With each passing hour since the latest alleged Israeli air strike on Syria, it seems the danger that the current tension will deteriorate into a direct conflict between Damascus-Hezbollah and Israel lessens.
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Jerusalem, as per its custom, is trying (and partially succeeding this time) to keep quiet. Reactions from Syria are also fairly quiet. During the last reported attack, in January, Syria stated that next time it would not show restraint toward “Israeli aggression.” This time, Damascus has yet to officially confirm that an attack took place.
It seems Syrian President Bashar Assad, and his allies in Lebanon and Iran, are too deeply rooted in the mud of the Syrian civil war to open an additional front against Israel. That assessment does not completely rule out a focused response, which could be anything from shots fired along the Syrian border, to an attack on Israelis abroad − similar to the suicide bombing in Bulgaria last July. That attack was apparently a response from Hezbollah and Iran to what they called a series of Israeli assassinations on Iranian nuclear scientists.
In this case, Israel is walking a tightrope − standing by its red line declarations that no chemical or advanced weapons fall into Hezbollah’s hands, and ensuring that the internal Syrian strife does not become a conflict between Israel and Assad.
It seems that the relative caution has paid off. The previous Netanyahu government managed to pull off the tightrope walk with a different defense minister, Ehud Barak, who, according to overseas reports, ordered the air force to attack the weapon shipment in January. It seems this policy has remained intact since Moshe Ya’alon assumed the position of defense minister. Israel will continue to need to act wisely in order to avoid being dragged into the Syrian mayhem.
High-ranking officials have refused to discuss the attack with Israeli journalists. The Associated Press, however, quoted a senior Israeli official, who yesterday morning explained that the attack targeted ground-to-ground, long-range missiles, which he described as “game-changing weapons.”
If that report is correct, there is a good chance the weapons in question are Scud D missiles. The Scud D has the longest range and accuracy of any missile in Syria’s arsenal. Three years ago, foreign media reported that a few of them were transferred by Assad to Hezbollah, after Israel hesitated at the last moment and held back from attacking the delivery convoy. Scud D missiles, with their great destructive capabilities and range that covers all of Israel, down to Eilat − even when launched from deep within Lebanon − would most definitely interest Hezbollah. An increase in the number held by the organization would be a dangerous development indeed.
Israeli officials have provided lists in recent years of weapon systems that Israel will not allow to be transferred to Hezbollah, including SA-17 antitank missiles, the P-800 Oniks (or Yakhont) antiship cruise missile and, of course, chemical weapons.
Assad himself has an incentive to provide weapons to Hezbollah, in return for the Shi’ite organization’s continued support in his regime’s battle for survival − which translates into nearly 2,000 Lebanese soldiers fighting in Syrian battles and assisting in securing strategic locations.
Before the alleged attack Friday, there were numerous reports of Israeli flights over Lebanese airspace. Apparently these were intelligence-gathering flights, or perhaps a signal to the other side that the intent to smuggle the weapons was known, and Israel would act to thwart it if it indeed happened.
The exact location of the strike is unknown, except that it was near Damascus. A claim from a Syrian rebel group that the site was Damascus’ airport seems to be incorrect.
The first report of the attack actually came from Washington, from a CNN correspondent at the Pentagon. The source was unnamed intelligence officials. If that’s the case, and it was a planned leak, the question remains: Should the report be viewed against the backdrop of the apparent gradual shift of the U.S. government’s policy toward Syria, especially after Israel confirmed that Assad used chemical weapons?
The administration’s hesitation over involving U.S. troops is based on the continued infighting between Syrian rebel groups. The groups, many associated with Al-Qaida-linked extremists, are attempting to conquer the main highway to Damascus, and cut off the city from the large Alawite stronghold in northwestern Syria.
Assad will need every weapon he has to continue fighting, including his air force − as old and beat up as it may be. This is yet another reason why he should avoid direct conflict with Israel, which would require a substantial amount of his dwindling military might.