Israel Wants No Part in Syria's War, So Why Is It Threatening to Topple Assad?

Israeli intelligence doesn't point to Syrian retaliation for air strikes it has attributed to Israel, and a massive Israeli attack would only be a last resort.

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The sharply worded message that a "high-ranking Israeli official” relayed to Syria on Wednesday via The New York Times seems like something of an exaggeration, if not an outright overreaction. The warning that Israel would topple Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime if he attacks in response to three air strikes, which have been attributed to Israel, does not, for the time being, correspond to the facts on the ground.

It’s true that two mortar shells fired from Syria struck fairly close to Mount Hermon on Wednesday morning, but Israel hardly saw that incident as unusual or particularly serious – even if something of a slow news day propelled the incident into the top headlines on a few Internet news sites.

It’s safe to assume that the mortar shells were not meant for Israeli territory: As in previous similar incidents, the mortar shells were likely fired during battles between the Syrian army and the rebels near the Israeli border and fell short of their targets. Israel has responded to some such incidents in the past with pinpointed tank shells or a missile launched at Syrian army positions in the area.

Currently Israel intelligence does not indicate that Assad or his allies in Hezbollah have any intention of fulfilling their threat to open a front against Israel on the Golan Heights, in response to the recent air strikes. The New York Times report dovetails nicely with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s urgent trip to Russia two days ago, in a bid to prevent the latter from supplying S-300 anti-tank missiles to Syria. But that’s still a long way from trying to oust Assad.

Israel has no real interest in entering the whirlwind that is the bloody civil war in Syria, or even in taking sides. A massive Israeli attack in Syria would only take place as a last resort – but would still bring with it the threat of an all-out war between Israel and Syria, which could seriously harm the Israeli home front. Precisely because the government has up until now wielded its power cautiously, it is difficult to understand the harsh tone of Jerusalem's latest threat.

There’s a tendency to forget that tensions between Israel and Syria began long before that country's civil war broke out in the winter of 2011. In the beginning of the previous decade, Israeli fighter jets flew at low altitude over Assad’s palace, and a Palestinian training base in Syria was bombed in retaliation for Syria’s support of Palestinian terror groups during the second intifada, as well as the transfer of arms from Damascus to Hezbollah. Later in that same decade, Syria, and the foreign press, blamed Israel for killing terrorists, the assassination of a Syrian general and the bombing of the nuclear installation in Deir ez-Zor. Never once did Assad respond directly, despite his many threats.

Assad's modus operandi has been to deny that anything even happened. Only after his denials lost their credibility in the Arab world and Assad found himself up against a wall did he admit that Syria had been attacked. He did this early on and later as well, after the nuclear reactor was attacked and after an arms convoy transporting SA-17 missiles to Lebanon last January was bombed.

Still, Israel must remember that if it intends to attack in the future – and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz warned this week that Israel would stand its ground on the red lines it set regarding arms transfers — Assad could ultimately decide to order a military response of his own.

Rebels burn photo of Syrian President Bashar Assad.Credit: Reuters