Assad's Dilemma: Blame Israeli Strike on Rebels or Retaliate and Risk Open War

Other options also don't bode well: Retaliating through Hezbollah wouldn’t stop the Syrian uprising and is liable to expose Iran’s limited ability to help its Lebanese ally now that Syria can't serve as a logistical base.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Reports from Damascus about the Israeli strike on its airport are getting more and more confusing. According to an opposition website, four or five cruise missiles fired by Israeli planes from Lebanese airspace hit the city’s military airfield, located about 2.5 kilometers from the civilian airfield.

The website's report, which cited sources in Syria’s anti-aircraft batteries and national airline, said the missiles struck warehouses containing arms and ammunition, a cargo plane containing parts for anti-aircraft batteries that had just arrived from Russia and jet fuel containers. As a bonus, the strikes shattered windows in a civilian railway station, caused shrapnel wounds to airport workers and, according to another report, killed some 300 Syrian security personnel. Yet, while reports from Western sources have identified missiles en route to Hezbollah as Israel’s target, the website made no mention of any missiles being hit.

The Syrian response – that the attack constitutes a declaration of war – doesn’t change the Syrian-Israeli status quo, but it does pose a difficult dilemma for President Bashar Assad’s regime. On one hand, a succession of Israeli attacks has created a situation of “open skies,” in which Israel can operate undisturbed against Syrian forces. This resembles the “open skies” policy Israel has carried out toward Lebanon for years.

But on the other hand, Israel, whether intentionally or not, has made itself a perceived ally of the Syrian rebels – capable of replacing international shoulder-shrugging and military inaction with a policy of intervention. As such, it has won backing from the United States and Great Britain, and judging by the absence of condemnations, implicitly from the Arab states as well. Yet this plays into the hands of the Assad regime, which predictably lost no time in accusing the rebels of contact with Israel.

Beyond such rhetoric, though, Syria’s options are limited. Opening a new front against Israel, or launching sporadic missiles at it, would grant Israel legitimacy for a much broader aerial operation than merely shooting back at the sources of the fire, and that would serve the rebels’ interests. Having Hezbollah open a front against Israel instead would normally be a viable option. Indeed, when the Syrian uprising began two years ago, many pundits predicted Assad would use a Hezbollah assault on Israel to try to divert international attention away from what was happening in Syria. But since then, circumstances have changed.

Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, have a supreme interest in preserving the organization’s military capabilities, which means not giving Israel any excuse to destroy its missile stockpiles in Lebanon. In a situation where Assad’s survival isn’t guaranteed, it’s important to Iran that Hezbollah preserve its strength, so it can continue to exert influence in the event of Assad’s fall. A new war between Hezbollah and Israel wouldn’t stop the Syrian uprising and is liable to expose Iran’s limited ability to help its Lebanese ally now that Syria can't serve as a logistical base.

Another option is to recruit Russia for a diplomatic blocking maneuver against Israel. Russia and the U.S. have an undeclared agreement about the red lines for intervening in Syria: As long as America doesn’t arm the Syrian rebels, Russia won’t flaunt its military support for the regime. It’s interesting that so far Russia hasn’t responded to Israel’s airstrikes, but that doesn’t mean it will keep silent in the future. Russia could demand that the U.S. restrain Israel’s strikes, warning that otherwise, it will view them as American intervention.

Ostensibly, the backing Israel has received from U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron lessen the fear of Russian pressure. But if Israel continues its airstrikes, Russia is liable to respond – admittedly not militarily. But tough diplomatic steps are certainly possible.

Thus the strategic questions aren’t whether Israel now faces a military threat from Syria or Hezbollah, but how Israel’s airstrikes will affect international understandings of military intervention in Syria, whether they will ensnare the U.S. in a diplomatic confrontation with Russia and whether they will undermine the rebels’ legitimacy, given their declared opposition to military intervention by any foreign party, let alone Israel.

A photo released by Syria's state news agency allegedly showing the damage caused by an Israeli strike.Credit: AFP

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