Israel last week made good on its numerous threats to intervene in the Syrian conflict by carrying out an airstrike. The target was either a military research center, a military complex, or a convoy of SA-17 surface-to-air missiles headed for Lebanon, depending on which sources one believes. Syria and Lebanon both reported violations of their airspace.
This is “proof that when we said something we mean it,” said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, breaking his country’s initial silence.
Pro-Israel groups and much of the media have been quick to portray the attack as a pre-emptive strike by a state forced to defend itself against a grave threat, rather than what it is: a blatant, unprovoked infringement of two countries’ sovereignty (Lebanon’s air space is frequently violated with impunity by Israel, but this never makes the headlines).
For example, BBC defense correspondent Jonathan Marcus wrote of Tel Aviv’s “growing alarm”, “fears” and “worry” about Syria’s advanced or chemical weapons falling into “the wrong hands” - whatever that means - or being passed on to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
One would think it was Israel - the region’s only nuclear power backed by the world’s only superpower - that had just been attacked. Never mind that there is, as yet, no evidence of either scenario, only allegations from sources with vested interests in making them.
This warped viewpoint was swiftly echoed by the United States, whose Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that “the possibility of these weapons, you know, going across the border and falling into the hands of Hezbollah has become a greater concern.” Asked if Washington supported the Israeli attack, he replied: “The United States supports whatever steps are taken to make sure these weapons don’t fall into the hands of terrorists.”
I have never understood this tired argument. Why would a regime, struggling to crush a popular, militarized revolution and hell-bent on maintaining power at all costs, give away its advanced weapons? In light of its attempts to thwart direct foreign intervention by threatening to use such arms against external aggressors, it would not make sense for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to transfer them to his allies.
Neither would they, particularly Hezbollah, necessarily want to receive them, given the threatened and likely reaction by Israel and the United States. “We don’t have chemical weapons, and we can’t use them for reasons linked to the Sharia and for humanitarian reasons,” said Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Criticism of Israel’s attack has come from Assad’s friends and foes alike. “If this information is confirmed, then we are dealing with unprovoked strikes against targets located on the territory of a sovereign state, which brazenly infringes on the UN Charter and is unacceptable, no matter the motive used for its justification,” said the Foreign Ministry of Russia, one of Assad’s staunchest allies, and the producer of the SA-17 missiles.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose country backs the Syrian revolution, also expressed condemnation.
Regardless of what its apologists say, Israel has been chomping at the bit to intervene in Syria, issuing a succession of “red lines” that made its involvement inevitable. According to Israeli statements, it is unacceptable for the Assad regime, Hezbollah or Syrian rebels to have chemical weapons, and the warnings have recently expanded to include the vague term “advanced weaponry.”
The goal posts are shifting and widening to suit Israel’s agenda, which is not limited to airstrikes. Tel Aviv is planning to establish a buffer zone inside Syria, akin to its zone in southern Lebanon from 1985 - 2000, Britain’s Sunday Times reported. The newspaper added that among Israel’s future targets is an Iranian-built signal intelligence facility near the Syrian city of Dera’a.
Retaliation or empty words?
Assad said his military is able to confront “current threats” and “aggression.” His Foreign Ministry said it “affirms Syria’s right to defend itself and its territory and sovereignty,” and his ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, spoke of “the option and capacity to surprise in retaliation.”
This is most likely just posturing, and Israel knows it. Its previous infringements of Syrian sovereignty have been met with tough words, but no action, from the Assad regime, which does not have the will, let alone the capacity, to retaliate.
It is hemorrhaging defections, and has its hands full against increasingly organised, trained, armed and recognized rebel forces that are steadily gaining ground. The last thing the regime would want, or could handle, is to open up a new front against a much more powerful neighbor.
Syria is already in turmoil, so Israel has no need to add to the instability there. Its likely, wider aim is to target Damascus’s allies Iran and Hezbollah, with last week’s airstrike as a stepping stone. After all, it came just days after Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that “an attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.”
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian warned that the strike “will have grave consequences,” and Saeed Jalili, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said “we will give all our support” to Syria.
However, Iran’s economy is crippled by international sanctions and domestic mismanagement; there is increasing public frustration towards the government; and its military power is no match against Israel’s - both sides know it, though Tehran will never admit it.
As such, these warnings may also be just bluster. If this is the case, and Israel calls its bluff, it will be a slap in Iran’s face, and a sign of its inability to help its long-time ally. This would be a useful indicator as to whether Tehran would, or could, respond to an attack against Hezbollah, particularly without Syria as a reliable conduit.
The Lebanese movement has been shaken by the uprising against Assad, and having angered Syrians by opposing the revolution, it will be considerably weakened when he falls. Israel might feel that the time will soon be right to avenge its military losses to Hezbollah.
The fact that Israel’s Iron Dome missile interception system has been deployed in the north of the country, and the army’s northern command has declared a state of high alert, indicates that Israel is expecting, or at least preparing for, more than just words.
“Complete restraint over the long term to Israel’s actions could be considered weakness by Hezbollah, so we should expect some form of response, even if not immediately and not necessarily a broad rocket and missile attack on Israel,” defense commentator Amos Harel wrote in the liberal Haaretz daily.
“On the assumption that Israel...will take action in the future, domestic pressure will mount in Syria and in Lebanon to respond, and this is liable to set the northern border on fire at any moment,” wrote the Israel Hayom newspaper, considered close to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Israel’s grand plan
A response from Hezbollah or Iran may be exactly what Israel wants: an opportunity to unleash a large-scale military assault against either or both, under the pretext of self-defense. The United States is sure to support this stance politically, and probably militarily. As such, Israel may be setting a cunning trap - either its enemies do nothing and look weak, or react and risk being proven weak.
Weapons developed for a possible strike on Iran could have “usefulness for other confrontations in our vicinity, including in Lebanon and Syria,” said Major-General Yair Naveh, Israel’s deputy armed forces commander. Or, to put it another way, Lebanon and Syria may be testing grounds for the effectiveness of such weapons as a prelude to their use against Iran.
The signs point to possible Israeli provocations of its enemies to draw them into a larger showdown, sensing that the tripartite alliance of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran has never looked shakier. However, Tel Aviv may be overplaying its hand, underestimating the resilience of its foes, as well as the inevitable regional eruption that will be hard for any government to contain. This will cause unpredictable and widespread repercussions.
Following the Israeli airstrike in Syria, Turkey’s foreign minister reportedly vowed that his country would not allow Tel Aviv to attack a fellow Muslim state without retaliation. And as the Assad regime crumbles, Russia may not sit idly by if Israel takes on Iran, Moscow’s last remaining ally in the Middle East after Syria. Israel is pouring fuel on a fire that might burn the entire region, itself included.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Center, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash