While Americans pondered the implications of a presidential strategy involving “Big Bird, Binders, and Bayonets” over the last day and a half, things have been heating up in the Levant.
Hamas launched 68 rockets at Israel in the space of 12 hours, from the evening of 23 October to the early morning of the 24th – a sustained level of fire more consonant with a tactical offensive than with the more typical Hamas campaign of occasional “pinprick” attacks. Most of the rockets were short-range projectiles, not susceptible to intercept by Iron Dome. But Iron Dome intercepted 7 longer-range rockets. Two foreign agricultural workers reportedly sustained serious injuries, and a handful of others received lighter injuries. There was damage to some buildings.
Israeli forces took out two of the Hamas teams firing rockets from Gaza, and attacked tunnels through which weapons are smuggled.
In the early dawn of 24 October, meanwhile, an arms factory in Sudan was attacked. The arms factory is located in the Yarmouk Industrial Complex approximately 6 miles south of central Khartoum (see map). Video of the exploding building makes it clear that it was an arms factory, with an extended series of powerful secondary explosions characteristic of ammunition dumps. (H/t: Challahu Akbar) A Sudanese official claims that four Israeli aircraft conducted a strike on the factory.
Media reporting has suggested for more than a decade that Iran set up an arms factory in Sudan in the 1990s. (US intelligence suspected a Sudanese factory of producing weaponizable chemical agents in the ‘90s, and the Sudanese government of complicity in supplying al Qaeda. This led to a Tomahawk missile attack on the factory by Bill Clinton after the 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Iran was not implicated by US intelligence in this installation.) Tehran is Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s chief foreign patron – well suited to his penchant for atrocities against his non-Muslim population – and of course is also the main supplier of arms to Hamas and Hezbollah.
Members of the Sudanese opposition have told reporters the arms factory that was hit was Iranian-sponsored. This is very probable, and it is equally probable that the attack was, in fact, conducted by the IAF. Sudan to Egypt to Gaza is a known arms route, and during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, when Israeli forces were going after Hamas in the wake of more than 4400 rocket attacks from Gaza up through December 2008, two arms convoys intended for Hamas were attacked on the roads through northern Sudan. Another convoy for Hamas was reportedly attacked in Sudan in December of 2011. (A peculiar report from early 2009 also suggested that a ship – possibly carrying arms – had been sunk in or near a Sudanese port. While fun to analyze, the report could not be considered definitive.)
Cutting off the flow of Iranian arms to Hamas is clearly a national security interest for Israel. The 24 October attack may or may not have been launched “because of” the rocket barrage from Hamas; it was certainly planned much earlier, but was probably executable on short notice, pending the weather conditions. Perhaps a more reliable construction to put on the Yarmouk attack, however, is that Israel sees a need to accomplish something more definitive than interdicting convoys. The time has come to administer a setback from which Hamas – and Iran – can’t recover quickly.
Another consideration for Israel may be that the window for unopposed action in Sudan might close in the not-too-distant future. Getting strike-fighters into Sudan means routing them over the Red Sea and keeping an airborne tanker aloft there, with its own fighter protection. Saudi Arabia and Jordan have the means to know the IAF aircraft are there, but they aren’t likely to interfere with Israeli attacks on Iranian arms facilities or arms bound for Hamas.
Egypt, however, also has the means to know the IAF aircraft are operating – and Egypt’s posture could well be changing. Mohammed Morsi is not a naïve target for an Iranian charm offensive, but for his own reasons – Islamist ideology and his designs on Jerusalem – he will reach the point at which he will not be willing to stand by quietly for Israeli operations in Sudan.
There are multiple reasons why now was probably a good time to take out the Iranian arms factory south of Khartoum. I emphasize that I do not think this action means an Israeli strike on Iran is imminent. Rather, the factory at Yarmouk was a key node in the Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah network, and sooner or later, it had to go. Considering how many years arms have been coming from this factory to engorge Hamas, the choice of when to do it has actually come “later” rather than “sooner.” Assuming Israel did this, she is shaping her security environment as best she can for the challenges to come.
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