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.