If, as international media reports say, Israel was indeed behind last week’s air strikes in Syria, it can be assumed that the attack was the opening move in a longer-term strategy to contain quickly-developing threats emerging from Syria, as well as the broader Iran-Hezbollah axis.
The ball is now in the court of Syrian president Bashar Assad and his allies in Beirut and Tehran. If they attempt further weapons transfers to Hezbollah, more air strikes can be expected – a development that will result in a wider conflict.
Iran is also releasing threats of serious retaliation against Israel, a threat which, if realized, could easily lead to a regional escalation. Days before the airstrikes, Iran warned that it would view any attack on Syria as an attack on itself.
For months, Israel has said that it would not allow strategic, advanced Syrian weapons – be they game-changing missiles or chemical weapons – to fall into the hands of Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda-affiliated elements.
Israel has remained mum over the strike, and little reliable information has surfaced over what targets were struck, but reports citing Western intelligence officials said a convoy carrying advanced SA-17 Syrian anti-aircraft missiles were the target.
The SA-17 system in Hezbollah’s possession would limit the IAF’s ability to carry out vital sorties over Lebanon, whether for reconnaissance, or to attack Hezbollah targets in a future conflict.
Within days of the air strikes, Syrian state media said the target was a military research center near Damascus that carried out work aimed at “raising the level of resistance and self-defense.”
It is entirely possible that both a “research center” and an arms convoy were struck.
Syria’s vague description of the center fits well with a weapons proliferation organization known as the Scientific Studies and Research Center (better known by its French acronym, CERS).
CERS is a Syrian state organization responsible for developing biological and chemical weapons, missiles, and transferring weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas.
In the past, Israel’s former head of the National Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel called on the international community to warn Syria that CERS “will be demolished” if it continues arming terrorist organizations.
According to open source intelligence reports, CERS developed ricin-based chemical weapons. The center was designated as an illegal weapons proliferator by former President George Bush and the U.S. Treasury.
On Saturday, Syrian state TV released footage showing wreckage from the air strikes.
The images appear to have inadvertently verified reports of an arms convoy being the target, as they showed large military trucks that were destroyed in the attack – vehicles that resemble trucks designed to transport anti-aircraft systems.
Since the attack, Iran has led the way in issuing threats to respond. Senior Iranian defense and regime officials have said that the attack will “have consequences for Tel Aviv,” and that a Syrian counterattack will “send Israel into a coma.”
Assad limited himself to condemning Israel as a destabilizer of Syria, and a vague statement saying that Damascus can “confront current threats and aggression against it.”
All parties concerned are aware of the fact that the Assad regime is fighting for its life, and will seek to avoid opening a second front against Israel. Any direct attack on Israel by Syria endangers Assad’s immediate survivability.
On the other hand, Iran’s threats cannot be ignored, and the possibility of retribution was factored in before taking the decision to launch the air strikes.
Iran and Hezbollah could activate terrorist cells abroad to attack overseas Israeli interests. Alternatively, terrorists acting on their behalf could fire missiles at Israel from Syrian or Lebanese territory.
It would be safe to assume that the IDF is on its highest alert for such developments.
Despite the escalated tensions, Jerusalem is projecting a business-as-usual message. Defense Minister Ehud Barak travelled to Germany for an international security conference two days after the air strikes, and IDF Chief of Staff, Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, landed in Washington on Sunday for talks with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.
Whatever happens next, last Wednesday’s air strikes mark a watershed in the gradual breakdown of the Syrian state, and send an unmistakable message: That strategic weapons proliferation will not be tolerated, whatever the price.
About the Author: Yaakov Lappin is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers police and national security affairs, and author of the book The Virtual Caliphate. He is also a visiting fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
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