Is Assad Celebrating?

Israel's attack in Syria shouldn't kick off a regional war, but it might help the embattled dictator.

Assad is celebrating. Well, maybe.

Israeli aircraft conducted an airstrike last week on Syrian territory. Depending on what report you read, the target was either a convoy carrying sophisticated anti-aircraft systems to southern Lebanon or a military research facility near Damascus. Either way, the airstrike was the first done by Israel in over five years on Syrian territory.

The responses have been predictable. The Lebanese immediately denied that the strike took place on their side of the border. This is preferable, as the Lebanese have no desire to heighten tensions with the Israelis while dealing with their own internal issues. Russia called the strike an “unprovoked attack” on sovereign territory. Officially, Israel has remained silent. The United States didn’t release any immediate comments. And then there are the Syrian, Hezbollah, and Iranian responses.

Syria immediately acknowledged that the Israelis had in fact struck their territory and threatened to retaliate. Iran, who provides Syria political and military backing, cryptically said the strike holds “serious consequences” for Israel. Hezbollah, the Shia Lebanese militant group allied with Syria and Iran, condemned the attack and expressed its support for the Assad regime.

It is unlikely, though, that Hezbollah or Iran will retaliate, at least overtly, for the Israeli airstrike. Hezbollah cannot risk another serious conflict with Israel. With members fighting in Syria and probably deployed elsewhere, they are spread thin. Another conflict with Israel, akin to the 2006 Lebanon War, would also severely damage a fragile Lebanese state in the midst of renewed sectarian strife.

It is also not in Iran’s interests to escalate with Israel. Any military action taken by the Iranians could conceivably set off a regional war. After all, Iran desires to either have the capacity to build nuclear weapons or simply have them for deterrence purposes.

While the media has focused on whether or not Israel has crossed a red line and provoked retaliation, there is another important consideration. Perhaps Assad wants the Israelis to act militarily. Why? Because any “unprovoked” military strike from the Israelis can be portrayed as helping the Syrian opposition, therefore delegitimizing them in the eyes of the Arab street and averting negative Arab attention away from Assad.

The attack has already created somewhat of a rallying cry amongst Assad’s supporters. It remains to be seen if the same will occur elsewhere in and outside of the country. The rebels, sensing the danger of Israel appearing as an ally, have already begun to claim credit for the strike.

The Israelis are well aware of the danger of getting involved militarily in Syria. Throughout the conflict they seem to have maintained a policy of minimal involvement. For example, when Syrian artillery landed in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Israel struck back, but with a proportional response in order to not significantly escalate border tensions.

Israel has even treaded lightly with Syria’s allies, Iran and Hezbollah. Despite many aggressive statements over months, they have yet to overtly strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Also, Israel openly blamed Hezbollah for the 2012 Burgas bus bombing that killed Israeli tourists, but did not retaliate, a rare occurrence.

Overall, given Israel’s recent reluctance to attack Syria, Iran or Hezbollah, the airstrike seems all the more significant. Evidently the target was of extreme importance to the Israelis and they were willing to risk some retaliation. If the target was indeed convoys transporting Russian-made SA-17 and/or S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah, then they deemed the risks acceptable. A Hezbollah with more sophisticated antiaircraft weaponry would make any future Israeli air operations over Lebanon considerably more dangerous.

Hezbollah has in fact been rearming since the 2006 Lebanon War. Any weapon that can enhance their deterrence capabilities will be a priority, especially if their future no longer includes an ally or arms supplier in Syria.

The Syrian government has claimed the target was the Jamraya research center, which is believed to be a significant weapons facility that may even house chemical weapons. Thus, it would also be of high importance to an Israel that fears the spread of chemical weapons.

Assad is probably well aware of Iran and Hezbollah’s aversion to military escalation with Israel. While Assad’s intentions are unclear and many can only speculate on how he will react to the strike, he may also be desperate. Any opportunity to stump the rebellion could look pretty attractive at this point.

Kip Whittington is a Research Associate at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @KipTWhit. Please note that the views expressed in this article do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US government.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Agencia Brasil. CC BY 3.0.