Red lines and calculated risks for Israel in Syria
May 9, 2013 | Ahron Shapiro
A pair of apparent Israeli cruise missile strikes on Syrian military targets this month brought with it near-unanimous public criticism from the regime of Bashar Assad, Syrian rebels and opposition groups, and Arab and Islamist countries in the region (although scattered Syrian opposition voices were quietly observed supporting the move).
While both Israeli and Syrian officials were reluctant to discuss details, it appears that, like a previous strike on January 30, these strikes were intended to enforce a red line Israel had laid out to Syria against the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah – reportedly in this case the highly-accurate Fatah-110 missile, which could pinpoint targets over most of Israel.
Analysis over the strikes covered a wide spectrum of opinion, weighing, pros, cons risks and implications.
Among his other observations, Israeli columnist Shmuel Rosner pondered the possibility that, in spite of the three operations Israel has apparently undertaken to stop arms transfers, other Syrian arms shipments are getting though to Hezbollah.
If Israel’s intelligence is good enough to track down every attempt of Iran to transfer arms to Hezbollah – that’s very impressive. On the other hand, if Israel only tracks down one out of thirty such transfers, it becomes less impressive and more troubling.
This concern was echoed by others, as the Times of Israel reported:
Former head of intelligence for IAF Special Operations, Col. (res) Ronen Cohen [told Army Radio] he feared that either the strikes over the weekend, or perhaps the coming one, would trigger a response – from Assad or Hezbollah. “And that could bring us into a campaign that no wants and one that, in my opinion, is for naught.”
“Because, truly, not all of the shipments can be stopped.”
Many commentators believed that in light of this possibility, which cannot be discounted, it may be that the strikes, while reducing a genuine threat to Israel, are also intended more to send a message to Iran, the US and the world over Israel’s resolve to uphold its own red lines.
The issue of red lines was also raised in commentary over how Israel’s actions might affect its ally, the US. At the Commentary website, Jonathan Tobin wrote on Monday that Israel, by carrying out the apparent strike could be seen as doing US President Barack Obama’s “dirty work” following reports that the Syria conflict had crossed a red line through the introduction of chemical weapons.
“So long as Israel is available to keep Assad and Iran in check,” Tobin wrote, President Obama may feel free to continue ‘leading from behind.'”
At The New Republic, Marc Tracy wrote that, while Israel bought the US some time, Israel believes it is crucial for Washington to uphold its red lines, because of the message it sends to Iran.
If the U.S. does not enforce its red line on Syria, that likely communicates to Iran’s leaders that they need not worry about the U.S.’s red line when it comes to them. And so, despite specific protestations that it is not asking us to intervene in Syria, Israel almost certainly wants the U.S. to step up its opposition to Assad’s regime if only to show everyone that U.S. red lines aren’t more like blinking yellow lines.
Back again at Commentary, Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote on Monday that even if a claim by one UN official that rebel groups, and not the Syrian military, were the ones who used chemical weapons turns out to be correct (and the US government sounds pretty sure they are not), it does not relieve the US of responsibility to launch strikes of its own. To the contrary, he wrote, the implication that Assad has lost control of some chemical weapons means that it is now an American priority to strike against Assad’s remaining reserves of chemical weapons and prevent those reserves from falling into the hands of radical Islamist groups
The strike, along with reports that Iran has sent reinforcements to bolster Assad in Syria, has put the spotlight on Teheran’s increasing role in Syria’s civil war, pouring in thousands of its own troops and advisors, volunteers, and Hezbollah foot soldiers bolstering Iranian-backed local militias.
Retired IDF Brigadier General Dr Shimon Shapira, in a report for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, wrote that Iran has not only committed to prevent Syria from falling to Sunni rebels at all costs, but plans to effectively take over post-War Syria from Alawite control and is actively working to turn Syria into a Shiite state.
In Ha’aretz (subscription required) on Sunday, Zvi Barel succinctly explained why, although Hezbollah is obviously enraged by Israel’s repeated strikes to prevent the transfer of advanced Syrian weaponry to the group, the chances the Iranian proxy will attack Israel in the near future are low.
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.
Regarding the possibility of a military response from Syria itself, Barel’s colleague Anshel Pfeffer concluded that Syria’s army probably hasn’t been configured to attack Israel for years, although, he added, the harsh lesson of Israel’s underestimation of Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur War has prevented the IDF from supporting that view.
Even so, the Jerusalem Post‘s Ariel Ben Solomon wrote that, should Israeli strikes continue, Hezbollah and Syria would eventually come under so much pressure that they might have to respond.
“Hezbollah and Syria know they would pay severely for any direct attack on Israel, but how much longer can they absorb Israeli attacks without responding?” he wrote.
News reports say that Assad had given his blessing to attacks by the radical Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP-GC) led by Ahmed Jabril – one of the few Palestinian terror groups that continue to align themselves with the Syrian government. However, these were knocked back as merely “symbolic” by an official in the group, who acknowledged to Ha’aretz that it is widely understood that Israel would hold Syria responsible for any terror attacks launched from its territory.
In a display of how sectarian issues have affected inter-Palestinian affairs, on Tuesday, Hamas broke up a PFLP rally in Gaza against the Israeli air strike due to the support for the Assad regime voiced at the rally.
Meanwhile, infused with new strength thanks in no small part to Iranian reinforcements, Syrian forces continue to make gains against the rebels, undoing hard-fought achievements.
On Wednesday, Reuters reported, the Syrian army reclaimed the strategic town of Khirbet Ghazaleh, opening up access to a key international transit route.
The current swing in the momentum away from the rebels was discussed on Tuesday by GLORIA Centre director Barry Rubin, who assesses the current situation and likely outcomes in Syria moving forward as a choice between bad options for Western interests, and last week in a blog post by Rubin’s colleague and Syria expert Jonathan Spyer on his website.
This regime may be a study in vileness from a moral point of view, but Assad and his allies over the last two years have shown what can be achieved when a clear strategic goal is wedded to a willingness to use the most ruthless and murderous of means. Only a comparable level of cohesion and commitment from the rebellion and its backers is likely to prove sufficient to finally terminate Assad’s rule. This shows no signs of emerging. So Assad isn’t winning, despite the new bullishness of his supporters. But right now, he isn’t losing either.