Why Israel might have felt the imperative to strike in Syria

A peek through the fog in the wake of Wednesday’s unconfirmed attack, and an assessment of the likely fallout

By January 31, 2013, 6:56 pm 6

A twin-tailed F-15 at the Ovda airbase (Photo credit: Ofer Zidon/ Flash 90)
A twin-tailed F-15 at the Ovda airbase (Photo credit: Ofer Zidon/ Flash 90)


Some 24 hours after the air strikes in Syria, the facts and claims do not yet piece together into a coherent puzzle. It remains unclear if a convoy of advanced conventional weapons was hit as it moved west from Syria to Lebanon or if, either in addition or solely, a chemical weapons research and production center was struck on the outskirts of Damascus. American officials speaking to The New York Times have indicated the former. Syria, quite unusually, and with Hezbollah’s firm backing, have intimated the latter, claiming that Israel committed “a flagrant breach of Syrian sovereignty and airspace.”

Still, enough is known to formulate several observations amid the still-swirling fog, as follows:

The least likely scenario is that chemical weapons were destroyed in Wednesday’s attack. Even if the research center in Jamraya, northwest of Damascus, was in fact hit, as Damascus has claimed, it is exceedingly unlikely that the target was a stockpile of chemical weapons. Dr. Dany Shoham, a leading Israeli expert on chemical weapons in Syria, said Wednesday that a highly sophisticated strike could have taken out the non-toxic component of a binary chemical weapon — which would be a terrific achievement, stripping the weapon of its toxicity — but would have required exceptional intelligence information and surgical precision.

Other possible targets, if Damascus’s report is true, are the components that deliver the chemical weapons — the warheads, missiles and artillery shells.

The more likely scenario is that Damascus’s reports are false, the Americans are right, and that what was hit was, in fact, a weapons convoy

The more likely scenario is that Damascus’s reports are false, the Americans are right, and that what was hit was, in fact, a weapons convoy. Transferring Russian-made weapons to Hezbollah violates UN Resolution 1701, so Syria would hardly admit to doing so. It makes both Syria and Russia look bad and, more importantly, jeopardizes the flow of arms from Russia to Syria. “They have a direct responsibility to Russia not to transfer those weapons systems,” said Professor Efraim Inbar, the director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

Why would Israel have felt the imperative to attack? If, as some reports claim, the convoy was carrying SA-17 Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles from Syria to the Hezbollah-dominated town of Nabi Chit, these are not exactly game-changing weapons. But “they make our life much more difficult,” Maj. Gen. (res) Professor Yitzhak ben Yisrael told Israel Radio Thursday.

The surface-to-air missiles would have the capacity to close off large swaths of Lebanon’s sky to Israeli planes and drones. This would partially shut the eyes of Israel’s intelligence-gathering apparatus. The ensuing gaps in coverage would also allow Hezbollah to transfer more offensive weapons into Lebanon and take larger risks when confronting Israel.

Moreover, according to Inbar, the distinction between defensive and offensive weapons is often misleading. “During the Yom Kippur War it was the surface-to-air missiles that allowed the Egyptians to make the offensive move of crossing the canal,” he said, adding that the SA-17s could target Israeli aircraft some 20 kilometers inside Israel.

In the past, there was once just one red line for Israel regarding its neighbors’ acquisition of arms: nuclear weapons. This was the reason Menachem Begin sent eight planes to attack in Saddam Hussein’s reactor at Osirak in June 1981 and, reportedly, why Ehud Olmert took similar measures in September 2007, not long after the Mossad learned that Syria was well on its way to developing a plutonium-based nuclear reactor.

In the sixties and seventies, in response to Israel’s alleged nuclear capacity, Egypt and Syria armed themselves with chemical weapons. Israel did not respond or draw any new lines in the sand. During the past 22 months of conflict, however, as Syria has unraveled, Israel marked a new line: the transfer of chemical weapons to non-state actors. “The moment we see that the Syrians transfer chemical and biological weapons to Hezbollah, that is a red line for us, and from our point of view it’s a clear casus belli,” then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman said in June.

Now, there are those who say, the line has been redrawn again — to include other sorts of “strategic weapons.” More likely, this is an attempt to prevent a slippery slope of massive arms transfers, dictated more by the timing and the constraints on Israel’s enemies than the nature of the weaponry itself.

Hezbollah claims to be the protector of Lebanon. In many ways the opposite is the case. Were the organization to disappear, Israel and Lebanon could attempt to live in peace. Hezbollah targets the innocent and relishes Israeli suffering. It kills innocent Jews. The list of the organization’s sins is long. But its stated goal, which it may have been pursuing Wednesday night, to protect the sovereignty of Lebanon’s skies, regularly violated by Israeli planes, is not altogether unreasonable.

Another note on Hezbollah: the help the organization has offered the secular Alawite regime in Syria is not just an expression of love and esteem. Hezbollah needs to be paid, and the currency of choice is advanced weapons.

Now let’s turn to the issue of advance knowledge: All sides to the Middle East conflict seem to have known about the strike ahead of time. Israel sent envoys to Washington DC and Moscow and, already several days ago, moved at least one Iron Dome anti-rocket battery to the north of the country. In Iran, apparently aware that something was up, Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said earlier this week that any attack on Syria “is considered [an] attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.” And Russia, perhaps flexing muscles in Syria’s support, launched its largest naval exercise in the post-Soviet age in the Mediterranean Sea last week.

What then, finally, can be expected in response to the bombing? The location of the strike is important. In the past Israel did everything it could to avoid striking on Syrian soil, preferring to wait until arms transports arrived in Lebanon. Today, with Assad in a fight for survival, Israel may have preferred striking on his home turf. “His plate is full,” Inbar said, noting that though Assad has far more firepower at his disposal than Hezbollah, his regime is too close to the brink to get into a pushing match with Israel.

A Hezbollah statement on Thursday indicated that it, too, is not keen to engage Israel in an overt confrontation at this point. “Israel perpetrated a barbaric attack against a Syrian installation for scientific research on Syrian territory, causing the death of a number of Syrians, the injury of others, and the destruction of the installation,” the statement read. The operative words here appear to be “Syrian installation,” “Syrian territory,” and the deaths of a number “of Syrians.” This takes the pressure off the Lebanese Shiite organization, Hezbollah, to respond. Presumably, an overt confrontation with Israel would, at the very least, drain the organization of its arms in advance of a possible Israeli confrontation with Iran and, perhaps, weaken it in advance of a looming sectarian battle within Lebanon.

Judging by the fact that defense minister Ehud Barak is abroad and local council heads have not been instructed to open their bomb shelters in the north, Israel is expecting a response, if any, that falls short of war

On Thursday, an Iranian deputy foreign minister, according to Iran’s Press TV, said that “the Israeli regime’s strike on Syria will have serious consequences for Tel Aviv.” Judging by the fact that defense minister Ehud Barak is abroad and local council heads have not been instructed to open their bomb shelters in the north, Israel is expecting a response, if any, that falls short of war. Perhaps yet another round of the deadly, cloak-and-dagger violence that has been visited on Israeli civilians in New Delhi, Bangkok and Burgas.

That said, in the Middle East, as Professor ben Yisrael noted,”logic is not always the master of the house.”

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