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Israel's Attack on Syria: Will it Lead to Escalation?

Commentary, 1 February 2013
Middle East and North Africa
The Syrian regime has accused Israel of, as yet, unconfirmed attacks against Syrian military installations. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that such a move will trigger a retaliation or threaten a regional war.

The Syrian regime has accused Israel of, as yet, unconfirmed attacks against Syrian military installations. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that such a move will trigger a retaliation or threaten a regional war.

 Israel Syria direction Golan Heights

Details, some still contradictory, are slowly emerging about this week's Israeli airstrike against Syria, the first since the onset of the country's civil war two years ago.

Israeli intelligence officials, partially corroborating the accounts given by American and regional sources, have told McClatchy journalists that the target was indeed a convoy of Russian-supplied SA-17 anti-aircraft batteries, located at the Jamraya military base northwest of Damascus and not, as earlier suggested, on the border with Lebanon. Eyewitnesses have also reported that he Jamraya site was attacked, but Syrian rebels claim that this was the result of their own mortar attack. It is possible that more than one location was targeted by Israel.

Israeli officials reportedly disagreed on whether the convoy at Jamraya was parked or 'in the process of being moved from the base to the highway' to Beirut, but the base's location, less than five miles from the Lebanese border, might have led Israel to believe that it had a short window of opportunity to destroy the missiles before any potential transfer of custody to Hezbollah. (Indeed, one official noted that had the missiles reached the road, the problem would not have been time for interception but civilian casualties in doing so).

Israel and 'advanced conventional weapons'

In Hezbollah's possession, the missiles would, notwithstanding the demanding training required for their use, generate new risks for Israeli aircraft that have hitherto been able to fly over Lebanon regularly and at little risk.  Although that risk should not be exaggerated - Israeli fighter aircraft possess a range of countermeasures, and the large size and appurtenances of the SA-17 make it vulnerable to airstrikes - IDF sources did suggest last year that the Israeli Air Force had already changed their pattern of operations on the northern border out of concern for the anti-aircraft threat.

Consistent with this interpretation, the attack had been preceded by days of mounting Israeli warnings that it was just as concerned about Syria's 'advanced conventional weapons' as it was about chemical weapons. Those warnings might have been premised on intelligence, perhaps ambiguous, suggesting that the weapons were to be moved across or towards the border. The warnings were also likely intended to dissuade the Syrian regime from conducting any such movement, as well as to indicate clearly that concern over chemical weapons - also, incidentally, researched at the Jamraya facility - did not imply lesser concern about other types of weapons.


At the same time, there remain a number of puzzling aspects to this narrative: Syria only received its SA-17s from Russia over the past two years, operating approximately three batteries. Why would the regime transfer such advanced equipment to Hezbollah at such a time when it might need the missiles, which would complicate the task of any no-fly zone, for its own defence against external intervention? There is no sign that the regime believes itself to be on the cusp of collapse.

One possible explanation emerges from a separate account by a disaffected Syrian officer, who noted that the Jamraya area 'was used as a weapons transfer station to southern Lebanon and Syria's coastal government stronghold of Tartous for safekeeping'.

Israel may have been unable to distinguish movements to Lebanon versus those to Tartous, and what the Syrian regime would have perceived as a defensive and indeed responsible move - moving missiles to safer areas within the country - might have been seen, from Israel, as indistinguishable from a possible transfer to Hezbollah. (It is, of course, also possible that the Israeli strike was purely preventive rather than pre-emptive, and that they simply struck a target of opportunity without any specific intelligence about the missiles' movements).

Syrian Retaliation

In some respects, the Israeli strike has parallels with those that Israel conducted against Syria's partially-built al-Kibar reactor in 2007 and against a Sudanese weapons factory in Khartoum last year - in both cases, Israel refused to acknowledge the incident let alone its own role, in part to disclaim responsibility but also to avoid giving the targeted countries or their allies an incentive to respond.

But whereas Syria played along five years ago, it did not do so this week, declaring that 'Israel is the instigator, beneficiary and sometimes executor of the terrorist acts targeting Syria and its people'. Although such a declaration places greater pressure on Syria to respond, it may have been intended to reinforce support for the regime and tarnish the opposition by association with Israel.

In fact, Syria is highly unlikely to retaliate: its own forces are heavily committed against the domestic rebellion, and any escalation would divert from that central task. There is also a precedent for such inaction: in October 2003, Israel attacked a suspected Islamic Jihad training camp ten miles north of Damascus. It was the first Israeli attack on Syrian territory since 1977, and occurred just one day before the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of the Yom Kippur War. Syria complained loudly, even before the Security Council, but did not ultimately retaliate. Six years later, Israeli fighter aircraft buzzed the Syrian presidential palace after the capture of an Israeli soldier in Gaza, but did not use their weapons.

Regional war

Nor is the danger of a wider conflagration necessarily as great as feared. On 26 January, a day before the strike, the Supreme Leader's senior-most foreign policy advisor, Ali Akbar Velayati, insisted that 'an attack on Syria is considered attack on Iran and Iran's allies'. After the strike, Iran's deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, reportedly warned of 'grave consequences" after the airstrike'. But Iran, despite this rhetoric, is actually constrained in what consequences it could impose, even if it were willing to do so on behalf of Syria. Its most viable targets are likely to be Israeli interests outside the region, as suggested by the range of retaliatory attacks that followed the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists over past years. Hezbollah itself has little incentive to fire rockets at Israel and thereby risk a wider war that would put pressure on the group's domestic political standing, particular with Lebanese elections forthcoming in June.

Russia, also condemned the Israeli strike as 'a case of unprovoked attacks on targets in the territory of a sovereign state'. According to the outgoing Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, Moscow is still sending material assistance to the Assad regime despite recent indications that it recognised the changing military balance.

But Russia's principal concern will be that Israel's actions are not, and are not seen as being, the thin end of a wedge for a broader intervention. This may be a particular concern if, given the ease with which Israel penetrated Syrian airspace, others come to believe that Syrian air defences are simply not as great an obstacle as has been assumed. But as long as such strikes do not become recurrent, and given that the strike has negligible effect on the rebel-regime balance, Russia is unlikely to take any significant steps - although it could, if it chose to do so, intensify military support for the regime in order to send a signal to Israel and others.

Israel has set itself a relatively low bar for intervention. The SA-17 might be considered a special case because, unlike even other advanced conventional weapons, its transfer affects Israel's greatest advantage in operating in the region: virtually undisputed air superiority and, therefore, a standoff strike capability.

Nonetheless, there are a number of other non-chemical weapon systems in Syrian hands that will be of Israel concern, such as the Yakhont anti-ship missiles, also of Russian origin. Israeli aircraft continue to fly at low altitudes over southern Lebanon, presumably to keep the pressure on Syria. If Israel does conduct further such strikes, it will be increasingly difficult for Syria to abstain from retaliating, and for Russia to offer only a verbal response. Even the Arab League, many of whose members are staunch supporters of the anti-Assad rebellion, condemned Israel's actions as a 'flagrant aggression and a glaring violation' of Syrian sovereignty. Israel's policy has been to insulate itself from the effects of the war in Syria by maintaining its distance and articulating its red lines, but this policy will not be sustainable if airstrikes grow more regular.


Shashank Joshi
Advisory Board

Shashank Joshi is Defence Editor of The Economist, where he writes on a wide range of defence and... read more

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