The announced aim of the Israeli government in attacking military targets in Damascus on May 5 was to prevent Hezbollah from gaining access to military equipment that might lead to a “game change” resulting in a loss in position for Israel. Perhaps the attack can be considered a limited military victory for Israel, but one cannot ignore the consequences of it in altering the political, strategic and military balance negatively against it.
In regard to the Syrian crisis, Israel has publicly set out its red line, consisting of two elements: transfers of rockets or ballistic missiles that could weaken its position and transfers of chemical weapons from Syria to Hezbollah. The crossing of Israel's red line was the basis for the attack on the military research center in northwest Damascus. Israeli leaders believed the facility housed advanced missiles with the ability to hit Tel Aviv and that they were ready to be transferred to Hezbollah. The strike was presumably carried out to prevent a shift in power that would be negative for Israel.
While it is possible that Israel has achieved some of its military goals for the time being, the attack on Syria will ultimately result in more problems in a number of ways. First, the strike has increased the legitimacy of the “resistance front” with which Hezbollah is affiliated. Certain Western and Arab assessments, which have support in Israel as well, hold that the active participation in Syria of Hezbollah, a Shiite group supported by Shiite Iran, will exacerbate sectarian conflicts between Shiite and Sunni groups in the Middle East. This perspective stresses the faction-oriented politics of Hezbollah and sees its involvement in Syria as the main reason behind the region's sectarian conflicts. The Israeli attack has weakened the strength of this argument and instead highlighted the cause of Hezbollah’s so-called resistance.
In a speech on May 9, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah identified Israel as the main source of menace in the region and emphasized the importance of fighting against it. This alone has increased the legitimacy of the resistance front as a movement. He even mentioned that in the future, more “game-changing” advanced weapons will be transferred from Syria to Hezbollah. This would, indeed, be troubling for Israel.
Second, the Israeli attack challenges the role of conservative Arab regimes, among them Saudi Arabia and Qatar, that support the Syrian opposition. The Israelis' action reinforces the general assumption that the conservative Arab governments and Israel are on the same side in this fight. The result is a further challenge to these countries’ involvement, or interference, in Syrian affairs.
Third, the attack has weakened the position of the opposition groups inside Syria and has challenged the legitimacy of the opposition in that the strike, so it could be argued, was in line with what the opposition is aiming for — the removal of Bashar al-Assad. In addition, the attack has fueled a desire deeply rooted among Syrians to fight their primary foreign enemy, Israel, thus generating support for the Assad regime's flagging legitimacy.
Fourth, Israel has weakened the position of Turkey as a supporter of the Syrian opposition. In recent weeks, there had been improvement in Turkish-Israeli relations, which soured with the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. Since the strike on Damascus is considered by some as in line with what the Syrian opposition wants, it makes Turkey's foreign policy appear to be passive. In addition, it increases anti-Israeli sentiments in Turkish politics. This element puts pressure on the Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to tone down relations with Israel.
Fifth, Israel's attack elicited a strong response from Russia. Moscow went so far as to openly warn that it will not tolerate another such incident. The strikes also have paved the way for the transfer of S-300 defensive missiles to Syria. Up to now, Israel has had unchallenged freedom in carrying out air raids in Syria and Lebanon. Should these air raids continue, however, the chance of the latter two countries becoming better equipped increases. Given that Israel usually views its own security in black and white — meaning there will probably not be a halt to these attacks — one can expect that during the next round of strikes, there will be a harsh response, thus shifting the military balance from Israel's favor.
Sixth, with the Israeli attack and the other developments noted here, Iran's political and strategic position in the region has been strengthened. Some Western observers argue that after the Syrian crisis, Iran’s position will have been diminished. Now, however, Iranian policy toward Israel and its support of the resistance front will gain in legitimacy, which will naturally add to Tehran's influence. Experience shows that offensive measures by Israel and every regional war in which it has been involved — including the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah, the operations against Gaza in 2008 and 2009 and the assault on the Mavi Marmara — have left it in a weakened position because of the negative public opinion generated in the region and around the world and left Iran in a stronger regional position.
In conclusion, the air attack on Damascus has not been a game changer in favor of Israel, and, in fact, has had the opposite effect. The Israeli government typically responds quickly to security threats, apparently without thinking very much about the consequences. With this attack, Israel has made a strategic mistake. It has facilitated the strengthening of the resistance movement, weakened the legitimacy of the anti-government opposition in Syria and improved the position of the allies of the Syrian government. It has also provided a path for Syria to access more advanced military defense systems. Any future Israeli attacks are going to be more difficult, and this by itself has changed the game against Israeli interests.
Kayhan Barzegar is the director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran and a former research fellow at Harvard University. He also chairs the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Islamic Azad University in Tehran.