JERUSALEM – Syria and Hezbollah are likely to start a war with the Jewish state within 10 months, according to an assessment presented to the political leadership here by the Israeli Defense Forces.

IDF leaders did not release the specific timing of what they said are expected clashes, but they urged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government in meetings the past few weeks to allow the IDF to prepare for a possible major conflict, according to senior military officials.

The officials said the assessments, compiled by the general staff of the IDF, are based on intelligence information and what they said is the ongoing estimate by Syria and Hezbollah that military confrontations achieve results.

They said Hezbollah considered itself victorious against Israeli troops in Lebanon in July and August.

Explained a military official: “While Hezbollah took some major hits, the group’s rocket infrastructure is still in tact; they are capable of firing more rockets into Israel. The war ended without Hezbollah having to return (Eldad) Regev and (Ehud) Goldwasser (the two soldiers it kidnapped in July, originally prompting the confrontations).”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said a cease-fire imposed in August by the United Nations “achieved a political win for Hezbollah.”

“It recognized Hezbollah’s claims to the Shebaa Farms (a small piece of territory held by Israel but claimed by Lebanon and Syria) and called for future negotiations. It also restricts Israel’s ability to stop Hezbollah from rearming and regrouping, which is what they are currently doing,” the military official said.

Military officials here said the past few weeks Syria and Iran have been smuggling weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. They said the smuggling is taking place in front of a contingent of 20,000 international troops stationed in Lebanon.

“Israeli over-flights have detected the weapons smuggling,” said an Israeli intelligence official. “We’ve shared the information with the U.N. and yet nothing is being done about it. Hezbollah is openly re-establishing itself in south Lebanon,” an Israel military intelligence official told WND.

In light of the ongoing threats, the IDF said it will take several measures to prepare for a confrontation with Syria or Hezbollah, including stepped up training programs and the reworking of specific battle plans. It asked the Olmert government to approve contracts for the production of more Israeli tanks and to postpone an earlier decision to shorten military service terms here for reserve units.

Earlier today, Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Moallem, said he hopes a Middle East peace process can be launched next year that would include Israel’s relinquishing of the Golan Heights to Damascus. But Moallem warned if negotiations don’t commence and yeild results within months, there will be a war.

“We hope to have in 2007 a peace process to settle the issue,” Moallem said after a meeting with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere in Syria. “We now have a window of opportunity of several months. If there is no progress, the countdown will begin for a new Syrian-Israeli war.”

Moallem’s comments are punctuated by scores of statements by top officials in Damascus saying Syria is preparing for a war against Israel. The officials, including Syrian President Bashar Assad, claimed the Jewish state would attack Syria first.

“We must remain ready at all times. We have begun preparations within the framework of our options,” Assad told the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anba last month. He gave a series of interviews to other media outlets making the same statements.

Assad said Israel could attack Syria “at any moment” and that Israeli leaders have abandoned the peace process and are seeking a war.

Yossi Beyditz, head of research for the IDF’s intelligence branch, told the Israeli cabinet two weeks ago the Jewish state has indications Assad is indeed “preparing his army for a confrontation with Israel.”

“Assad has not returned the army to its pre-Lebanon war positions,” Beyditz said.

Israel, Syria on heightened alert

Israeli officials here claim the IDF alert level in the Golan Heights has not been raised in response to Assad’s recent statements and to the new Israeli intelligence estimates. They say Israel has maintained the same heightened state of alert in the Golan Heights that has been in effect since clashes with Hezbollah broke out July 12.

But a tour of the Golan Heights last week found a number of new army positions local residents and soldiers stationed there say were established within the previous three weeks. More tanks have been patrolling the area, with several tanks setting up shop in strategic positions, according to soldiers. Makeshift military outposts have been erected and Golan checkpoints fortified.

A fence that runs along parts of the Golan-Syrian border also has been fortified, with a series of surveillance cameras newly installed. Residents in one border town told WND the new cameras were installed along the border fence two weeks ago.

Syria has noticed the beefed up IDF presence and in response has heightened its own alertness even more, according to yesterday’s edition of the Qatari newspaper, Al-Watan. The newspaper said Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani ordered troops in the area to be on the ready. Syrian sources said Damascus was closely monitoring IDF activity in the Golan.

The Golan Heights is strategic mountainous territory captured by the Jewish state after Syria used the terrain to attack Israel in 1967 and again in 1973. The Heights looks down on major Syrian and Israeli population centers.

Military officials here have long maintained returning the Golan Heights to Syria would grant Damascus the ability to mount an effective ground invasion of the Jewish state.

‘Damascus prepping public for war’

Security officials here told WND there have been indications the past few weeks Syria is seeking to launch a provocation. Besides Assad’s statements, the officials say state-run Syrian media have been broadcasting regular warlike messages unseen since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Syria and Egypt launched invasions from the Golan and the Sinai desert.

“The tone [in Syria] is one of preparing the public for a war,” said a senior security official.

He said any Syrian provocation would likely be coordinated with Iran. Tehran and Damascus, which both support Hezbollah, have signed several military pacts.

Reuven Erlich, a Syrian expert and director of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at Israel’s Center for Special Studies, told WND Assad’s threats “are to be taken seriously.”

“Assad’s support for terrorism, for the insurgency in Iraq, for Hezbollah and his alliance with Iran are all indication of the direction in which Syria is headed. Assad needs to demonstrate he is willing to sue for peace, but everything seems to indicate the opposite. Especially following the war in Lebanon,” Erlich said.

Reports: Syria to form own Hezbollah

In July, WND first reported, Syria is forming its own Hezbollah-like guerrilla organization to attack Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, according to a senior Baath party official.

The Baath official told WND Syria learned from Hezbollah’s military campaign against Israel that “fighting” is more effective than peace negotiations with regard to gaining territory.

Hezbollah claims its goal is to liberate the Shebaa Farms, a small, 12-square-mile bloc situated between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The cease-fire resolution accepted by Israel to end its military campaign in Lebanon calls for negotiations leading to Israel’s relinquishing of the Shebaa Farms.

The official told WND Syria’s new Front for the Liberation of the Golan Heights was formed in June and that the group consists of Syrian volunteers, many from the Syrian border with Turkey and from Palestinian refugee camps near Damascus. He said Syria held registration for volunteers to join the Front in June.

One week after the WND article detailing the claimed group was published, state-run Al-Alam Iranian television featured an interview with a man who identified himself as the leader of the new Front for the Liberation of the Golan.

The man, whose features were blocked out, said his new group consists of “hundreds” of fighters who are training for guerrilla-like raids against Israeli positions in and near the Golan. He claimed the Front has opened several training camps inside Syria.

Last month, Amos Yadlin, head of the IDF’s intelligence branch, told the Knesset Syria is in the early stages of forming a Hezbollah-like group.



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