Israel’s Triple Challenge On the Syrian Front

Israel faces tactical, operative and strategic challenges on its Syrian front, trying to combine efficient deterrence without sinking into the Syria quagmire.

al-monitor An Israeli soldier prays atop a tank close to the cease-fire line between Israel and Syria on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, May 6, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner.

Topics covered

syria, russia, putin, lebanon, israel, internationalization of the syrian crisis, hezbollah, benjamin netanyahu

May 22, 2013

Over the past few days, Israel has found itself facing increasing pressure on the Syrian front. Strategically, it is concerned that Russia will provide Syria with the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. On an operative level, it faces ongoing efforts by Syria and Iran to transfer advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Tactically, there has been a rise in the number of shooting incidents across the Golan Heights border.

Even if there is no direct and immediate connection between these three axes, the overall context is quite obvious. The chaos in Syria has only gotten worse, resulting in greater uncertainty and the fear of extreme scenarios that could drag Israel into some form of active involvement in the fighting, something that Israel has struggled to avoid for the past two years. The tension in Jerusalem is quite apparent in the vast number of official statements and publications, some of them seemingly contradictory. This testifies to a diversity of approaches and attitudes toward Syria among the country’s political and defense leadership.

Further evidence of this appeared in the international press last week in the form of two articles, which appeared days apart, on either side of the Atlantic. In the first article, which appeared in The New York Times on May 15, Israel reiterated its threat that Syrian military action could lead to a harsh Israeli response that would likely topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In the second article, which appeared in the Times of London on May 17, Israel actually expressed the hope that Assad would remain in power.

Both of these statements were attributed to senior Israeli officials, and neither of them was denied. This would indicate that both statements were issued with the proper authority and approval. The message that both these articles relay is that Israel has yet to define in some clear and unequivocal manner what it would want a future Syria to look like, and it is still too embroiled in preventative measures. This is also the message of the very clear and direct warning that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released on Sunday, May 19, at the start of his cabinet meeting. He simply warned Syria that it is playing with fire and could well pay a steep price for that.

If we were to seek out some common thread running between all these headlines and warnings, it would likely revolve around Israel’s efforts to “freeze the situation” and prevent the immediate security situation in the Golan Heights from deteriorating, while at the same time preventing that from happening in the larger context of Syria and Lebanon. But given what is perceived as the ever more brutal desperation of the Assad regime on one hand and the shocking inability of the West to respond on the other hand, Israel is having an increasingly hard time maintaining its observer status. It is faced with a growing demand to adopt a clear strategic plan of action to confront a situation that could very well escalate in a short amount of time.

One scenario that could lead to such an escalation is if Russia goes ahead and provides Syria with the S300 advanced missile system: Syria has already paid Russia for six launchers and 144 missiles. Assad has two clear reasons why he wants to receive those missiles. He wants to thwart any future Israeli attacks on his territory, and he wants to deter the West from taking any military action that could bring about the collapse of his regime. As far as Assad is concerned, there’s a lesson to be learned from what happened in Libya. Anyone with enough advanced weaponry to deter foreign armies from attacking will be ensured a lengthy stay in power.

Israel’s concerns about the S-300 missiles are obvious. Their advanced detection capabilities and their range of over 200 km [125 miles] make them a formidable weapons system, which not only poses a threat to Israeli military activities in Syrian airspace, but also threatens Israel’s ability to fly its aircraft safely over Lebanon and even over its own territory in northern Israel. This concern only intensifies when considering the lessons of the past. To date, any weapons that landed in Syria ended up in the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon (and certainly will again, with that group so deeply entrenched in the fighting in Syria and playing such an active role in the defense of the Assad regime).

