Amid worries and hand-wringing that "Israel is losing the war," the IDF demonstrated why it should never be underestimated--or written off--on the battlefield. Late yesterday, as its armored and mechanized forces poured into south Lebanon, Israel also mounted a daring commando raid, sent members of an elite unit deep into enemy territory, targeting the terrorist stronghold of Baalbek, near the Syrian border. It was Israel's deepest penetration of enemy terrority (to date), and reminiscent of bold, decisive IDF operations in the past, such as the hostage rescue mission at Entebbe, Uganda, or the raid on Saddam's nuclear facility in 1981.
The raid was reportedly aimed at a Hizballah hospital, where senior terrorist operatives were holed up. Details on the mission remain scant, but some reports suggest a combined heliborne/paradrop mission. One account, cited on FNC last night, said the sky around Baalbek was "ablaze" with parachute flares, probably fired by Hizballah guerillas in a vain effort to target Israeli commandos. The terrorists originally claimed that they had trapped the Israeli force in the hosptial, but claim was later dropped, after it became clear that the IDF operatives had left the area. Late reports indicate the commandos killed at least 10 terrorists and captured five during the raid at Baalbek. The IDF reports that those captured were mid-level to low-ranking terrorists. However, early accounts suggested that one high-level Hizballah official was at the hospital when the IDF teams arrived; at this point, his status is unclear.
By any standard, the attack on Baalbek was a spectacular success. As we noted in this space yesterday, the IDF was planning to test the depth of Hizballah offensives. At that time, we speculated that the "test" would resemble something out of Guderian's panzer playbook. After weeks of prepatory, "clearing" operations, the IDF would attempt to "fix" Hizballah's remaining forces in place, smash through carefully prepared corridors, and push on to the Latani River. That operation remains the centerpiece of Israel's operational plan.
But yesterday's raid changes the military calculus even more. By striking at Baalbek, the Israelis underscored their ability to target senior Hizballah officials and positions in supposedly "safe" areas. As a result, Hizballah will be forced to keep a number of fighters in reserve, and possibly shift additional units to the Bekka Valley, as a hedge against additional Israeli raids. That means their buddies in south Lebanon can count on fewer reinforcements, giving the IDF an even bigger advantage, in terms of combat power and force ratios. By some estimates, Hizballah has less than 5,000 fighters south of the Latani River, against an IDF contingent that is approaching division-size (15,000) in strength. If those numbers are accurate, the Israel is reaching the minimum, 3-1 superiority deemed necessary for offensive operations.
Additionally, the raid on Baalbek provides an important morale-booster for the IDF, at a time when its tactics and strategy have been questioned by so-called "experts" around the world. The IDF has made its share of mistakes in the present conflict, but (as yesterday's raid demonstrates), the Israelis are without peer in the Middle East, both in terms of military capabilities and old-fashioned derring-do. Contrary to what some WSJ columnists may think, the pendulum is swinging decidedly in Israel's favor.
One final note: there wasn't even a military peep from Syria, in response to the Israeli raid. Given Baalbek's proximity to the Syrian border, it's doubtful that the IDF would have mounted the operation if there was a chance that Damascus would have responded militarily. But with Bashir Assad's armed forces in the "hunker down" mode, the IDF had little to worry about, and pressed ahead with the raid. Israel has been criticized for "coddling" Syria by assuring Damascus that it will not be attacked, in conjuction with operations in Lebanon. Given the lack of reaction from Syria (so far), it seems possible that Tel Aviv has received assurances of its own, namely that Damascus values national survival over its support of Hizballah.