that the Syrian pilots ‘knew they stood no chance against us, yet kept coming in and coming in as if asking to be shot down.’ . . I have nothing but respect for them."

On the 9th of June, the Syrian air force lost another 35 airplanes.

On the ground, the Syrian second armored division, with newly-arrived T-72s, fared better. On June 10, fighting an Israeli armored brigade in the Rashaya area, the Syrians pushed the Israelis back several kilometers, smashing 33 Israeli tanks and capturing some American-built M-60 tanks intact. One sample of the latter was pulled back to Damascus, then flown to Moscow for Russian "study" of what made it click.

The Israelis have excellent tanks, one of them the Merkava – their own IDF-designed main battle tank – which you see in the TV sequences of the Lebanese "war," and the Magah, an upgraded M60 Patton tank mentioned above.

In the end, the Israelis won that 1982 invasion. When they got to Beirut, they didn’t know what to do next. The disgraceful thing is that they opened the Sheba and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps – after negotiating a withdrawal of the Palestinians – to the vengeful fury of the Maronite Christian militia (who were outraged because their chief, President-elect Bashir Gamayel had been murdered, blasted by a bomb in his own headquarters, and the Christians blamed the PLO – although the murderers could have been the Syrians – or the Israelis themselves.) The Maronite Phalangists fell on the men, women and children left in the two Palestinian camps and massacred them, not overlooking goats, cats and horses which they also slaughtered. Sanamagan, in blood-drenched Lebanon, Christianity does not always mean "love thy neighbor." The hatreds conjured up by that mindless massacre will fester for all time.
* * *
Once again, the Israelis are in Lebanon – and the Syrians who had pulled out of there only last year after a 33-year "occupation" are jittery and mobilizing within their own borders. It’s a formula for renewed conflict, particularly since the Israelis accuse Syria of having provided Hezbollah with the rockets which are devastating their own land.

Is there anything new under the sun in Lebanon? Nothing, one is moved to sigh. More war, more suffering – and in the end, sad to say, no gain.

Many of our Filipino OFWs, however, seem in no hurry to get out. Perhaps they think it’s more dangerous here. And they may be right.

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