Bibi Goes to Syria

Anti-Assad demo flyer. Berlin, December 2012.

Did Israel step into the Syrian civil war, as a grim headline in Ha’aretz declared? At the time of this article’s writing, it doesn’t seem so, despite a good deal of bluster coming from Lebanon, Iran, and Syria itself. Still, by launching an unprovoked attack against a Syrian target, there can be little doubt that Israel has made the situation more sensitive. Further Israeli operations run an increasing risk of sparking a regional war. 

Israel was surely aware of that risk, but proceeded anyway. Maybe Bibi believed that the gains outweighed the risk of setting off a regional war, but I doubt it. Although little is certain right now, whatever Israel’s target was, its destruction was almost certainly not worth igniting that powder keg. Instead, I think that Israel believed the chances, at least of this one action leading to a widening of the conflict, were very small. And in this, they are likely to be proven correct. At least for the moment, there are significant obstacles that are likely to prevent any significant retaliation.

Syria obviously has other matters that are of more immediate concern than Israel. And, of all the angered parties, Syria is the one that gets some small token out of this attack. Bashar Assad is using the Israeli attack as “proof” that the entire uprising in Syria grows out of a “Zionist conspiracy.” I doubt all that many people will buy this rather outlandish conspiracy theory, but Assad can use any propaganda material he can find these days.

While Iran is speaking of making “Tel Aviv pay” for the attack on Syria, there really is little it can do, embroiled as it continues to be in a standoff with the United States. Any direct attack on Israel would threaten to destabilize that fragile situation and might force the US military hand that Barack Obama has been fighting Congress and Israel to try and keep under control. Whatever their nuclear ambitions, Iran’s behavior and history is not that of a country that wants to see a war. As Ha’aretz columnist Amos Harel said, “It also seems that Israel is not particularly impressed by Iranian threats.” He’s right, but we shouldn’t miss the irony here: when Iran directly threatens an attack on Israel, it is not taken seriously, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for years been promoting the idea that implications of a threat must be heeded and Iran attacked before it can acquire nuclear weapons.

The most likely source of retaliation is the same one that most such acts have come from over the past two decades, Hezbollah. But this is a tight spot for the Lebanese militia. With Syria engulfed in fighting, it cannot be of much help to Hezbollah if fighting with Israel escalates. Hezbollah’s support for Assad has been a divisive issue within Lebanon from the beginning. If, in defending an attack on Syrian territory or property, Hezbollah brings down a devastating Israeli hammer, however much blame many Lebanese assign Israel, Hezbollah is going to get their share. And any Lebanese condemnation obviously affects them much more than it does Israel.

Communist flyers, Stuttgart. January 2013.
Communist flyers. Stuttgart, January 2013.

So was Israel wise to take this step, given the low risk of retaliation? It’s impossible to do a full calculus, because it is not yet clear exactly what Israel did. Most reports have them taking out a convoy conveying weapons from Syria to Hezbollah. Those reports say that the cargo was made up of missiles and anti-aircraft equipment, particularly Russian SA-17 missile batteries, which had the potential to make it significantly more difficult for Israel to fly over Lebanese airspace on intelligence gathering missions with impunity. A few reports, including the claim by the Syrians, say that Israel hit a research installation, presumably one which was engaged in weapons research or manufacture. It’s possible Israel did both. None of that seems to justify even the low risk of such a massive potential consequence as a regional war.

It seems much more likely that Israel was sending a message far and wide with this act. Netanyahu has made no secret of his growing discomfort with the ongoing fighting so near Israel’s northern border. With this attack he told the world several things. One, that Syria’s, Iran’s and Hezbollah’s ability to respond to such an act is limited. Second, that outside intervention is possible. That message was meant for the United States and the rest of the international community, inviting them to intervene, either directly or through Israeli action or, preferably, Turkish. The last message was to everyone—Israel may have been thwarted regarding an attack on Iran, but it is determined to not simply sit back and see what eventually happens in Syria, be it an Assad victory, or a new government which might have much more interest than the Assad dynasty did in recovering the Golan Heights.

Assuming the reports of a convoy carrying the SA-17s are accurate, this was really an attack on Hezbollah, not Syria, even if it took place in Syrian territory (which is also not clear.) However, the point of the action was a response to the events in Syria. If Israel is, as Netanyahu has repeatedly stated, worried that Syria’s stock of non-conventional weapons will fall into the hands of al-Qaeda-like extremists, or into the possession of Hezbollah, this is not likely to be their last action. With each Israeli strike, the risk of a regional war grows considerably. At some point, there will have to be a response, and from there, things are bound to escalate.

In the last analysis, Larry Derfner of 972 Magazine has it right when he says: “This is not self-defense, this is aggression – and it would have been aggression even if the target had been chemical weapons. It doesn’t matter how rotten Hezbollah’s ideology is, or the jihadists’, or Assad’s – Israel cannot build a military arsenal to the heavens, then bomb anybody who tries to acquire even a tiny fraction of it, and then go on telling the world it wants peace with its neighbors. It can’t keep attacking foreign countries and saying it did so because those countries are arming for aggression. And it can’t go on crying Holocaust when those countries, or those irregulars, answer Israel’s attacks with their own… our power has made us arrogant, and our arrogance has made us blind and stupid, and we are riding for a fall.”

Ultimately, Israel is not going to be able to manage this, even with outside help. It is strong enough to respond to, repel and defend against virtually any attack, and it has a nuclear deterrent against any it can’t. Yet Israel continues to act as if the fires of Hell are about to fall upon it. This program leads only to perpetual conflict. Eventually, as history has proven time and again, the mightiest empires fall to such never-ending war. For a brand new Israeli government in the waiting, such near-sighted behavior does not bode well. Unfortunately, this is the price Israel will have to pay for remaining under Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit

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