Israel’s Reported Attack on Syria Unlikely to Draw Immediate Response From Assad

If the quiet holds, it will largely be testimony to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s limited room to maneuver.

Two days after the last Israeli assault on Syria ‏(at the time of publication‏), it became clear that both sides were making an effort to calm the situation. Israel continues to maintain its public silence regarding the circumstances that led to what foreign outlets have described as its attacks on Syrian territory twice within 48 hours. And Syria, which initially responded with threats against Israel, announcing it would keep “all options open,” toned down its declarations Monday.

If the quiet holds, it will largely be testimony to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s limited room to maneuver. Several years ago, Assad implemented a policy of denial when Israel attacked targets on his territory, such as the bombing of Syria’s nuclear reactor in September 2007. Now Assad is explicitly accusing Israel of attacking Syrian territory, but for the time being isn’t taking any action. It appears the Syrian regime’s decision not to immediately respond with a counter-attack stems from a sober understanding of the disparity in strength between the two sides’ armed forces, and Assad’s fear that entering into a full-scale battle with Israel will hasten the fall of his regime.

For its part, Israel has sought to transmit messages to Syria that it doesn’t intend to intervene in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the rebels. Based on this logic, the goal of the aerial assaults was strictly immediate: thwarting the transfer of precision weapons from Iran to Hezbollah through Damascus. The bombings do not herald an escalation between Israel and Syria. It appears that Assad has accepted this line of argument, but that his decision not to respond to Israel’s assault also stems from lack of choice. However, there still exists the possibility that Israel will be hit at a later date in a delayed response.

This was the case when a bus filled with tourists was blown up in a suicide terror attack in Bulgaria in July 2012. The Burgas attack was understood as a delayed response by Hezbollah and Iran to a series of assassinations targeting Iranian nuclear scientists, which both parties attributed to Israel. The response of the Iranian-Syrian camp to the air strikes is still likely to come in what are known as “small footprint” terror attacks − whether by the detonation of an improvised explosive device next to IDF forces stationed along the Syrian or Lebanese border, or an attack, with no public claim of responsibility, on Israeli targets abroad.

Based on reports from Western intelligence agencies, the sites that were reportedly attacked by Israel were storage sites for shipments of Fateh-110 missiles produced by Iran, which Israel wanted to prevent from being transferred to Lebanon. Hezbollah may possess missiles of a similar Syrian model, the M-600, yet it is said that the new shipment included missiles with a much greater precision, and that the risk this entailed was enough to justify bombing them, despite the risk of causing a war.

It is hard to formulate a solid opinion on the wisdom of the attack without full access to the data held by different intelligence bodies. However, there is no doubt that if something goes awry and Syria counters Israel with a military response, the question of whether the transfer of weaponry justified military intervention will be at the center of discussion.