As if the neighborhood wasn’t combustible enough, Israel reportedly received a green light from President Barack Obama to stoke the flames by launching an airstrike on a Syrian military research facility outside Damascus and deploying its warplanes to repeatedly infringe Lebanese airspace.
Israel hasn’t officially admitted bombing the site but, on Saturday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak all but spilt the beans at a security conference held in Munich. The attack was “another proof that when we say something we mean it” he said while disclosing the objective. “We say that we don’t think that it should be allowable to bring advanced weapon systems into Lebanon from Syria, when Assad falls.”
An anonymous American official, quoted by various newspapers, said the strike targeted surface-to-air missiles and a military complex thought to contain chemical weapons. Assad has pledged not to use chemical weapons against his own people, adding, ominously, that they could be used in the case of foreign intervention. Israel is concerned that those weapons of mass destruction could not only fall into the hands of rebel groups but also—and more importantly—be handed over to the military wing of the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, which considers Syria its lifeline to funding and arms from Iran. If Syria falls, Hezbollah would be isolated and weakened.
Netanyahu is playing a very dangerous game. The neighborhood is very different from 2007 when Israel got away with bombing a suspected Syrian nuclear site without suffering payback—and the teetering Syrian regime has a lot less to lose when it’s under siege and the country’s on the point of ruin. If President Bashar Assad feels sufficiently cornered, he may be tempted to lash out. He has accused Israel of attempting to further destabilize his nation and warned of serious consequences, saying, “Syria is capable of repelling aggression.”
Indeed, Assad is more than likely on his way out, so he may go for broke with retaliation at a time of his choosing. In case of conflict with Israel, every Syrian would rally round regardless of his religious or political affiliations. War is guaranteed to bring a feuding population together. In the past, Assad has had little appetite to take on the Jewish state supported by the US, even though Syria was targeted on several occasions during the previous decade.
There was a time when an Israel/Syrian deal to return the Golan Heights to Syria was being mulled. However, the climate now is poisonous and Syria’s allies Iran and Hezbollah are markedly militarily stronger. Moreover, retaliation would have a legal cover, since the United Nations has condemned Israel’s actions as breaching its charter. Also, Turkey, which is no friend to Syria nowadays, has accused Israel of “state terrorism” and violating international law. Predictably, Russian officials have articulated similar outrage.
Hezbollah’s partnership with Assad isn’t in doubt but the main imponderable is Tehran that has announced on numerous occasions that any attack on Syria would be considered as an attack on Iran. On Sunday, Iran’s National Security Council Secretary met with Assad in Damascus and confirmed Tehran’s full support for the Syrian people “facing Zionist aggression.” Talk is cheap but whether Iran, that’s poised to renew discussions on its nuclear program with P5+1 nations and has recently been offered bilateral talks with Washington, would be willing to throw its military weight behind Syria is moot. If an all-out conflict between Israel and Syria were to ignite, it’s probable that, once again, tiny Lebanon would bear the brunt as Iran’s proxy.
Netanyahu’s true motives behind his bold attack on Israel’s neighbor aren’t clear. There are two schools of thought. It may be that Israel is doing America’s dirty work, paving the way for Western military intervention in Syria that has so far been impeded by Russia’s UN Security Council veto that’s been wielded on three occasions. Moscow has resisted force to push Assad out so as to maintain one of the last bastions of its regional sphere of influence bolstered by a Russian naval base in the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus. Israel has never felt bound by international law or the UN on the grounds that its national security overrides such details. If missiles begin flying between Damascus and Tel Aviv, the US and its allies will have a perfect entrée to join the fray.
On the other hand, Netanyahu’s thinking could be preemptive. The Israeli leader may be hoping that Damascus will hit back so that he can take on Hezbollah which has tens-of-thousands of sophisticated missiles capable of destroying Israel’s cities—and perhaps even Iran that he has always perceived as the Jewish State’s prime existential threat. In that case, though, Israel’s recent strike on a Syrian military facility would not have received President Obama’s blessing when the US leader is known to be a reluctant warrior, more interested in bolstering America’s worldwide moral authority via diplomacy than bringing out the big guns.
The problem is that aggression is fraught with unintended consequences. It’s notable that Israel’s recent attack “touched off high military alerts across the region including on the part of the Russian fleet of 18 warships in the eastern Mediterranean, the Lebanese and Jordanian armies and US forces at the Incirlik airbase in Turkey . . .” according to the DebkaFile, a website with close links to Israeli intelligence. Just one spark could ignite a Middle East conflagration consuming Israelis and Arabs alike. If the strike was a one-off, the temperature could return to normal. If there’s more, Netanyahu (and others behind the door) has donned gloves for a fight in which Assad will be compelled to engage whether he likes it or not.
Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.