Israel’s three gambles on Syria

Israel’s recent attacks against Syria are the latest, dramatic development in a conflict that is already spiraling out of control. In the past few days, Israeli aircraft reportedly targeted Iranian surface-to-surface missiles headed for Hezbollah, as well as Syrian missiles in a military base in the outskirts of Damascus. Israel’s strikes show, once again, its intelligence services’ ability to penetrate the Iran’s arms shipment route to Lebanon and its military’s skill in striking adversaries with seeming impunity. But Israel is also risking retaliation and further destabilization of its own neighborhood — in ways that may come back to haunt it.

With much of Syria outside the control of Bashar Assad’s forces, Israel is particularly wary of chemical weapons or advanced conventional weaponry falling into the wrong hands, whether it’s extremist Sunni opposition groups like Jabhat al-Nusra or, more immediately, Assad’s and Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. The missiles Israel sought to hit in the first attack on Friday have a significantly larger payload, greater accuracy, and longer range than the bulk of the Lebanese Shiite group’s current arsenal. Contrary to the allegations of the Assad regime that claims Israel’s strikes prove it is backing the opposition, Israel is not throwing its weight against Assad. Indeed, Israel’s latest strikes represent the latest in a long-standing policy of denying the transfer of arms that could alter the balance of power between Israel and Hezbollah — weapons systems such as advanced Russian surface-to-air missiles; the Iranian-made Fateh 110 surface-to-surface missiles (reportedly targeted this weekend) that would significantly increase Hezbollah’s threat to northern Israeli cities; or additional surface-to-sea weaponry, such as the kind successfully used against an Israeli ship in July 2006.

More broadly, the Israeli strike is meant to disrupt the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah nexus. Iran has long provided Hezbollah with hundreds of millions of dollars (the exact amount is unknown and probably fluctuates considerably) and a wide range of weaponry, including anti-tank missiles and long-range rockets. Since Hezbollah’s birth in the early 1980s, Syria has served as intermediary, allowing Iranian forces to deploy within Lebanon and serving as a transit point for Iranian weapons — something Hezbollah’s Lebanese opponents have complained about, as well as Israel.

The strikes are a gamble, however, for three main reasons. The first bet is that Syria will not respond. Israel has long been a whipping boy for Arab regimes short on domestic credibility: it’s not hard in this part of the world to paint any opponents as Zionist stooges. Bashar, like his father Hafez before him, backed Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups in the name of the “resistance,” hoping to win points at home and throughout the Arab world — while distracting attention from his tyranny and economic failures. Indeed, early in the Syrian uprising, the Assad regime tried to create a crisis by pushing Palestinian refugees living in Syria to return to Israel to divert attention from the crackdown. This failed, but the Israeli strike offers a chance to try again.

Israeli leaders, however, believe that this playbook is dated. When Israel hit the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, Assad and his cronies remained mum and did not retaliate. Today, Israeli strategists are gambling that Assad is too embattled to risk escalation. His military forces are weak and overstretched already, facing fierce domestic opposition with no effective airpower. Further losses to Israel and its air force would deprive the regime of desperately needed elite forces. Indeed, Israel seems rather sure of itself: as the smoke was still clearing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu projected business as usual, departing on a state visit to China.

Perhaps even more important, if Assad tries to use Israel as a foil he risks further losses, which would be politically humiliating and potentially extremely damaging for a regime that is already on a knife’s edge. The Israeli strikes show that it can violate Syrian sovereignty with impunity, and the Syrian opposition is now charging that Assad has repeatedly failed to protect Syrian soil from Israel. The Syrian Opposition Council, a leading opposition political grouping, is trying to play the Israel card itself, noting that it “holds the Assad regime fully responsible for weakening the Syrian army by exhausting its forces in a losing battle against the Syrian people.” Meanwhile, the remaining nationalists in the Syrian military resent this embarrassment, risking Assad further defections and desertions.

The Syrian president’s calculations may change, however, if his regime’s grip on power slips further. As Middle East expert Kenneth Pollack argues, Assad still thinks he can win this thing; but if he becomes desperate, he will be far more willing to lash out, using everything in his arsenal to prevent defeat. Attacking Israel would be a desperate move — but Assad is becoming a desperate man.

Israel’s second gamble is that Hezbollah will not retaliate. Since the bloody 2006 war, Israel’s border with Lebanon has largely been quiet — indeed, the quietest it has been for generations. After that destructive and indecisive conflict, Hezbollah silenced its guns, fearing that provoking Israel would lead to another bloody clash for which it would take the blame. Now, however, the Lebanese militant group is in a box. With Hezbollah forces fighting side-by-side with Assad, they have lost popularity in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world. Once lauded as heroes for standing up to Israel, now they are scorned for siding with a butcher against his own people.

Meanwhile, within Lebanon, the Syrian war is stoking sectarian tension, leading militant Sunnis to condemn Hezbollah and Shias in general, and diminishing Hezbollah’s claim that it is a champion of all Lebanese, not just Shias. But with Israel striking at Hezbollah’s crown jewels, its weapons supplies, a non-response damages its credibility. The temptation to restore its reputation — and create a distraction that turns Israel’s attentions from Damascus — may prove too great.

Israel’s third gamble is one shared by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps the United States — that increased meddling by neighbors will lead to the collapse of Syria. In Israeli eyes, the only thing worse than Assad’s regime in Syria would be chaos in Syria, with either Hezbollah gaining access to Syria’s arsenals or jihadist groups allied with al Qaida (like Jabhat al-Nusra) assuming control of swathes of Syrian territory. In this scenario, Syria would then become an incubator of jihad on Israel’s border, much as Israel fears that Sinai, to its south, has already become. Hezbollah, at least, can be deterred, but the roving al Qaida groups have no fixed address and care little about protecting ordinary Syrians from Israeli retaliation, making them far harder to deter. Jihadists might use Syria’s ballistic missile and chemical weapons arsenals against Israel, forcing an invasion in response, or at least repeated attacks. Israel’s Syrian border, so peaceful — through deterrence — for so long, would again be a war zone.

Israel is preparing for all of these possibilities by increasing its intelligence gathering operations (evidenced by the successful attacks this weekend) and bolstering its border defenses. Old guard posts on the Golan have been re-staffed and the Israeli northern command has recently drilled a whole reserve division in a mock-emergency call-up exercise. Israel also deployed Iron Dome anti-missile batteries and temporarily closed the civilian airspace in the north of the country. Such preparation may decrease the carnage any Syrian or Hezbollah response causes and give Israeli leaders some political breathing space — but they won’t solve the fundamental tensions caused by the chaos and uncertainty in Syria and Lebanon.

Perhaps the best Israel — or any of America’s regional allies — can do now is to try to protect its interests in Syria, while managing the unrest and violence that spills out of the country. Yet here the United States has an important role to play. In different ways, key U.S. allies — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, and now Israel — are intervening in Syria. Ideally, the United States would make its own objectives and strategy clear to its allies and convince them to bolster America’s own policy.

But for now the Obama administration does not seek overtly to lead the international response to the Syria crisis. That’s not quite good enough. At the very least, Washington needs to coordinate allied interventions so together they make it more likely that Bashar’s regime will fall and Syria will return to stability. At the very least, the administration must make sure they are not working at cross purposes and that the actions of one power do not harm the interests of another.

Byman is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and the research director of the Saban Center at Brookings. He is also the author of “A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.” Sachs is a fellow at the Saban Center where he writes on Israeli politics and security.

© 2013, Foreign Policy

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