When big, historic structures disintegrate, laws are written anew. When familiar frameworks break up, rules change. This, more or less, is what’s happening now in the Middle East. This, more or less, is what’s happening now between Israel and what’s left of its neighbors.
The attack, attributed to Israel, on a target or targets in Syria was meant, allegedly, to prevent “balance altering” weapons from reaching Hezbollah. The thing is that “balance” is a vague term in the current Mideast, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad waging a desperate fight for his life, Syria disintegrating into pieces, Iran conducting a covert war against the rest of the world, Hezbollah sticking out its tongue at Israel in Iran’s name, and the earth is quaking.
Looking at the big picture, one can assume that Israel is now trying to shape new rules of play, as it goes. It’s trying to clarify what’s permissible, what’s forbidden, where the red line runs.
The amount of Syria’s “balance altering” weaponry, strategic and non-conventional, can support all of the world’s terror organizations, whoever and wherever they are. It’s an “Aladdin’s cave” laden with treasures of the kind that a run-of-the-mill terrorist generally hasn’t a hope of encountering. Large stockpiles of quality chemical weapons, chemical warheads that can be mounted onto improved Scud missiles, probably a certain biological weapons capability, batteries of sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles, the latest in Russian technology, batteries of ground-to-sea missiles capable of hitting war ships at sea or distant drilling platforms, and on top of it all knowhow, a lot of know-how, production, assembly and launch capabilities, worth more than their weight in gold. There is no way that Israel can afford to let this treasure trove be breached and distributed on Main Street to any and all takers.
We still don’t know what exactly happened there on the night between Tuesday and Wednesday last week [Jan. 29]. If it were Israel that attacked, it seems that it was carried out by F-16 airplanes, which are usually accompanied by F-15 airplanes to prevent unexpected interceptions, and electronic warfare aircraft that jam the enemy’s radar systems. In this field, Israel’s air force has proven time and again its crushing superiority over everything else in the region. Israel is very interested in having this superiority maintained.
In recent years there were several incidences of weapons, sometimes even missiles, being transferred in convoys from Syria to Hezbollah. In most of the cases, Israeli intelligence followed the goings on. Warnings were sent, but not always heeded. To date, Israel has held back. Today, when it is clear that Syria will not go back to being what it was and the process of disintegration is accelerating, the situation is new. It must be defined anew. The rules of the game must be rebooted. It seems, that this is what Israel tried to do this week, to clarify to everyone who needs to be clear about this, that it does not intend to look on from the sidelines as the booty is being distributed, especially not when it is meant, at some point, to be launched onto it [Israel].
This is not just about weaponry, but also, as already mentioned, about knowhow, production capability, technology. If, indeed, a chemical production facility was bombed in Syria, the aim was to destroy technological infrastructure which can be passed into new hands and also to convey a clear and resolute message.
Israel is looking ahead with concern to the day after Assad and understands that it won’t be long until we start missing the Syrian dictator, for all his shortcomings and dangers. With the Assad family, you could at least know who was against who, whom you could trust, a promise was a promise and agreements were honored. Almost complete calm was maintained on the Golan Heights border for over 40 years, Hezbollah represented the armed struggle in Assad’s name, Israel recognized this reality and managed. Now, as previously noted, everything is disintegrating before our eyes.
If foreign reports are accurate and Israel is the one that attacked Syria this week, one can assume that Israel hoped that the 2007 principles would be replayed: then, Israel was careful to [publicly] ignore the attack that was or wasn’t on the [Syrian] nuclear reactor and enabled Assad to ignore and bear it. This time, it does not seem to be happening. Israel is [silent] but it’s Assad, [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah and [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad who are actually not. Syria has other worries on its plate, Nasrallah is still in his bunker awaiting orders from Tehran, but the Iranians have already announced that they will seek revenge. By the way, they generally keep their promises.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that it is only the side front. He is still focused on the centrifuge facility in Fordow more than on Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. But the rising tensions on the northern front are helping him imbue his potential coalition partners with the sense of urgency. Bibi wants a broad-based government, which for now is not working out.
The political agenda in Israel 2013 is socio-economic. Netanyahu may find himself with a narrow, right-wing, ultra-Orthodox government, or worse, with the ultra-Orthodox on the outside and the historic alliance with them smashed to smithereens on the ground.
Both these options are not viable for Netanyahu. A commotion vis-à-vis Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, or all three together, could help him form a broad-based, winning coalition. No, Bibi will not set the region on fire to form a broad-based government, he is sufficiently responsible to understand the madness of this action, but all he has to do is play with a small fire in order to create a quick escalation that will generate a big fire. In the Middle East almost anything can ignite within half a second, especially when the rules of play are so unstable.
Ben Caspit is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers, and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel.