Israel Must Prevent the North From Flaring Up

So far Israel has been able to avoid getting caught up in the Syrian civil war. Now it seems as if the situation has gotten more complicated, and it must weigh its moves carefully to prevent hostilities.

Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon, March 18, 2017.
Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon, March 18, 2017. MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP

The scenario is familiar: Worry about the northern front flaring up, or about a build-up of strength across the border whose consequences would be felt on the Israeli home front, sets off actions aimed at preventing potential harm.

This happened in 1967 and in 1973, in aerial battles between the Israeli and Syrian armies that turned out to be preludes to the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars. It could happen again, following clashes between the Israel Air Force and Syria’s air defense forces, which is why a prudent and sober policy is need to prevent war in the north.

It starts with a “preventive act” – a tactical strike by aircraft against weapons with special significance, primarily against surface-to-air missiles liable to bring down Israeli aircraft, and land-to-sea missiles that threaten Israel Navy ships and infrastructure targets like the Haifa Port, the ammonia tanks and offshore gas fields. Israel prefers to act in small measures against powerful weapons that could be used against it in a larger campaign.

Success in this effort is partial and is conditioned on keeping mum about it, so as not to goad either Syrian President Bashar Assad or Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah into feeling compelled to defend their honor with countermeasures.

But these silent understandings have unraveled lately, because of the increasing involvement of Russia on behalf of the Assad regime. The Russians have saved Assad from oblivion and in return have renewed and strengthened their control of the Latakia-Tartus coastal strip, where they want to establish their own naval base. Iran is also eyeing a naval outpost on the same strip of the Mediterranean. That was one of the topics of discussion when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.

It was after this meeting, in a way that could be construed as having been coordinated with Russia, that the Israel Defense Forces launched yet another attack on a convoy transporting weapons for Hezbollah, after which an anti-aircraft missile fired by the Syrian army missed the Israeli air force planes but penetrated Israeli airspace and was successfully intercepted by an Arrow missile battery in the Jordan Valley. This attack marked Israel as the one preparing for escalation.

Then on Sunday there was a targeted killing of someone considered hostile to Israel who was operating in Syria, and Arab media outlets attributed that attack to Israel as well. This was followed by a blunt diplomatic move by Russia, which summoned Israel’s envoy in Moscow to its Foreign Ministry for clarifications.

So far Israel has been able to avoid getting caught up in the Syrian civil war, which involves the Russians and Americans, the Kurds and Turks, Iran and Hezbollah, Al-Qaida and ISIS. Under cover of this chaos, there have been several preventive attacks. Now it seems as if the situation has gotten more complicated, and Israel must weigh its moves carefully to prevent hostilities.