العنوان هنا
Case Analysis 18 May, 2013

Recurrent Israeli Aggressions against Syria

Keyword

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Over the past three months, Israel has executed three air raids against Syria that have targeted various Syrian positions around Damascus. In January 2013, Israeli warplanes bombed several targets in Syria, including a convoy Israel claimed was carrying an advanced Russian-made air defense system (SA-17 BUK-M) en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon. On May 3, 2013, Israeli fighters also bombed a shipment of Iranian-made surface-to-surface missiles (Fateh-110), which Israel claimed had recently been delivered to Damascus and were being prepared to be shipped to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Less than 48 hours after this attack, Israeli warplanes waged a large and unprecedented attack, in terms of both the targets they struck in Mount Qassioun and the Damascus region, and the firepower they used, which shook the Syrian capital. Israeli and foreign media said that the raid targeted Fateh-110 missiles to prevent them from being transported to Hezbollah, in addition to fuel depots and Syrian missile stores that were hidden underground in Mount Qassioun. Media reports also claimed that the Israelis employed bombs and missiles that have the ability to penetrate hardened bunkers underground in their attacks against Syrian missile-storage facilities.

In previous analyses examining the Israeli position vis-à-vis the Syrian regime and the Syrian revolution, Israel's wavering stance on the developments in Syria, and its tendency to vacillate between stances that aim to preserve the current Syrian regime and others that indicate the opposite, have been highlighted. Ultimately, Israel's objective is to weaken the Syrian state, the Syrian people, the Syrian regime, and the Syrian revolution, for as long as possible. A look at recent events would indicate that Israeli aggression aims to halt the flow of strategic weapons to the hands of Hezbollah and Jihadist organizations in Syria; moreover, in the current situation, Israel has found a golden opportunity to undermine Syria's strategic and military resources, and serve its strategic interests by eliminating Syria from Israel's future calculations, whether the regime remains or falls.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, Israel's main concern driving its policy on Syria is the potential for Hezbollah or armed groups within Syria to acquire Syrian chemical and advanced conventional weapons. Initially, Israel focused on the question of chemical weapons, expressing particular concern over whether the Syrian state is able to control its own large chemical stocks-something the Israelis allege Syria to hold. As long as these weapons are in the hands of the Syrian regime, Israel believes that it has the power to dissuade the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons against it. This would not, however, be the case-in light of the ongoing conflict in Syria-if some chemical arsenal were to be transferred to Hezbollah or some of the armed groups fighting the regime. In the past year, Israel's attention has shifted from the possibility of chemical weapons arriving to Hezbollah and armed groups in Syria-a topic that garners a lot of international attention-to focusing on the potential for advanced conventional weapons reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Some analysts are of the opinion that the recent Israeli aggression was directly coordinated with the US, and that, on top of achieving Israel's objective, it was meant to pass on an American message to the Syrian regime-a change in its tactics (in accordance with Kerry's approach) and engagement in a political solution, which has started to crystallize with the recent American-Russian agreement.

"Balance-Shifting" Weapons

On April 28, 2013, the recently established Israeli ministerial committee for security affairs, composed of the prime minister and six ministers, met for four hours solely to discuss Syria and the need for a policy on the transfer of weapons that could "shift the power balance" between Israel and Hezbollah. It should be noted that the term "balance-shifting weapons" is an Israeli term, and should not be taken as an indication of the existence of any kind of balance between Hezbollah's resources and capabilities and those of Israel. The term specifically refers to Hezbollah's capacity to cause Israel serious harm upon acquiring advanced weapons systems. Through the statements of the Israeli prime minister and a number ministers and officials, and through leaks to Israeli media outlets, the Israeli government has clearly expressed that Israel has drawn a red line regarding the transfer of advanced weapons from Syria to Hezbollah, and that if the Syrian regime crosses this line, Israel will intervene militarily. It specified four weapons systems they fear could fall into Hezbollah's hands that would lead it to intervene militarily: chemical weapons, advanced air-defense systems, anti-ship missiles, and advanced, long-range surface-to-surface missiles. The Israeli media, based on the government's leaks, also reported that the weapons Israel classifies as "balance-shifting," in addition to chemical weapons, include: advanced Russian air defense missiles (Sa-17), Russian "Yakhont" anti-ship missiles, and advanced accurate, long-range Fateh-110 missiles, which are solid-fueled missiles that are easily and quickly prepared for launch and difficult for the Israeli Air Force to intercept, in order to prevent their launch toward central Israel. The same applies to the Syrian-made M-600 missiles, which are similar to the Fateh-110 missile. According to Israeli sources, these missiles carry a half-ton warhead, have a range of 300 kilometers, and are very precise, with an error margin not exceeding 100 meters.

Israel is adamant about preventing Hezbollah from acquiring advanced, "balance-shifting" weapons that can be used to increase its military capabilities, which would give it the power to dissuade Israel. Israel's main concern here lies in whether this deterring force is used by Hezbollah to defend itself, and Lebanon, against Israeli aggressions, or, and this seems to be the most pressing concern for Israel at the moment, a deterring force for Iran, which could be used against Israel if Israel or the US, or indeed both, attacked Iranian nuclear installations. Decision-makers in Israel assume that Hezbollah is the first line of defense for Iran, and Iran's main force in the face of an Israeli aggression against their nuclear installations. Israel is also certain that Hezbollah will unleash its full force against it if Israel or the US were to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. As for the Syrian regime, Israeli decision-makers believe that it will not retaliate if Israel was to attack Iran's nuclear installations, nor will it go beyond supplying Hezbollah with weapons and munitions. Many Israeli sources indicate that the thousands of Hezbollah fighters backing the Syrian regime in its ongoing battles, in addition to the regime's increased dependence on Iranian support in order to survive, have increased Hezbollah and Iran's ability to pressure the Syrian regime into supplying Hezbollah with large quantities of modern and advanced weapons.

