In the latest from the unfolding drama that is the Syrian Civil War, Israel neither confirms nor denies the air raid that it conducted on a Syrian weapons convoy on its way to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. This immediately raises alarm bells as Iran has recently threatened to retaliate on behalf of Bashar Al-Assad, in the event of any foreign intervention in Syria. In keeping with this promise, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has threatened consequences for the city of Tel Aviv.
Fortunately, Iranian military capabilities are pretty limited, particularly in comparison with the American and Israeli hegemony in the region. Iran’s forces, while extensive enough to cause problems for invading armies, are not equipped to engage in overt military interventions, and no doubt do not wish to launch attacks against Tel Aviv with a nuclear Israeli arsenal.
Just as Iran has unconvincingly threatened retaliation, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon has stated that the option to take military action against Israel is on the table, even as it summoned the commander of United Nations observer forces in the Golan Heights. However, it is likely nothing will come of Syria’s threats, just as they did not take action when Israel bombed one of its nuclear reactors in 2007, when Assad was at the height of his power. Assad knows full well that any retaliations on Israel will invite more calls for Western intervention, which Iran will not be able to help combat.
Nevertheless, it is only a matter of time before his regime collapses, and as Assad’s forces continue to weaken and defect, he will grow more and more desperate, possibly even using chemical weapons stockpiles not only against the rebels, but also on neighboring countries like Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, as an act of revenge for their roles in his downfall. As such, this maneuver was a particularly foolish risk on Israel’s part, in that it could make the regime more desperate and resentful.
In addition to being risky, it has also handed a propaganda victory to Assad. He can now take advantage of Israel’s foray to substantiate his previous baseless claims that Syria’s unrest was prompted by Israeli and Western rebels. Given the animosity that most Arabs have with Israel, based on their treatment of the Palestinians, this could equate to a serious PR loss to the Syrian rebels and a boost of support for Assad.
The Syrian regime is, of course, unwilling to acknowledge that it is engaging in arms shipments to Hezbollah, and has thus denied that a weapons convoy was struck. Instead, it claims that Israel struck the Jamraya military facility. Interestingly enough, rebels have been attacking the military research complex for the past few days and rebels have claimed that they have fired mortars at it. Assad is now in a position to downplay the rebels’ advancement and victories, despite their inferior weaponry, by attributing them to Israeli firepower.
For Israel’s part, it is likely that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard line, right wing government wants to assert their power in the region, sending a strong message to Hezbollah and Iran before forming a new coalition in the Knesset. Plans for some sort of military strike have been in motion for days, with Lebanon reporting increased Israeli activity over its air space and the movement of Israel’s defensive Iron Dome system to the north of the country, away from the Gaza border.
Ostensibly, Israel does not want Hezbollah to procure more arms from Syria and further militarize the Lebanese-Israeli border. However, Israel’s chief concern is that Hezbollah obtains more anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery, thereby threatening Israeli military power. While these types of weapons can harm air crafts and tanks on Israel’s northern border, they do not justify a large enough threat to justify the risks, unless it once again intends to invade Lebanon as it did in 2006, which killed well over 1,000 Lebanese people and severely damaged the country’s infrastructure.
Above all, Israel wants to send the message that it will intervene to any perceived threat to Israeli hegemony, no matter how minor. They may also be trying to intimidate jihadists, sponsored by various Arab Gulf states, who may be well placed to take power when the smoke surrounding Assad’s smoldering regime clears. By launching an attack on Syrian soil, they have not only attempted to send an iron-fisted message to Assad, but also any potential government that emerges in its place. Despite the foolish risk, Israel has made its message loud and clear: it has the capability to intervene at the slightest threat to its regional might in the Levant.