Israel, as well as Syria and its Lebanese-ally Hezbollah, has little interest in a wider conflict. But as Israel grows more assertive across its borders, the chance of a miscalculation is on the rise.
Jerusalem; and Beirut, Lebanon
The sudden and dramatic escalation in Israeli airstrikes against suspected military targets in Syria risks turning Syria’s two-year civil war into a regional conflict. Israel, as well as Syria and its allies, has an apparent interest in avoiding an escalation in the short term, but a miscalculation on either side could ramp up the fighting.
“We are coming very close to it,” says Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut, Lebanon, who served with the United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon from 1979 to 2003. “A severe case of brinkmanship is being played at the moment.”
Syria and the Lebanon-based Shiite movement Hezbollah, which has long relied on Syria’s Assad regime to funnel weapons from Iran, appear to have been drawing into a closer alliance as the Syrian civil war intensifies. If Israel continues to launch airstrikes into Syria, says Mr. Goksel, “they will have to react.… The Israelis are pushing it to the edge.”
A series of strikes on a military facility just outside Damascus, Syria, last night has been widely attributed to Israel, which would make it the second Israeli attack on Syria in less than 48 hours and the third this year. Among the reported targets of the two latest attacks were consignments of Iranian Fateh-110 missiles reportedly intended for Hezbollah, which would allow the Syrian ally to launch precise attacks on Israeli targets such as Ben Gurion Airport or the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv from launchpads as far north as central Lebanon.
Israel has stated that it will not allow “game changing” weapons systems to fall into Hezbollah’s hands. But Hezbollah is believed to have acquired by 2009 a Syrian-engineered version of the Fateh-110, known as the M600. Both Syrian and Iranian versions carry a 1,100-pound warhead and have a range of some 150 miles. The M600 reportedly has a basic guidance system that allows it to strike within 500 yards of its target at maximum range, enabling more accurate strikes than Hezbollah’s other long-range missiles afford.
It is not clear whether Israeli jets have actually flown into Syrian airspace, or attacked from the nearby Lebanon border by firing at an angle into Syria. But Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal al Mekdad, called Israel’s latest attack a “declaration of war” in an interview with CNN.
Despite longtime enmity between Israel and Syria, the two neighbors have not directly come to blows for almost four decades other than battling each other briefly in Lebanon in 1982. Israel has staged military moves inside Syria on a few occasions in the past decade – assassinating militants in Damascus, bombing a Palestinian training camp, and most notably by destroying a suspected nuclear reactor in northeast Syria in 2007. On each occasion, the Syrian regime has either ignored the incident or vowed a retaliation that was never fulfilled.
The uptick in Israeli strikes on Syria follows a week of intense debate in the United States over whether Syria’s regime has crossed President Obama’s "red line" of using chemical weapons against its own people. In Israel, there is a certain degree of apprehension over whether the US will follow through on this red-line threat to Syria. It’s seen in part by Israelis as a sort of litmus test for whether the US will uphold its promise to Israel in the event Iran crosses the red line that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu identified at the United Nations in September 2012.
Last week Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, head of the research division of Israel’s military intelligence, said at a security conference that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons on at least two recent occasions, but Mr. Obama has cautioned against hasty action before determining whether the evidence is indeed definitive.
“This is part of this idea that Israel signals – [albeit] not officially – to the States: ‘How can we trust you if you’re not intervening in Syria after you drew the red line? How can we trust you on Iran?” says Israeli security analyst Reuven Pedhazur.
That said, Israel’s priorities diverge somewhat from the stated US threshold for intervention. Israel’s concern is not whether President Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons to kill his own people, but whether Hezbollah is acquiring more advanced missiles and other weapons, and also whether Syria’s significant chemical-weapons stockpile may fall into the hands of militants.
Since the end of the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in summer 2006, the Lebanese-Israeli border has enjoyed its longest period of calm since the mid-1960s. Hezbollah has used the past seven years of quiet to expand its military capabilities both in terms of new recruits and more advanced weapons systems. But neither Hezbollah nor Israel appear to desire a fresh conflict, mindful that the next encounter promises to be much more destructive than the 2006 war.
The number of Israeli overflights in Lebanese airspace so far this year is roughly double the rate of the same period in 2012, according to security sources in Lebanon. The rumble of Israeli aircraft over Beirut has become a near daily event along with the sight of twin white contrails in the sky marking the path of patrolling jets. The UN has repeatedly called on Israel to end the overflights above Lebanon, calling them “provocative.”
One possible way Hezbollah could retaliate against Israel’s airstrikes is by attempting to shoot down an Israeli jet, analysts say. Little is known about Hezbollah’s air defense capabilities, although the group was reportedly trained on Russian mobile SA-8 Gecko antiaircraft missiles from 2009. The target of the January Israeli airstrike in Syria this year was reportedly a consignment of SA-17 Grizzly antiaircraft missiles destined for Hezbollah. Shooting down an Israeli jet would be an unprecedented step by Hezbollah and risk a further escalation with Israel. On the other hand, Hezbollah would be able to justify such an act as the Israeli jet was illegally breaching Lebanese sovereignty.
Israelis, for their part, remain cautiously optimistic that neither Syria’s Assad regime nor its allies will risk opening a new front with Israel at a time of such upheaval. Nor could Syria or Hezbollah launch some sort of warning attack to deter Israel from further action, says Mr. Pedhazur.
“Israel will not back off,” he says. “If they respond, Israel will respond on the other side.”