Israel reportedly used air power to attack inside Syria Thursday morning, Jan. 31, 2013, according to sources cited by multiple media.
Rather than entering directly into the Syrian civil war, the Israeli strike was on a convoy near the Syrian border with Lebanon. The convoy reportedly was carrying sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missiles possibly headed into Lebanon to supply Hezbollah.
Nevertheless, while Israel did not enter directly into the Syrian conflict, the air strike would represent a decisive, direct and precisely-executed attack, with a successful result and no losses for Israel. It comes against the backdrop of a Syrian civil war that threatens to be protracted into a bloody stalemate, while the global response has seemed indecisive and bogged down in diplomatic obstructionism by Russia and China.
Israel has had a military conflict with Hezbollah inside Lebanon in the past, and with Hezbollah attacking Israel from Lebanon. In addition, Israel has faced terrorist attacks and missile attacks from inside Palestinian-controlled territory, that have included Iranian missiles.
Hezbollah is a non-state actor considered to be a terrorist group, based in Lebanon. While a non-state actor, in addition to being a Lebanese faction and a terrorist group, Hezbollah has come to function as a kind of state-within-a-state, providing some social services as well as exerting power.
Syria reportedly is threatening retaliation against Israel.
Meanwhile, Syria has proven a poor match for Israel in past conflicts. Israel has occupied the Golan Heights in Syria since the Six Days War of 1967. While Israel’s original rationale was to prevent Syria from using the Golan Heights as high ground from which to shell Israel, the Israelis also have set up Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights, with thousands of Israelis making their home there.
In addition, during Israel’s lengthy military intervention in Lebanon in the 1980′s, there was direct conflict with Syria that included Israel essentially shooting down the entire Syrian air force in one day’s worth of air battles.
During the Nixon Administration, Israel also provided intimidation, also with air power, to stop a Syrian military intervention into Jordan reputedly aimed at toppling the Jordanian government. According to a PBS documentary, when a column of Syrian tanks were headed into Jordan, Jordan contacted Washington seeking help. The Nixon administration reportedly asked the Jordanian leadership if they cared where the help would come from. After Jordan said no, as the story goes, Israeli fighter jets appeared, flying patterns over the advancing Syrian tanks. The Syrian tank then turned around and returned to Syria.
Jordan indicated, at a later point, that they were not going to go to war against anyone, signaling a refusal to participate in any future Arab military attacks on Israel. As a result, the Israeli saber-rattling that intimidated Syria into leaving Jordan in piece also resulted in the removal of a key Arab state from any Arab coalition potentially Israel.
With regard to the current situation in Syria, if Israel has, indeed, carried out a successful raid on such a convoy, it sends several messages, in addition to the tactical victory of destroying the Russian arms.
First, against the bloody chaos of the Syrian civil war, Israel has shown it can project power into Syria with effectiveness and impunity.
Second, Israel has shown the willingness and capacity to carry out what are tactically preemptive strikes against the processes of arming its enemies.
To the extent any parties gravitating to the Syrian civil war shared an anti-Israeli ambitions, they are on warning that being associated with a conflict against Israel renders them vulnerable to attack inside Syria. In addition, Israel has served notice that even a chaotic Syria, whether now or in a post-Assad aftermath, will not serve as another Afghanistan providing bases for militants and terrorists. Israel has shown the means and the will to strike in Syria against threats or factors about to become threats.
Israel also has shown the ease with which air power could be projected into Syria, should third parties decide to do so, motivated by the Syrian conflict itself.
On the other hand, Israel has a long history of operating effectively in the region with its air power, including the strike into Iraq thirty-two years ago to destroy the Osirik nuclear reactor, an attack made in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War with no losses to Israel.
Ironically, even though Israel’s attack was reportedly on Russian arms, and Russia has sounded concern over the attack, the decisive and expert nature of the attack probably will earn for Israel quiet respect from a Russian regime focused on power and effectiveness, even while under criticism for corruption and human rights concerns. And, even as Russia has started floating comments hinting that the Russians do not have an Assad-at-all costs policy, the Israeli factor could end up being another element providing Russia an excuse to gravitate away from their support for Assad without losing as much face.
Israel has remained silent about the attack, with Israeli news sources quoting foreign media coverage. In 2007, Israel attacked a nuclear facility inside Syria, remaining publicly silent about it. Syria threatened retaliation that never came.
Ironically, Syria and Russia have both called for UN action, or UN Security Council (UNSC) action, even as the world community has been wanting UNSC action against the Assad regime for atrocities and aggression against the Syrian people, only to be blocked by Russia and China.
Meanwhile, both Iran and Iranian-backed Hezbollah have pledged solidarity with Syria, with an Iranian official even declaring that Iran would consider an attack on Syria to be an attack on Iran. If that were the case, Iran could hypothetically start an overt war with Israel over an attack.
At the same time, Iran already may have become an active belligerent against Israel, but choosing to fight by proxy, by arming Palestinian enclaves and by backing Hezbollah. Similarly, Iranian elements were sometimes connected, directly or implicitly, with violence against the allied coalition inside Iraq, even though the United States never responded by attacking Iran at that point.
Another broader context where Iran is involved, of course, is the Iranian nuclear program, whereby Israel and others believe Iran to be working to develop a nuclear weapon, including using their nuclear enrichment program with an eye towards creating weapons-grade nuclear material. Speculation has abounded over whether the United States of Israel would launch military strikes against Iran to seek to undo or prevent such an occurrence, or simply to degrade their overall nuclear program.
In the cocktail of instability in the region, recall that Iran is not an Arab country, but Persian. They also are dominated by Shi’ite Muslims as opposed to Sunnis. Yet Hezbollah represents the main non-Persian entity that Iran has managed to be cheek-and-jowl with, Syria apparently becoming another. Although Assad and his home faction are actually yet another Islamic group called Alawites.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon did voice an obligatory and vague “grave concern” over the reports.
Israel has not always had friends as strong as the United States, and the Israeli military action might have drawn antagonism in the past from some Western quarters. But the Syrian conflict and the attacks on civilians have become long-suffering and protracted, and Russian and Chinese obstructionism has almost been perverse. One suspects that the idea that Israel would act decisively and with effectiveness to address a security problem inside Syria might be viewed with sober acceptance by third parties, if not relief that somebody, even Israel, has finally injected themselves effectively against the bloody stalemate, even if Israel was not intending to involve itself directly with the civil war itself.
One issue raised is whether the Syrian conflict will “spill over” into the broader region. Another is whether Syrian arms, even chemical WMD, might end up in other hands, such as a terrorist militia like Hezbollah.
In this instance, however, Israel appears to have taken a measured, focused step against a defined threat to Israeli security.