The Sunday attacks on two locations in Syria that were attributed to the Israel Air Force seem like a continuation of Israel’s policy with regard to the Syrian civil war for more than three years.
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According to reports from Syria, Sunday’s attacks were aimed at two targets – the area of the Damascus airport and the Syrian border with Lebanon. To judge by past attacks, the airport air strike was probably aimed at warehouses where arms shipments that arrive by air from Iran are stored, while the border area was bombed to prevent an arms convoy from moving toward Lebanon.
Officially, Israel neither confirms nor denies responsibility for the bombings. But its leaders have at various junctures made sure to covertly – and sometimes publicly -- convey its messages to Damascus. Israel has marked red lines on the northern front, like the movement of advanced weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, or any moves that undermine Israeli sovereignty. In such cases, Israel is prepared to use force to foil its rival’s intentions.
Sunday’s attacks came after a relatively long period of quiet. As far as is known, there have been no Israeli bombings since the bombing of Jenta, on the Lebanese side of the border, in February. The bombing on Sunday was exceptional, however, in at least three aspects: It came after Hezbollah had tried to set new rules of the game with Israel on the northern front; it occurred after the international community had clearly changed its priorities regarding the war in Syria (from toppling the regime of Bashar Assad to defeating his rival, ISIS), and it is also the first Israeli operation in Syria since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he was planning new elections.
According to foreign media, Israel has conducted between five and 10 air strikes on Syria over nearly two years. Syria and Hezbollah have responded with threats and warnings, but have never responded directly to the bombings. The deterrent balance changed in February, when, according to those same reports, Israel was aiming at a weapons convoy near the Syria-Lebanon border, but for the first time bombed it on Lebanese territory, not Syrian. Following that attack, Hezbollah declared that every move Israel made in Lebanese territory would draw a response. The group has been behind a series of explosive devices and rocket fire on Mount Dov and in the Golan Heights, described as revenge for the bombing of Jenta and the killing of two Hezbollah operatives in separate incidents that were attributed to Israel.
With regard to Syria there was a sharp turning point this past summer, when the United States established a coalition of Western and Arab countries to battle Islamic State. Although the White House continues to pay lip service to toppling Assad’s murderous regime, it’s clear to all that the administration’s priorities have changed.
Not once during the nearly four years of Assad massacring his people did the United States attack any target of his regime. By contrast, it is now conducting an air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq that has involved hundreds of bombing runs. On the face of it, this is a good reason for Assad to refrain from responding to the Israeli attack. If the United States is doing its work for Syria by battling ISIS, now its No. 1 enemy, there’s no reason for Assad to slide into a tangential confrontation with Israel that could only complicate matters for him.
Hezbollah’s response is somewhat harder to predict. The group has been exhibiting greater self-confidence in provoking Israel. The question is whether the fact that yesterday’s bombings were on the Syrian side of the border is enough of a reason to refrain from responding.
The timing of Sunday’s attacks, close to when Netanyahu was declaring that he was going to elections, immediately raised speculation as to whether there were political motivations behind the air strikes. If any of Netanyahu’s rivals makes such a claim, the burden of proof is on that rival, because this is not a reasonable allegation. It’s true that Netanyahu has an interest in keeping the security threat on the public agenda with the start of the election campaign. But the security situation is sensitive enough on nearly all fronts. It’s hard to imagine that Netanyahu would drag the military into making an offensive move against its will without something from the argument leaking to the media.