Syria has positioned on its border with Israel thousands of medium and long-range rockets capable of striking major towns across northern Israel, military and government sources told AFP.
This deployment, coupled with other recent reports of Syrian troop mobilisation, is seen in Israel as an indication that Damascus may be preparing for future “low intensity warfare,” they said.
The report comes only two weeks after Israel held war games on the occupied Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967, in a bid to learn the lessons of last summer’s conflict in neighbouring south Lebanon.
The Syrian army accelerated its deployment of medium and long-range rockets in the wake of the Lebanon war, during which the Hezbollah militia fired moe than 4,000 rockets against northern Israel.
“We have noticed that in recent months Syria has deployed hundreds, possibly thousands, of medium and long-range rockets along the border (with Israel),” one military source said.
“Many of the rockets are hidden in underground chambers and in camouflaged silos, which make them very difficult to locate,” the source said.
Three of the sources were from the military and two from the government, and they all spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity. They said Syria has built a system of fortified underground tunnels along its border with Israel.
Most of the rockets deployed are 220 millimetre, with a range of 70 kilometres (43 miles), and 302 millimetre rockets capable of striking targets at a distance of more than 100 kilometres (56 miles).
The latter would be well within range of the main population centres in northern Israel such as Tiberias and Kiryat Shmona.
These long-range rockets could also reach Israel’s third largest city of Haifa and its industrial zone, which is home to several essential industries, including oil refineries and a deep-water port.
It is also believed that Syria has deployed several FROG rocket launchers, with a a 550-kilogram (1,200-pound) warhead and 70-kilometre range, in areas between the border and the capital Damascus, 40 kilometres (25 miles) away.
According to the sources, such a massive deployment of well entrenched rockets poses “a real strategic threat” to Israel.
While Syria concentrates most of its long-range surface-to-surface missile arsenal in the north of the country, its decision to deploy rockets so close to the border may indicate that Syria is mulling an attack on Israel, experts say.
“Syrian President Bashar al-Assad realised after the Lebanon war that Israel was not as strong as it seems and that it could be threatened by simple means rather than an advanced army,” the director of the Begin-Saadat Centre for Strategic Studies, Ephraim Inbar, told AFP.
Inbar, as well as the military sources, believe that “Assad could be preparing for low intensity war, a type of war of attrition with Israel, where Syria fires several rockets against Israel without provoking full-fledged war.”
“Israel has absolute superiority in several fields in warfare,” a senior government official said, referring mainly to Israel’s advanced air force and “smart” weapons.
“So Syria is investing in fields where it can have an edge. It has invested in recent years in anti-aircraft weapons, rockets, missiles and bunkers. The war in Lebanon proved to the Syrians they were right to do so.”
Israel’s military intelligence chief, Major General Amod Yadlin, told the government’s annual intelligence assessment that while Syria was beefing up its military, war between the two neighbouring countries was unlikely in 2007.
“Syria is continuing its military build-up and preparing for war,” he told the cabinet.
“The chances of a full-scale war initiated by Syria are low, but the chances of Syria reacting militarily against Israeli military moves are high.”
Government sources told AFP that Syria was close to concluding a deal with Russia to procure thousands of advanced anti-tank missiles, of the sort Hezbollah used with great success against Israeli armour last year.
Tensions between Israel and Syria have peaked in recent months, with Israel rejecting peace overtures from Damascus and both sides toughening rhetoric.
Damascus has repeatedly demanded the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and annexed in 1981. It is now home to more than 15,000 settlers.
Peace talks between Israel and Syria collapsed in 2000.