The only unknown variable in the equation is Russia’s interest. Were the Russian declarations that it fully intends to provide Syria with those weapons systems intended to create the appearance of a commitment? Or did the declarations express Russia’s genuine intentions, as part of an overall effort to become more involved and lay down greater stakes in the Middle East, even if that comes at the price of a potential conflict with the United States? There has been no clear answer as of mid-week. Nevertheless, behind closed doors Israeli sources have expressed the hope that despite the negative response that Netanyahu received from Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Sochi last week, Russia will continue to hold back on its delivery of the missile system to Syria, just like it held back on delivering a similar missile system to Iran (which also paid for it but has yet to receive it, due to pressure from Israel and the West).

If that does not happen and the weapons reach Syria, Israel will be forced to make a dramatic decision. Should it attack the Russian weapons systems shortly after it lands in Syrian territory, in an effort to prevent it from becoming fully operative, even if it knows full well that such an action could lead to a bitter clash between Moscow and Jerusalem?

But then, even if Russia ultimately avoids providing the S-300 missiles to Syria, the situation could also deteriorate if Syria transfers advanced weaponry to Lebanon. After the destruction of the SA-17 batteries and the Fateh-110 rockets intended for Hezbollah, in Israel people are still concerned that advanced, Russian-made Yakhont (PS-800) anti-ship missiles could be transferred to Hezbollah. These missiles, with an effective range of 300 km, not only pose a threat to Israel’s navy and merchant marine. They also (and perhaps more importantly) threaten Israeli attempts to drill for oil and natural gas in the Mediterranean, which is the key to obtaining energy independence. Intelligence reports of the planned transfer of these missiles — and of other weapons similar to the ones that were already attacked — will necessitate further Israeli actions, which could result in a Syrian response and lead to an escalation.

Officially, Israel issues warnings about this on an almost daily basis. There is an underway debate among Israel’s defense and intelligence sectors as to how much Syria and Hezbollah really were deterred by the recent attacks and public statements. Will they really avoid trying to transfer these weapons in the near future?

Given these potential threats, over the past few days the Golan Heights has become an active battle site, not only on the Syrian side, but on the Israeli side, too. There has been a significant increase in the number of mortar shells that landed in Israeli territory and the number of shots fired at Israel. What is ultimately needed is a reassessment as to whether this is all some byproduct of the civil war in Syria, which happens to have landed in Israel, or if the mortar and gunfire are deliberate and intended to force Israel to become actively involved with what is happening in Syria.

Previously, Israel has gone to great lengths to respond to these attacks on its territory by limiting its exchanges of fire to the original sources of the shooting. That is what happened this Tuesday, May 21, with the destruction of a Syrian position that was used to fire mortars that landed on the Israel side of the Golan Heights border. However, growing involvement of al-Qaeda forces in the fighting and the fear of cross-border attacks in the Golan Heights could result in an even harsher Israeli response. It will still be localized, but it will nonetheless be the kind of response that sends a clear message to Assad and his army that there will be a steep price to pay for letting the war seep into Israel.

But Israel doesn’t really want to pay that price and get dragged into the Syrian quagmire. As far as Jerusalem is concerned, if there is some escalation in the north, it should occur due to strategic considerations, and not in response to poorly aimed mortar fire which did not cause any damage. This is a very intricate strategy, which is hard to explain and even harder to implement. It distinguishes between “the good Assad” and “the bad Assad,” and between “the dangerous Assad” and “the Assad we can live with.” Externally at least, this strategy holds that Assad must go because of the crimes he committed against his people and the entire region. Internally, however, it has already accepted that it is better if he stays in power, because who knows what will happen once he is gone?

Given all of the above, the dilemma facing Israel is quite clear. On a tactical level, how does it avoid getting dragged into an escalation of the conflict, while maintaining its ability to deter any threats and preserving red lines that must not be crossed on an operative level? Finally, on a strategic level, how does it avoid getting dragged into a military and diplomatic conflict? Given the most recent developments on that front, it is already obvious that such a task demands considerable effort and complicated political and military coordination. Its success — or its failure — will have dramatic implications on the reality of this region in the near future.

Yoav Limor is the host of the morning show on Israel's Channel 2. A veteran military correspondent, he has been covering the Middle East conflict for the last 25 years. He wrote the best-seller Captives of Lebanon.

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