Conspiracy allegations and verbal bluster are all Syria and its allies have managed to fire off in retaliation for Israel's airstrikes around Damascus last weekend, making Israeli decision makers consider the bombings successful. But the story is far from over.
Speaking to CNN, Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal al-Mekdad termed the strikes, which Israeli analysts believe targeted precision weaponry transiting through Syria from Iran to the military wing of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, a ''declaration of war.'' Israel did not officially take responsibility for the attacks, but retired army officers said they showed Israel would act if ''red lines'' against the upgrading of the arsenal of Hezbollah were crossed. The Lebanese Shiite group fought the Jewish state to a standoff during a grueling war in 2006.
The raids were for the most part treated in the Israeli media and discourse as sterile operations that hit weaponry and not people. There was no immediate way of knowing whether this was accurate. With the United States and Britain quickly voicing understanding for Israel's action, and because there seemed to be no immediate cost for the bombings, there was also no debate in Israel of whether they were in fact warranted or wise. “If we can do it, then why not?” was the prevalent public attitude, portending further strikes in the future.
In Syria, the airstrikes were quickly deployed by the regime's propaganda machine, which postulates that the civil war is not an internal battle but rather stems entirely from an international conspiracy seeking to destroy Syria for being a steadfast Arab nationalist state. According to the Arabic-language website of the Syrian General Authority for Broadcasting and Television, Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said the Israeli attacks are clear proof of “cooperation and coordination” between Israel and the Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate that is playing a key role in the insurrection. “What is required of our people is to dam this great conspiracy and to thwart it,” he said. According to the same website, cabinet ministers called on Syrian insurgents in the wake of the strikes to “turn their weapons against Israel, the genuine and only enemy of the Syrian people and to join in the campaign against terrorism and its supporters, foremost Israel and some Arab and regional countries.”
Syrian television highlighted the remarks of Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who met President Bashar Assad Tuesday in Damascus in a show of support after the bombings. Salehi termed the strikes “part of the Israeli attempt to destabilize the region and weaken the axis of resistance. The time has come to deter the Israeli occupation from such aggressions against people of the region.”
But despite the accusations from Syria and Iran, the airstrikes do not appear to reflect a strategic Israeli decision to intervene on the side of the rebels and to topple President Bashar Assad. If anything, Israel at the moment appears quite content to watch a weakened Assad remain continue to struggle for survival rather than incur the risks and uncertainties of a rebel victory—including the role of Al Qaeda elements. As it stands, Israeli decision makers are already challenged by the emergence of Al Qaeda supporters that have staged attacks from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Their fear is that Syria could become an infinitely worse zone of chaos, since at least in Sinai the Egyptian army exerts some control.
While there were some voices in Israel last year seeking to encourage Western military intervention against the Assad regime in order to set back Iranian influence in the region, these have somewhat subsided amid the concern that with Assad gone what comes next in Syria would be worse. Indeed, official Israel seems very comfortable with the status quo of stalemate in Syria, where the death toll has surpassed seventy thousand.
“I don't think Israeli policymakers would shed a tear if the situation goes on as it is now,” explains Uri Dromi, a former spokesman for Yitzhak Rabin, the slain prime minister. Dromi stresses, however, that for him “as a human being knowing two hundred people are slaughtered a day is horrible.”
Analysts expect more Israeli air strikes when, as is expected, there will be more weaponry transfers to Hezbollah. Among the weapons they say Israel is intent on keeping out of Hezbollah hands: Iranian-made Fateh-110 rockets seen as enabling the group to launch pinpoint strikes from central Lebanon on power stations and other strategic targets (these were the reported targets of last weekend's raids); Russian-made SA-17 surface-to-air missiles seen as threatening Israeli airspace and overflights in Lebanon; surface-to-sea missiles that could hit ports; and SCUD missiles that could carry chemical weapons.
While Syria clearly fears it would lose a confrontation with Israel, it is possible that fresh airstrikes could pressure the Assad regime into some sort of action anyway. More likely is a Hezbollah rejoinder.
It has a history of responding to Israeli operations—though sometimes with a delay and outside of the Middle East. Last July, a bomb planted on a bus in Bulgaria killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian driver, with authorities later blaming Hezbollah in what appears to have been a response to Israeli killings of Iranian nuclear scientists.
It is entirely possible that Israeli and Jewish civilians abroad may ultimately end up paying for what initially looked like—and were marketed as—compelling and clean strikes on Syria.
Ben Lynfield writes from the Middle East for the Scotsman and other publications.