Under late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and for 29 years, Israel did not once directly strike Syria outside the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. This dynamic is quickly changing today, as the internal conflict spreads inside Syria, and Israel repeatedly violates the country’s airspace launching more than five strikes in the last two years, and one on the Lebanese border this week allegedly targeting a Hezbollah weapons transfer.
Publicly, Israel has not taken responsibility to any of those strikes, probably in an attempt to contain the repercussions. But everything from the nature of the attacks to the locations and the parties targeted implicates the Israeli air power machinery, and “there is no reason to think it is not the case,” says Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
A new pattern
The six strikes that Israel carried recently began in Damascus on Jan. 30 of last year, then hit Latakia before reaching Lebanon and targeting the border town of Nabi Sheet last Monday. The strike inside Lebanon reportedly targeting an arms shipment to Hezbollah, enforces an “old new redline” according to White. He tells Al-Arabiya News that “part of the policy and the red line they (Israel) have established is they will not allow Hezbollah to acquire sophisticated weapons from Syria or from Iran through Syria.”
Israel has “made it clear that when they have the intelligence that indicates a shipment or weapons delivery is going to occur, they are going to strike it.”
So far, both Assad and Hezbollah have avoided retaliating to Israel, and instead promised to ‘respond at a time and place’ of their choosingJoyce Karam
The fluidity of the situation in Syria and the deep involvement of Hezbollah in the fighting that enters its fourth year next month has heightened Israeli and U.S. concerns about the risk of the Assad regime passing sophisticated weapons to the Lebanese group.
Jeffrey White who worked for 34 years with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency lists the type of weapons that qualify in this category. Primarily, they include “sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles that would threaten Israel’s ability to operate its air force.”
This means targeting “the SA 17 missiles, S-300 system if it were to be sent to Syria.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly warned Russian President Vladimir Putin last year that his government would hit the S-300 missiles if they were to be delivered to Assad. Among the weaponry that could be targeted by Israel are “surface to surface missiles, particularly the ones that have accurate capability,” says White, as well as “anti-ship cruise missiles, that Israel struck near Latakia” twice recently.
Less fear of retaliation
The frequency in Israel’s strikes is a product of the Syrian conflict and “a larger capability for Israel to operate with reduced risk against Syria or Hezbollah, and hence a greater ability to act” explains White.
So far, both Assad and Hezbollah have avoided retaliating to Israel, and instead promised to “respond at a time and place” of their choosing. But the reality on the ground, and the bitter long track of the Syrian conflict shows a difficult path for Hezbollah or the Syrian regime to respond imminently. “Fighting two fronts at the same time is not on the table,” says White, pointing to a “constrained Hezbollah” and degraded Syrian army.
Hezbollah certainly “has options to but they all are risky” says White. Those options include “attacking Israeli interest not along the border, but Europe or South America”, a mission that has proven more complex after the indictment in the Bulgaria bombing in 2012, and the jailing of a Hezbollah operative in Cyprus in 2013 over plotting such attacks.
Hezbollah, says White, could also choose to “carry limited military action on the Lebanese border using surrogates or its own members in the hopes that the Israelis would not react to it.” But that entails lot of risk if Israel escalates. The Golan Heights is another front where Hezbollah and the Assad regime could “create an incident” says the expert, but there is also the risk of heavy Israeli retaliation.
Despite the six strikes, “there is a degree of mutual deterrence now,” and to avoid an open war between Israel and Hezbollah, that the party might choose to keep. As for Assad, the “capacity of his regime to strike against Israel is greatly degraded by the war and the Syrian military apparatus has been significantly weakened,” adds White.
For the time being and “unless one side decides to quit or get into significant escalation” it is fair to expect the pattern of strikes to continue if and when Hezbollah tries to acquire sophisticated weapons. It is a pattern that reflects a new geopolitical and military balance for Israel, and a more complex reality for Hezbollah.