The ailing regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is threatening to retaliate against Israeli airstrikes inside Syria
A lot of mystery and some big unanswered questions surround Israel's pre-dawn Jan. 30 airstrike just miles inside the Syrian border — most notably, did the Israelis destroy a convoy of Russian-made SA-17 antiaircraft missiles, as Western diplomats and U.S. officials claim, or attack a military research facility, as the Syrians insist? Per its usual policy, Israel is keeping silent about the airstrike, but Syria's unusual acknowledgment that Israel attacked inside its borders — and threat, from its ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdul-Karim Ali, that Damascus "has the option and the capacity to surprise in retaliation" — has some pro-Israel analysts worried.
Israel's no-comment policy has several benefits, but a big one is letting targeted countries deny the attack, giving them a way to save face and avoid escalating the conflict. That's what happened in 2007, when Israel reportedly destroyed a Syrian nuclear reactor. But now, "from the moment they chose to say Israel did something, it means someone has to do something after that," Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser in Israel, tells The New York Times.
Syria's not the only actor that could retaliate, either. The convoy of missiles, according to Western sources, was headed for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, endangering Israel's ability to freely monitor the group's activities from Lebanese airspace; Hezbollah denounced the attack as a "barbaric aggression." And Iran, a key backer of both Syria and Hezbollah, said the attack would have "grave consequences for Tel Aviv," after warning over the weekend that any attack on Syria would be considered an attack on Iran.
It "seems that Israel is not particularly impressed by Iranian threats," and probably with good reason, says Amos Harel in Israel's Haaetz. "The combination of strategic circumstances in the region at the moment makes the chance of a direct Iranian response unlikely," and "a Syrian military response seems even less likely, though neither possibility can be ruled out." That leaves two big question marks. The first and "most worrying unknown since Tuesday night concerns Hezbollah's reaction" — the militant group has already taken action against Israel at least three times in the past year, and will do so again, now or later. The second unknown?
Why did the Syrians... abandon the chance to deny that Israel allowed them? This time it seems they want to exploit the attack for their own purposes. The announcement yesterday said the bombing was proof that Israel is behind the opposition groups fighting the government. This, of course, is a big lie, but in [President Bashar] Assad's condition he needs all the diplomatic ammunition he can get. [Haaretz]
Israeli officials carefully considered the possibility that a strike on Syria "could trigger a reprisal by Syria, Hezbollah, or even Iran," says Dan Ephron at The Daily Beast. They determined that the probability of a reprisal was low, and "that assessment seems to be holding up." The calculation is that "both Iran and Hezbollah have much to lose from an escalation with Israel," and Assad is "too busy fighting for his survival to take on Israel." Tel Aviv isn't taking any chances, though.
Israel has taken several measures in the past week to protect its citizens from attacks by Syria or Lebanon, including moving closer to its northern border two Iron Dome batteries — the same antimissile systems that intercepted hundreds of rockets from Gaza during a weeklong war in November. It also stepped up efforts to get new gas masks to those remaining Israelis who still have outdated ones. Officials said the number of people showing up at distribution centers surged in recent days. [Daily Beast]
The idea that Syria will strike Israel may make Israelis jittery, but it makes Syrians chuckle. "They always say that — they'll retaliate, but later," a Damascus mother of five tells Reuters, laughing. "Always later." But even if Assad does let this attack go unpunished, Israel's airstrike "pointed to the larger changes afoot in the region," say Anne Barnard and Jodi Rudoren in The New York Times. And that should make everybody a little nervous.
Hezbollah may be looking at a future where it is without Syria's backing and has to defend itself against Sunnis resentful of its role in the Syrian conflict. And Israel may find that its most dangerous foe is not Hezbollah but jihadist Syrian rebel groups that are fragmented and difficult to deter. If Syria's weapons end up with jihadist groups like al Qaeda or its proxies, that would be a global threat, said Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. "If one organization will put their hands on this arsenal, then it will change hands in no time and we'll see it all over the world," he said. [New York Times]
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