Why the Israel Defense Forces hit Syria—and why they believe that Assad won’t hit back
Yet the larger strategic assumptions that underlay the balance of power on Israel’s borders was altered drastically by that turmoil that some experts still insist on optimistically describing as the Arab Spring. Suddenly, as Israeli scholar Asher Susser had put it so accurately, Israel stopped being afraid of Arab strength and began to be worried about Arab weakness. In Syria, what had started as a local popular revolt in the southern city of Dara’a grew pretty quickly into a terrible civil war, the worst conflict to hit an Arab country since the outcome of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
From the Israeli perspective, Syria became a huge problem once the Assad regime began to experience difficulties in controlling the distant provinces—specifically the provinces near the Israeli border. Once the border area became an enclave for extremist, al-Qaida-affiliated groups, Israelis faced a new threat: A failed-state, or a non-state, along the border was a much harder foe to handle than a deterred police state, no matter how brutally its dictator treated his subjects. Whom do you deter when there is no longer an identifiable actor on the other side of the border?
Very quietly, and unofficially, Israeli leaders wish success to both sides. They pay lip service to condemning the regime’s horrors and express their sympathy for the plight of the Syrian people under Assad but do not go out of their way to help the opposition. Israel assumes that if indeed the opposition wins, it would quickly be dominated by jihadist groups, which will soon set their weapons against the Jewish settlements in the Golan Heights. On the other hand, if the fighting continues, so will the deterioration of the Assad forces’ military capabilities. No army would be able to initiate a war against a neighboring country after more than two years of a self-destructive murderous battle against its own people—producing what is almost a win-win situation for Israel.
Yet Israel has its red lines, just like everybody else these days. President Barack Obama defined, rather vaguely, the American red line: The United States would intervene if it has proof that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. Israel’s red line is very different. It will act, as Israeli leaders have constantly threatened, if important weapons systems are either transferred deliberately from Syria to Hezbollah or fall into the hands of extremist jihadist groups on the rebels’ side. Some Israelis have described the effect of these weapons as “tie-breakers” in Lebanon. This is clearly false, since there is no “tie” between Israel and Hezbollah. But Israel is explicitly nervous about the transfer of chemical weapons, of advanced anti-aircraft systems (such as the Russian-made SA-17 missiles, bombed in January near Damascus, presumably on their way to Lebanon), of coast-to-sea missiles (like the Russian-made Yahont), and of accurate surface to-surface missiles (such as the Iranian-made Fateh-110, bombed twice in the beginning of May).
The internal chaos in Syria probably helps the Israelis to collect further data on the military situation there, without being noticed. On the other hand, one would assume that the Syrian army’s withdrawal from many parts of the country and the fact it had to deploy its units under pressure have made following them a much more complicated mission. Evidently, the decision to strike three times means that Israel had enough information about the weapon shipments to strike.
But there is probably something else at work here: Generals—and air force and intelligence specifically—tend to emphasize the need for taking immediate advantage of tactical opportunities. So far, Syria has not retaliated for the attacks. However, on Tuesday, May 7, President Assad threatened Israel with “resistance at the Golan border,” and a government newspaper announced that “next time will be different.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would certainly think hard before he approves another air strike, even if the IDF’s brass claims that it is absolutely necessary.
Why has Assad refrained from military action until now? Without admitting any responsibility for the strikes, a senior Israeli defense official explained to me that the government believes the Syrian regime does not have enough space for maneuvering. “If they do act, they will involve us directly in their civil war—a result both of us would like to avoid.” This would mean the destruction of the Syrian air force, Assad’s most effective weapon against the rebels. “I know Assad says he is going to react severely next time, but how many times have you said this to your kids and ended up doing nothing?” remarked the official.
But Assad is not the only actor on his side: Israel should also consider the possibility of either an Iranian or Lebanese response. Hezbollah is deeply involved in the civil war in Syria, and it is assumed that the Shiite organization has sent more than 2,000 of its fighters to help Assad’s loyalists. Iranian Revolutionary Guard units are also present in Syria. (The commander of their “El-Quds” force in Lebanon was mysteriously killed on his way to Syria two months ago.) Israel has used this to strengthen its case against Teheran—blaming the Iranians for spreading unrest across the region. Wouldn’t the Iranians and Hezbollah eventually blame Israel—however falsely—for their mounting casualties in Syria? The Israelis believe that Syria’s allies are too busy helping Assad fight for his survival and wouldn’t spend valuable time on minor friction with the IDF. “Until now, our presumed involvement had been minimal,” one military source said. “The Iranians are otherwise occupied.”
More and more, the civil war in Syria is seen in a broader, regional context, and the American hesitance over the right course of action is looked upon in Jerusalem as a disturbing precedent regarding the country’s long-term strategic challenge, the Iranian nuclear project. Will Iran and Hezbollah decide to retaliate for the latest strikes, defending Syrian honor? Israeli intelligence officials assume the chances are slim. But we should remember that they have discovered in the past that some of their assumptions were much too optimistic for this region.
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