Israeli Strikes Continue in Syria
On May 5, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported the Israeli air force had carried out missile attacks against facilities in Syria. The Israeli attacks represent a continuation of Israel's policy to prevent certain kinds of weapons from falling into the hands of Hezbollah or jihadists. With the al Assad regime weakened by the ongoing civil war in Syria, Israel will continue to make limited strikes if it feels its security is being threatened.
Yesterday's strikes are the third time Israel has reportedly struck targets inside Syria and Lebanon this year. On Jan. 30, Israel reportedly bombed a weapons convoy from Syria to Lebanon that was transporting surface-to-air weapons systems. And late last Thursday or Friday Israel attacked a weapons facility inside Syria that reportedly housed surface-to-surface missiles known as Fateh-110s.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that 42 Syrian soldiers were killed in the attack, and statements made by Syrian officials afterwards equated Israeli action to a declaration of war. The exact target of yesterday's strikes is still unclear, but it shows that Israel will not sit idly by if Syria continues to allow advanced weapons to be transferred to Hezbollah.
Whereas U.S. President Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons constitutes a redline for the United States, Israel has maintained its own threshold for intervention in Syria. Like the U.S., Israel is also wary of the potential for chemical weapons being transferred to potential enemies. Anti-aircraft missiles that could challenge Israeli superiority in the air in Lebanon also threaten Israel and were the alleged target of the Jan. 30 strike. And missiles like the Fateh-110s targeted last week are dangerous because of their relative accuracy and convenience: They would allow Hezbollah or other jihadists to launch attacks at specific targets inside Israel, and they can be launched quickly, from smaller vehicles more difficult for Israel to target. There have also been reports that Israel is wary of advanced anti-ship missiles, which could be used against Israeli ships or offshore Israeli energy infrastructure.
The recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria should not be understood as Israel taking a side in Syria's civil war. For Israel, there is no positive outcome. The al Assad regime, while a predictable enemy, has a close relationship with Iran and allowed Syria to become a conduit for Iran to supply Hezbollah. But Syria's rebels, dominated by multiple radical Islamist militias, represent a strategic threat to Israel in their own right, and it is doubtful that Israel would intervene to support one side over the other.
Israel has shown in the past that it will undertake limited strikes on strategic targets if it feels threatened. Last October, Israel reportedly bombed a weapons facility in Sudan that was reportedly helping supply Hamas in Gaza with the longer-range Fajr-5 rockets that eventually provoked the Israeli operation Pillar of Cloud last November. And in 2007 Israel is believed to have attacked a Syrian nuclear reactor.
While Syrian officials have publicly responded aggressively — the Deputy Foreign Minister said the Israeli attacks amounted to a declaration of war — neither the al Assad regime nor Hezbollah can afford a full-scale conflict with Israel while fighting Syrian rebel forces. More important to watch will be whether Iran, Hezbollah and the al Assad regime can use Israeli aggression as a way to galvanize Shia support in the region.
In the meantime, Syria's sectarian war continues to spill over its borders. Israel will continue to keep a close eye on Lebanon and Syria and will continue to conduct limited strikes against select targets if it deems them to be a significant threat.