Why did Israel attack Syria now, and why did the Syrians admit it?

By IndepthAfrica
In Middle East
Feb 1st, 2013
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By Amos Harel, haaretz

 IDF soldiers patroling along the border with Lebanon, Jan. 31, 2013. Photo by AFP


IDF soldiers patroling along the border with Lebanon, Jan. 31, 2013. Photo by AFP

The alleged Israeli attack came one day after an Iranian announcement that Tehran will view any attack on Syrian territory as an attack against Iran itself.

Two days before the night when Israeli planes attacked a weapons convoy or “Scientific Research Center” in Syria – according to reports in the foreign press – Iran sent Israel an explicit warning message. Tehran, said the Iranian announcement, will view any attack on Syrian territory as an attack against Iran itself.

The warning came immediately after a wave of reports in the Israeli media about heightened tensions on the northern border; and along with remarks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in which he directly addresses the fears that advanced Syrian weaponry would slip into the hands of others.

Now after the reported attack in Syria, the Iranians have repeated their warnings strongly. Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi condemned the airstrike on state television, criticizing the “Zionist regime” for a clear violation of Syria’s sovereignty. The semi-official Fars news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian as saying the raid on Syria would have significant implications for Tel Aviv.

Israel has been agonizing for years over the question of whether or not to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. So why did Israel this time – once again based on foreign sources – decide to take a risk and act inside Syria despite the clear warning from Iran (if it did, of course )? It can be assumed that there were urgent operational reasons, such as the need to prevent specific weapons from being transferred from Syria to Hezbollah. It also seems that Israel is not particularly impressed by Iranian threats.

The combination of strategic circumstances in the region at the moment makes the chance of a direct Iranian response unlikely. A Syrian military response seems even less likely, though neither possibility can be ruled out.

The most worrying unknown since Tuesday night concerns Hezbollah’s reaction. The electronic media is filled with commentators talking about the Shi’ite organization’s internal distress, as its declared support for President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war has brought down on Hezbollah the fury of all the other groups in Lebanese society. But Hezbollah is a sophisticated enemy operating in a tough environment. Complete restraint over the long term to Israel’s actions could be considered weakness by Hezbollah, so we should expect some form of response, even if not immediately and not necessarily a broad rocket and missile attack on Israel.

In the past year Hezbollah has acted at least three times against Israel: Firing Katyusha rockets at the Galilee – an act that was originally credited to a Sunni organization – blowing up a bus of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria and launching a pilotless aircraft that entered Israeli airspace over the Negev. In the first two cases Hezbollah declined to take responsibility for its operations, but in the third case of the UAV Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah took pride – even if the Lebanese only provided the logistical and operational framework for the public relations operation, while behind the operation stood Iranian experts.

Hezbollah’s actions point to the use of a wide range of methods and capabilities, all under a single strategy: Extracting a price from Israel, whether real or in terms of public relations, without crossing the line that would force the IDF to counterattack – which would extract an even more serious price from Lebanon.

But a different Hezbollah operation is even more worrying, even though it has mostly been forgotten. In August 2012 it was revealed that the police and Shin Bet security service had arrested 14 Israeli Arabs suspected of smuggling 24 explosive devices from Lebanon into Israel via the village of Ghajar. The devices used standard C-4 explosives, which is much more powerful than the improvised explosives used by Palestinians in the terror attacks of the second intifada. What these explosives were meant for and who was supposed to collect them from their hiding place in Nazareth has never been revealed.

It is possible that Hezbollah is preparing “sleeper cells” of Palestinians from the West Bank who are waiting for instructions to act – and it is possible the organization has succeeded in smuggling in other explosives that have not been uncovered.

The Syrian announcement on Wednesday evening somewhat surprised Israeli officials. After almost a full day of the Syrian regime’s ignoring and denying the attack, it confirmed that a “scientific research center” north of Damascus had been attacked. Even more surprising than the announcement itself, an exceptional step compared to the previous Syrian policy concerning Israel, were the details. The wording of the Syrian announcement along with the geographic location pointed to a site well-known to Western intelligence organizations: One of Syria’s centers for the manufacture of nonconventional weapons.

Damascus released information that it generally prefers to keep secret. Moreover, as opposed to previous attacks ascribed to Israel and which both sides kept quiet about, this time it seems the Assad regime was willing to publicly expose the damage to its national honor.

Why did the Syrians choose to abandon the chance to deny that Israel allowed them? This time it seems they want to exploit the attack for their own purposes. The announcement yesterday said the bombing was proof that Israel is behind the opposition groups fighting the government.

This, of course, is a big lie, but in Assad’s condition he needs all the diplomatic ammunition he can get. The Syrian dictator can no longer win the favor of the Arab world after a civil war in which over 50,000 of his people have been killed. But it is possible he is hoping to rally support, even the most minimal, from his new position as the victim of a Zionist plot.

Israel will be similarly blamed by Syria many more times – as well as such condemnation from the Arab world, even if only for show – if another attack on Syria occurs.

There is a contradiction between the media reports on the attack in Syria and the Syrians’ own admission. The news agencies said Israel attacked a convoy of SA-17 anti-aircraft missile batteries near the Lebanese border. Even if Israel knows the truth, it is not volunteering information to clear up the confusion. But despite the distance of dozens of kilometers between the two locations, both are at the center of interest for Western intelligence organizations: This is exactly the area the Syrians used for years to hide problematic weapons, and was also used as a base for smuggling weapons into Lebanon.

It seems we are at the beginning of the story – and not the end.

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