Sunday, May 5, 2013

Israel and Syria

Today the Israeli Air Force carried out a series of air strikes against Syrian military targets around Damascus.  The proximate reason was the impending transfer of new, better missiles from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  They have done this twice before, on Friday they hit some targets around Damascus, and in January they hit a convoy near the Lebanese border carrying missiles to Hezbollah.  However, the target list (including a chemical weapons research facility) suggest the Israelis are trying to send a more complex message than simply no new weapons for Hezbollah.

Remember that Israel has only ever lost one war, and that was to Hezbollah in 2006.  Hezbollah remains the only nearby threat capable of inflicting politically significant damage on Israeli civilians. Right now, the worst case scenario for Israeli security is Hezbollah getting Syrian chemical weapons and the missile systems to deliver them.

The Israelis would probably like to stay out of the Syrian conflict entirely.  There is no military action they can take to ensure a palatable outcome. Obviously, there are no political or diplomatic tools they can use either.  That leaves Israel in a bind.  They can handle Assad, but he is an enabler of the Iran - Hezbollah alliance.  What would follow Assad is unknowable at this time.  Could be worse, could be better, will certainly be Islamist.  But won't be in Iran's pocket and probably won't facilitate Hezbollah. 

All in, it looks like a new regime would suit the Israelis.  But of course they cannot take sides.  Israeli support of the rebels would be the kiss of death and the rebels would reject Israeli help.  On the other hand, strategic developments have taken an unusual turn.  As far as Syria is concerned, Israeli and Saudi interests are starting to converge.  Both are lined up against Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon.  Both would be better off with a Sunni ruled Syria.   Both would be happy with a severely crippled Hezbollah.  Neither is a military threat to the other.  Both are American allies.  I'm not expecting a nice meeting between King Abdullah and Netanyahu in East Jerusalem with lots of hugs and kisses.  But I wouldn't be surprised to find out they are cooperating under the table.

Finally, the chemical weapons are a wild card.  Its hard to divine the truth, but it looks like Assad has been using them in a limited fashion.  Trying to gain a tactical advantage without provoking international response.   This is one area where Israel gets a free pass.  They can bomb the shit out of Assad's chemical weapons capabilities and nobody will blame them. 

Its also worth noting that the Israeli raid shows yet again that the Syrian Air Force is utterly incapable of defending Syrian airspace.