Israel will have to tread very carefully if it wants to avoid confrontation with Syria and Hezbollah, particularly as as global forces begin to intervene, and as Iran elections approach.
Israel made an effort Sunday to clarify its position on the increasingly messy situation in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly declared that the Israel Defense Forces would act, if necessary, to foil the smuggling of weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. At the same time, Netanyahu’s associates made sure to explain that Israel’s position on the civil war remains unchanged: It will not intervene on behalf of either side, but will only act if its own interests are affected.
Netanyahu’s announcement came after a series of contradictory, mostly superfluous leaks from Israeli sources to the foreign press. Most prominent among them was the explicit warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad that appeared in The New York Times, to the effect that Israel would topple his regime if he dared respond to Israeli air strikes on weapons caches or convoys on his territory. A few days later, an Israeli diplomat was quoted in the British Times as saying the opposite, basically that Israel has no interest in overthrowing Assad, because the Islamic groups that would replace the dictator will be far worse.
Added to these reports were a bunch of stories in the American media, apparently coming from administration sources, regarding modern weapons Russia is poised to give Syria, while Sunday it was even reported by the Sunday Times’ reporter in Israel that Assad had ordered his army to aim SM600 (Tishreen) missiles at Israeli targets.
So what does Israel really want? More or less what the latest, most correct version of the leaks says: minimum intervention in Syria, unless it crosses one of Netanyahu’s red lines, primarily the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. These would include advanced anti-aircraft missiles, accurate ground-to-ground missiles, Yakhont shore-to-sea missiles or chemical weapons.
But it may be more difficult for Netanyahu to back up his latest threat, at least compared to the ease with which the three previous air strikes for which Israel never took responsibility were carried out.
The Assad regime has been spreading enough hints of his intention to strike back if Israel bombs it. The Syrian president could, for example, fire a missile at a strategic Israeli target an infrastructure installation or anair force base and present Netanyahu with a dilemma of his own: respond and risk escalation, or absorb the blow and stand down. Thus, in a flash, a tactical problem (the smuggling of weapons into Lebanon) could become a strategic challenge (the risk of a war between Israel and Syria).
Netanyahu has to take something else into account. If the possibility of an attack on Iran returns to the agenda after the presidential elections there next month, the question will be what Israel will consider more urgent. Wearing down the IDF in a confrontation with Syria and Hezbollah will make it more difficult to focus its energies later in the year against Iran.
Assad liable to respond
Though as far as is known Assad isn’t interested in a confrontation with Israel, evidence is increasing that he is liable to respond to any strikes on his territory. Aiming Tishreen missiles at Israel is not one of those responses, however. Israeli security sources say there is nothing to these reports. Syrian missile batteries already have data about Israeli targets programmed into them, and there is no reason to assume that these missiles will be deployed in the field and exposed to attack before Syria makes a decision to act, the sources say.
Meanwhile, Assad’s forces apparently scored a military achievement when they overcame most of the rebel opposition in the town of Quseir. The town offers partial control of the road that links Damascus with Homs and to the Alawite enclave in the country’s northwest. It is also close to the rebel’s supply route from the Lebanese border.
Still, the Israeli security establishment is not overly impressed with local improvements in the Syrian army’s position. The basic intelligence assessment remains that Assad’s position is irreversible; that he has lost control over most of what’s going on in his country’s territory, which continues to crumble into separate districts, ruled by rival clans and sects.
Russia is planning to convene an international conference next month on the situation in Syria. As of now, the chances of such a conference achieving anything are minuscule. All the signs show that Syria will continue to bleed and this murderous dispute will lead to increasing involvement by outside forces Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Arab states supporting the rebels (Qatar, which backs the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia, which supports the radical Salafist groups). Perhaps, under extreme circumstances, the United States and Europe would get involved as well.
As the situation gets more complicated, Israel will have to be extra careful so as not to be sucked in.
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