The Syrian Regime's Lack of Response

The Syrian regime possesses an arsenal of highly accurate, long-range missiles that can reach the Israeli interior and cause significant damage; it could also have retaliated against Israeli military targets, whether in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights or inside Israel proper. However, characteristically, the Syrian regime has shied away from military retaliation against the Israelis. This lack of response has embarrassed the Syrian regime, particularly given that it did not hesitate to bombard the positions of the Syrian rebels in Syrian cities with long-range missiles, which it could have used against the Israeli enemy rather than its own towns and cities. It seems that the Syrian regime fears that any military response to an Israeli attack, even if limited, may provide Israel with the opportunity or the "legitimacy" to wage further attacks against the pillars of the regime's military might, which would greatly hamper the regime in its war against the forces of the Syrian revolution.

Israel, on the other hand, predicted a Syrian non-response to its repeated aggressions because it is aware of the extent of the regime's weakness and its resolve to confront Israel. The regime is so deeply enmeshed in the war against the Syrian revolution, which is its utmost priority, that even if Israel bombed and mauled the Syrian capital Damascus, the regime would not retaliate. Over the last decade, Israel has also gained considerable experience with the Syrian regime, as demonstrated in its series of attacks against Syria prior to the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, including the bombing of the Ain al-Sahib outpost in late 2003, the destruction of the nuclear facility near Deir al-Zour in 2007, the assassination of General Muhammad Suleiman-the Syrian President's aide-in Tartus in 2008, and the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, the renowned Hezbollah leader, in the heart of Damascus in the same year. Again, in each of these attacks, the Syrian regime failed to retaliate.

Israel is fully aware that the Syrian regime cannot open a front against Israel from Lebanon, via Hezbollah, since Hezbollah and Iran are not interested in a new round of wars with Israel at this specific point in time. Both parties' interest is to preserve Hezbollah's military force, especially its missiles, as a reserve force and a source of dissuasion in case Israel launches an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. From Iran's perspective, its focus is now on Iraq and Syria. Israel launched its attack after Iran officially announced its presence in Syria, which demonstrates Iran's desire to prevent Damascus from falling in the hands of Tel Aviv and Washington. Needless to say, there was no Iranian retaliation against Israel after its raids on Damascus, which is currently the weak link in the alliance between the regime and Iran, as well as an easy target for Israel. In principle, it should be protected by the declared alliance, yet the people in Syria are experiencing continuous violence against them.

In addition to the threats and assertions that it will immediately respond to any future Israeli aggression, the Syrian regime turned to Russia to pressure the US and Israel to abstain from launching similar attacks against targets in Syria in the future. Russia holds an important trump card against the US administration and Israel: the ability to provide advanced air defense systems to Syria. Following the last Israeli aggression against Damascus, information was leaked to the media that Russia intends to sell Syria S-300 missile systems. As soon as this information spread, Israel was quick to ask the US administration about the alleged deal, as well as another missile deal that was signed between Russia and Syria in 2010-these missiles are expected to reach Syria within three months. According to Israeli media sources, the arms package includes six missile launchers and 144 missiles with a range of 200 kilometers.[1] The delivery of such advanced missiles to the Syrian regime not only threatens the dominance of the Israeli Air Force in Syrian airspace, it also hampers any notions that the NATO alliance may entertain regarding the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria. Israel followed its attack against Syria with a flurry of political and diplomatic activities in order to contain the issue. Israeli media sources stated that, during his visit to China, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with President Obama via telephone, speaking primarily of the situation in Syria and the potential that Russia might supply S-300 missiles to Syria. He also phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the missiles deal. According to a high-level Israeli source, Netanyahu is expected to visit the Russian capital within the coming two weeks to discuss the situation in Syria and the missile deal.[2]

Conclusion

Though Israel may indeed succeed in dissuading the Syrian regime from continuing to deliver advanced weapons to Hezbollah in the short term, this is far from guaranteed as the regime may later resume these shipments due to its strong ties to Iran and Hezbollah, and its pressing need for their support. After the last aggression and the multitude of reports indicating the possibility that Syria will receive S-300 missile systems, it appears that Israel is on its way to negotiating a political deal with Russia to not only guarantee that Russia does not supply Syria with these missiles, but also limit the shipment of advanced weapons to Hezbollah through Syrian territory. In exchange, Israel would refrain from attacking the Syrian regime.[3] Nonetheless, even if Russia accepts this deal, its ability to impose it on the concerned parties remains limited because it is incapable of imposing such conditions on Israel, especially given Israel's recent strategy of exploiting the Syrian situation, targeting and destroying all of Syria's military capabilities, and preventing Hezbollah from acquiring advanced and qualitative weapons. This strategy is further driven by Israel's certainty that Iran is unwilling or incapable of retaliating.

*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.

 


[1] "Israel to the United States: Stop the S-300 sale to Syria," Haaretz, May 9, 2013, http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.2015839.

[2] Barak Rafeed, "Netanyahu to Discuss with Putin the Sale of Surface-to-Air missiles to Asad," Haaretz, May 12, 2013, http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.2017243.

[3] Ron Ben Yishai, "The Russian Card: S-300 to Prevent Intervention in Syria," Ynet, May 9, 2013, http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4378389,00.html