DEBKAfie’s military sources report exclusively that the UAV, shot down Sunday Aug. 31 by an Israeli Patriot battery over Quneitra on the Golan, was launched by Hizballah – not Syria as initially reported. The Iran-made Ababail 2 was on a photography and intelligence-gathering mission over the Golan battleground where the Syrian army and rebels have been fighting for control off the Quneitra crossing between Syria and Israel.
Our sources add that Hizballah launched the unmanned aerial vehicle from a Syrian air base attached to Damascus international airfield, where Hizballah keeps a fleet of Ababil 2 drones transferred from Lebanon.
When the IDF picked up the drone on course for Quneitra, the information was flashed to top Israel government and military decision-makers, who decided on the spot that the Golan military situation was messy enough without a new complicating factor entering the fray. And so it was decided to shoot it down.
Arrayed against Syrian troops on this sliver of land, are at least five insurgent groups, the largest of which is the Syria Revolutionaries Front. Another is the Syrian Al Qaeda offshoot, the Nusra Front. Around 1,100 troops of the UN Disengagement Observer Force are responsible to policing the buffer zone between Syria and Israel that runs through Quneitra.
The Fijian contingent’s 44 members, who were abducted Thursday, Aug. 28 by Al Qaeda, are being held in an unknown location as hostages for a ransom that has not been published.
Our military and intelligence sources reveal that, shortly before the abduction, various intelligence watchers spotted a number of Hizballah officers who had arrived on the scene. It was generally estimated in Israel that the Lebanese Shiites were not planning to join the fighting, but had come out of concern that Syrian rebels would manage to drive Syrian troops out of Quneitra and its surrounding villages, and then break through to the Syrian villages on the Hermon and the Chabaa Farms on the Western slopes of the Hermon range. From there, the way would be open for the Syrian insurgents to reach southern Lebanon and mount another front against Hizballah from the rear.
The Druze villages on the Syrian slopes of the Hermon are loyal to Bashar Assad and appear to be preparing to resist the rebel advance should it take place.
HIzballah sent its drone to bring back firsthand information on the state of play in the struggle for Quneitra, as well as on Israel’s military deployment just across the border. That was one reason for sending an Israeli Patriot into action to down the aircraft. Furthermore, Israel stood by last Thursday, when Syrian warplanes came overhead and bombed rebel positions in the Quneitra crossing, although this was in breach of the 40-year old accord for the separation zone’s demilitarization.
At the same time, Jerusalem relayed a strong warning to Damascus against any recurrence. Next time, Israel would shoot down any intruders. It was therefore important for the IDF to make good on that warning and down the Hizballah drone for the sake of deterrence.